All these weeks later, and still the words “President-elect Trump” have not lost their power to shock, even when uttered in the narcotic tones of the hosts of National Public Radio. Soon enough, those of us who can bear it will watch as he speaks the words “I, Donald John Trump…”
Far from becoming easier to process, what seemed incomprehensible the night of November 8 has only become more so. This is for numerous reasons, but the chief one is clearly that Trump will take the oath of office under suspicions about his legitimacy far greater than those faced by any modern president. We learned—conveniently for Trump, after the election—that the CIA holds “the consensus view” that Russia intervened to elect him and defeat Hillary Clinton. That revelation came from The Washington Post on December 9. The next day, The New York Times added the astonishing detail that Russia, according to the paper’s sources, had hacked Republican Party e-mail servers as well as Democratic ones—but had made no effort to go public with the Republican information, as it did with the Democratic hacks, which it delivered straight to Clinton-hater Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. He then published Clinton-related e-mails for thirty-three straight days leading up to the vote, which the press reprinted more or less uncritically.
As I write these words, the intelligence itself has not been released, so it should be noted that we’re relying on these news accounts, their unnamed sources, and the cautious and usually reliable reporters who talk to the intelligence agencies. But if their reports are accurate, what this amounts to at the very least is that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the election in Trump’s favor. Whether it managed to determine that outcome by meddling directly in the actual voting is something we don’t know and will likely never know. To arrive at such a conclusion would require a thorough forensic investigation of vote tabulations in at least the three states where Trump’s margin over Clinton was less than one percent—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—and other steps; but this is not going to happen.
The Republicans would never allow it.1 But in the wake of the Post and Times revelations, several Republicans said a probe into the Russian hacking was warranted—not just senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who can usually be counted on to take a bipartisan position on such matters, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom many had expected to sit in his office and chuckle.
The Post story of December 9 described a preelection meeting in which three administration officials—one of whom was FBI Director James Comey, certainly no Democratic lackey—tried to persuade a bipartisan group of twelve legislators to make a joint statement of concern about Russian interference. McConnell told the officials, according to the Post’s sources, that not only would he not participate but also he would attack any such statement as an example of Democratic partisanship. The new accounts of the evidence from the CIA and other sources that the Russians had not only hacked the parties’ offices but protected the GOP seem to have forced him to change his mind and to support a congressional inquiry into Russian interference. Just how strongly he’ll support a genuinely thorough investigation is now the question.
As for Trump himself, he responded to all these revelations in his familiar petulant way. He called the cia’s claims “ridiculous” and emphasized that the fbi held a different view, citing what he said was “great confusion” in the intelligence and law enforcement worlds. That defense collapsed on December 16, when news broke that cia Director John Brennan had told his agency’s workforce that Comey and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, agreed with the cia’s assessment, leaving Trump and his backers isolated in their denial of a truth nearly everyone else accepts.
What would McConnell and other Republicans be saying if the situation were reversed: if the CIA said it had powerful evidence that Russia (of all countries!) had intervened to help elect Clinton, and if Clinton had reacted as Trump did? They would certainly have demanded that the members of the Electoral College reject Clinton. And they would have argued that Clinton had so poisoned her relationship with the CIA and other secret agencies that she had all but rendered herself unfit for office. But the Democrats don’t play that rough—witness President Obama’s press conference on December 16, when he infuriated many liberals by refusing to utter a sentence casting any doubt on the election results. It will be up to other Democrats to keep these questions alive.
Now Trump will take the oath of office determined to distract the country from the fact that he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million out of 136 million cast, or a little more than 2 percent. Usually, that’s a victory margin that is judged to be large enough that no recount is warranted. And now we have very strong evidence that Trump was Russia’s choice. Putin will have his preferred candidate in the White House, and that man will know that he owes Putin. Leading Republicans knew this was happening and let it happen. This should be a presidential legitimacy crisis of the first order. It may never become a full-blown scandal, but if it doesn’t, that will be only because Trump’s fellow Republicans with a majority in the Senate can successfully keep the detailed information collected by the CIA from being exposed—which would itself be a scandal.
Meanwhile, what of the other scandals either already happening or on the way? We have the question of the president-elect’s (and his family’s) web of global finances and potential conflicts of interest. Trump had scheduled a press conference in which he promised he would lay out the steps he’d take to disentangle himself from his business interests, but three days before it was to happen, he canceled it. Richard Painter, who was George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer, has said that Trump “will be in violation of the Constitution from day one.” He meant the Emoluments Clause, which bars anyone holding public office from accepting compensation from a foreign state. Trump has assured us that the law is on his side—while citing no specific law.
