WASHINGTON – The Trump administration’s approach to governance is that of a bratty toddler confronting a neat stack of blocks: Knock it down and scatter the pieces. It may take years to rebuild what Trump and his minions are destroying.
This is not the systematic move toward small government that conservatives have long sought. It’s a lurch toward bad government, inadequate government, incompetent government. In some cases, it’s driven by spite; in others, by sheer cluelessness. Ultimately, we will all pay a price for Trump’s nihilism.
The most recent example is the chaos at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency established in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as a watchdog against abuses. Perhaps the bureau’s best-known action to date was levying a $100 million fine against Wells Fargo Bank for opening hundreds of thousands of deposit and credit card accounts without the customers’ knowledge or consent. All told, the bureau has saved nearly $12 billion for consumers.
This record, according to Trump, is a “total disaster.”
Trump claimed in a weekend tweet that financial institutions “have been devastated” by the CFPB. That is nonsense. The much more likely reason for his criticism of the bureau is that it was established while Barack Obama was president. Trump has been unable to establish a proper legacy of his own, so he is intent on erasing his predecessor’s.
CFPB director Richard Cordray resigned Friday and, as specified by law, appointed an acting director – Leandra English, who had been Cordray’s chief of staff. But Trump, relying on a different federal statute, appointed his own acting director, Mick Mulvaney.
You’d think Mulvaney already had enough to do, since he serves as White House budget director. But perhaps he relishes the extra work, since he was harshly critical of the agency when he was in Congress. In any event he dutifully showed up at CFPB headquarters Monday morning with a bag full of doughnuts for “his” staff. English, meanwhile, has filed suit in federal court claiming it’s really “her” staff. And the bureau, with two masters, is paralyzed.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, by contrast, has no master. In its 41-year history – it was founded during the Gerald Ford administration – the office established to advise presidents on scientific matters has never gone so long without a leader. From 135 staffers under Obama, it has been slashed to 45.
Perhaps this sort of thing was to be expected from Trump, who has described climate change as a Chinese hoax. The thing is, however, refusing to believe in science doesn’t make you immune from its effects. Anyone with