What should be clear is that no president in recent American history has nominated so many people who are either plainly unqualified to run the agencies they are going to be running or have long opposed their missions, or both. Ben Carson, the erstwhile candidate and surgeon who will run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has no experience remotely relevant to the office, a fact that hasn’t prevented him from denouncing public housing as so much social engineering. In a 2015 Op-Ed column, he argued that a HUD fair-housing rule to compel HUD grantees to reduce racial discrimination represented the kind of overreach seen previously in “the failed socialist experiments of the 1980s.”
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for secretary of education, pushed for a voter referendum in her home state of Michigan to allow state residents to use public funds to pay for tuition at religious schools and “is a religious conservative who has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education,” according to Jane Mayer in The New Yorker.2 Tom Price, the Georgia congressman and physician who will head the Department of Health and Human Services, has voted not only against Obamacare, which HHS oversees and implements, but against much of the department’s mission of providing health care to poor Americans. He has been a leading foe, for example, of Planned Parenthood for America. HHS issues rules to states about services they can and cannot prevent Planned Parenthood from providing. Those rules are likely to undergo an abrupt and punitive change.
Andrew Puzder, the fast-food magnate of cke Restaurants with a long hostility to efforts among his workers to improve their wages, will lead the Department of Labor. Puzder opposes minimum wage increases, paid family leave, and the Obama administration’s attempt to increase overtime pay. He’s intrigued by the idea of having robot cashiers in his establishments, he once said, because “they’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”3 Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator with a history of white supremacist associations and hostility to civil rights, will be charged with overseeing civil rights enforcement as the new attorney general, with powers of surveillance and indictment we would do well to fear.
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is an astounding choice for secretary of state. For most people, Tillerson’s role in expanding ExxonMobil’s global ventures—an engagement with the world’s nations built first and foremost around the extent of their exploitable resources—would have instantly and obviously disqualified him from the job of the country’s top diplomat. For Trump, apparently, this is precisely what qualifies him (“I want people that made a fortune,” he told an adoring post-election crowd at a Des Moines victory rally). Such is the world we have entered.
Tillerson softened the company’s long history of dismissing the damages of climate change in some respects—he actually came out in favor of a carbon tax shortly before Barack Obama was inaugurated. Some critics saw that as a ruse, given that a carbon tax wasn’t being pushed by Democrats. It is doubtful that Tillerson—who also has large-scale energy-based business with the Kremlin—would favor a carbon tax as secretary of state to President Trump.
Moreover, the Energy Department designee, Rick Perry, not only wanted to abolish that department when he was running for president in 2012, but famously forgot that he wanted to do so. But perhaps the most bizarre single fact about this Cabinet, something George Orwell and Milan Kundera might have rejected as too absurd a detail even for Oceania or the Eastern Bloc of the 1960s, is that the man nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency is suing it. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is a climate change denier and has joined a group of attorney generals who brought a legal challenge against the EPA over its Clean Power Plan, the chief vehicle the current administration is using to try to force reductions in carbon emissions. Pruitt also created a “federalism unit” in his office to fight Obama administration regulations on health and especially environmental issues.
We can’t yet know in all such cases whether some of these people have taken their positions out of true ideological fervor or the kind of opportunism we have seen in the ideologically malleable president-elect. In any case, all of these choices will presumably win Senate confirmation. Tillerson and some others will face tough questions from Democrats, and some may lose a Republican vote here and there in committee. But Cabinet picks cannot be filibustered, owing to a rule change the Democrats imposed in 2013 when they had the majority and Republicans were holding up the most routine Obama appointees. Now the Democrats don’t have the votes to stop anyone.
Below the level of the Cabinet, the president makes about 1,200 nominations to federal agencies and boards and commissions, as well as the judicial bench, all subject to Senate confirmation. They include US attorneys, representatives on bodies like the National Labor Relations Board, and people to oversee matters ranging from immigration and border control to food and drug safety. And not least—a new chair of the Federal Reserve in 2018, when Janet Yellen’s term ends.
In addition, there are another 320 or so who are not subject to confirmation. Many aren’t particularly powerful, but some are—notably the national security adviser, for which Trump tapped retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who has said Islam is “a cancer”—and much more along those lines—and who was fired as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Flynn’s combustible reputation is widely acknowledged in Washington defense circles. The national security adviser is the person who during a crisis must calmly counsel the president on the available options.
The transition process has been cloaked in considerable mystery. Trump sits in his tower, like Charles Foster Kane at Xanadu, receiving guests. Supplicants come and go; reporters wait in the lobby, hoping to catch a quick word with one of the arrivals. The Trump team has kept the press at a greater distance than is normally the case during transitions, and Trump himself is unique in not having given a single post-election press conference. He is costing New York City as much as $1 million a day for security and related measures, expenses for which the mayor has demanded repayment. (If Clinton had acted in the same way, this alone would have constituted a days-long “scandal”: “Who does she think she is?”)
Meanwhile, the real work of the transition is done elsewhere—in Washington, where Trump’s appointed transition officials decide who will be on the shortlists for appointments. Presidential campaigns set up transition offices well before Election Day; while Clinton’s was a hive of industriousness, Trump’s encampment was sleepy by comparison, for the simple reason that no one there expected him to win any more than anyone else did.
Trump had originally named Chris Christie to oversee his transition, but a week after the election, Christie was fired, purportedly at the behest of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father Christie had sent to prison back in his prosecutor days; additionally, reports surfaced that Trump was also mad at Christie because the New Jersey governor kept trying to barrel his way into the camera shot on Trump’s election-night podium. The far more conservative Vice President–elect Mike Pence took over.
A more disturbing but less noted change occurred when a respected Republican national security hand, a former congressman named Mike Rogers, was fired from the transition team the week after the election. Rogers’s sin was that he found no evidence that the Obama administration ordered the military to “stand down” during the Benghazi consular attack. He was replaced by Frank Gaffney—the head of a right-wing think tank who has accused Obama and Clinton aide Huma Abedin of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2011 he called for a new House Un-American Activities Committee to root out Obama administration treachery.
The liberal group Public Citizen did a study of domestic policies, on the various Trump “landing teams” tasked with steering the various federal agencies in the preferred direction of the incoming administration. It found that 70 percent of team members represent corporate interests. According to recent reports, the Heritage Foundation, partly supported by the Koch brothers, is deeply involved in the transition, and Heritage President Jim DeMint, an ultra-conservative former South Carolina senator and onetime Trump critic, now has much influence.4
This goes further to explain choices like Pruitt and perhaps Puzder than anything having to do with Trump, who on many matters either has no identifiable views or simply doesn’t care very much. He paid lip service to the idea that human activity contributes to global warming when he met with reporters and editors of the Times shortly after the election. But it’s an issue one imagines he has given little thought to one way or the other, while for many of his supporters on the right, denial of human responsibility has been an obsession.
And so in mid-December, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post reported that transition representatives were asking officials at the Department of Energy to provide lists of career employees—career employees!—who’d worked on climate change efforts. The inquiries, the Post wrote, “meshed with the priorities of conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation” and the American Energy Alliance (AEA), an arm of the corporate-funded Institute for Energy Research, whose founder was once the director of policy analysis for Enron.5 (The department refused to provide the names.)
For these reasons, a wide spectrum of right-wing forces sees the Trump era as their moment. Conservatives control the White House and both houses of Congress. The incoming president will immediately name a replacement for Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, ensuring that the conservative majority is retained there. Conservatives know the administration might last only four years. They’re going to take all they can while they can.
On a few matters—notably, the future of Social Security and Medicare—President Trump just might do what is popular and check the more immoderate aspirations of congressional Republicans. The possibility that we will be counting on Trump to be the voice of reason on some questions only reinforces the strange qualities of the situation at hand.
If McConnell tends to take the lead on setting the GOP’s political aims, House Speaker Paul Ryan dominates the policy agenda. In Ryan’s alternative budgets in the early Obama years, he laid out his plan to “voucherize” Medicare and drastically curtail domestic discretionary spending, all in the name of removing the federal government from the backs of the poor. Now Ryan sees his chance. As he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on December 9:
To be able to talk on a daily basis with the man who’s about to be the president of the United States about tackling the big problems and undoing the wreck and the mess that was made before, it’s so exciting! So the conversations we have always revolve around just getting things done. How are we going to replace Obamacare, what tax reform looks like, how we’re going to secure the border, how we’re going to get people from welfare to work, how does rebuilding the military look like?
Hannity pulled Ryan into an exchange about Social Security and Medicare, and while the Speaker was coy and euphemistic, he made his hopes clear enough. Referring to both programs—worth noting, because in recent years he’s mostly insisted that he’s talking only about Medicare and would leave Social Security alone, for obvious political reasons—he affirmed the governmental commitment to current seniors but said: “But those of us who are younger, we think if we make these programs better, more choice, more competition, reform it, then you can guarantee these benefits are there for seniors.”
Trump has tended toward saying he wouldn’t touch Social Security or Medicare, but being Trump he has contradicted himself, especially when pressed to say anything of substance. For example, he said during the campaign that he won’t have to touch Social Security because he’ll see to it that the economy will grow at 4 percent, and the Social Security Trust Fund will be bursting with revenue. No serious analyst thinks a growth rate of 4 percent can be sustained, and in any case, solvency achieved this way would mean no more than that all the people contributing so much to the system in their work years would be due higher benefits upon retirement.
Real long-term solvency for these two programs inevitably involves some degree of taxation—raising the payroll cap, raising the rate on better-off workers, something. Of course the Republican Party will have none of that. The influence within the GOP of Grover Norquist and the anti-tax pledge of his group, Americans for Tax Reform, a pledge that virtually all GOP officeholders sign, has meant that no Republican House member or senator has voted to increase a federal tax since 1990. Trump did not sign the pledge. Norquist, in a mid-October interview with CNN, said that while he judged Trump’s tax plan to be “fine,” he still hopes to get it in writing.
The first priority on taxes will be corporate tax reform: reducing the basic rate from the current 35 percent to probably 15 or 20 percent. There won’t be a lot of dissent on that, even from Democrats, depending on what loopholes are eliminated so that the rate reduction doesn’t lead to an overall reduction in revenue. And Trump has said that he would raise one tax, the so-called “carried interest” loophole, which benefits chiefly hedge fund managers and which Warren Buffett has long criticized. There will be some fascination in seeing whether Trump follows through and proposes that reform and whether the GOP will go along with it.
A third matter on which Trump and Republicans might spar is Obamacare. A fissure opened up among congressional Republicans between the hard-liners who want to repeal the law immediately and those who want to do it more gradually so that repeal doesn’t simply throw some of the 20 million newly insured off the rolls and doesn’t lead to chaos for the medical treatment market. My guess would be that Trump will make an effort to appear reasonable on this issue, so as not to let himself be labeled heartless right at the start.
Chuck Schumer, who will lead the Senate Democrats, made it clear in December that the Democrats won’t help the Republicans dismantle Obamacare. “We’re not going to do a replacement,” Schumer said. “If they repeal without a replacement, they will own it. Democrats will not then step up to the plate and come up with a half-baked solution that we will partially own. It’s all theirs.”
Many liberals were heartened to see that statement, but Democratic resolve in the Senate will be severely tested these next two years. In the Senate that will be sworn in on January 3, there will be forty-eight Democrats (this includes the two independents, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, who caucus with the party). But in the 2018 elections, four Democrats from deep-red states will face reelection, as well as another five from states that Trump won more narrowly. These senators will all feel pressure to break ranks.
The Democrats face a paradox. On the one hand, the party is staring at cataclysm, given what Trump and the Republicans are capable of doing with full control of all three branches of government. Additionally, the party is decimated at the state level—by January, the Democrats will have governors and will control both legislative houses in just five states, the lowest number since the Civil War. Republicans control thirty-two. Moreover, the bench of future national leaders is thin indeed. The members of the House leadership troika of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn are all over seventy and all must leave by 2020 to make way for younger politicians. The lists of possible 2020 presidential contenders are something less than exciting.
All that said, there are reasons why the party should not bargain. Their candidate, flawed as she was, did win the popular vote by a considerable margin. With a switch of some 78,000 votes in a few states she would have won. The party’s basic economic message—particularly its commitments to investing in infrastructure, debt-free college education, and other investments in the middle class—was not rejected by the voters, and there’s every reason to think that in 2020 a candidate with genuine populist proposals could carry that basic message quite well. Trump and the Republicans are likely to overreach, as parties with full control are inclined to do.
If the Democrats needn’t panic, they do need to fight as they never have in the modern era. This will require mobilizing and working with constituencies that establishment figures like Schumer have always held at arm’s length. It was an encouraging sign that Schumer reiterated his support for Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman who is Muslim, to become the new head of the Democratic National Committee even after one major party donor, Haim Saban, falsely attacked Ellison as an anti-Semite. Ellison is well to Schumer’s left but is charismatic and can engage the younger voters that Clinton, Schumer, and Pelosi cannot.
Solidarity with such groups will further polarize our politics. But Trump and the Republicans will do that anyway. The Democrats will face a president whose legitimacy is dubious and a majority party that will, during the next four years, try to undo as much of the New Deal as it can. Accommodation with that would be like smiling on the way to the gallows.
—December 22, 2016
As of December 12, Trump led Clinton by 44,312 votes in Pennsylvania; 10,704 votes in Michigan; and 22,177 votes in Wisconsin—a total difference in the three states of 77,193 votes. ↩
See Jane Mayer, “Betsy De Vos, Trump’s Big-Donor Education Secretary,” The New Yorker, November 23, 2016. ↩
“Upsell” means persuading customers to spend more than they intended. Today, for example, at convenience establishments where customers order from screens, options will pop up during the ordering process asking the customer if he’s completely sure he doesn’t want a larger soda, a bigger order of fries, or double the normal bacon or cheese. ↩
See, for example, Katie Glueck, “Trump’s Shadow Transition Team,” Politico, November 22, 2016. ↩
See Juliet Eilperin and Steve Mufson, “Trump Transition Team for Energy Department Seeks Names of Employees Involved in Climate Meetings,” The Washington Post, December 9, 2016. ↩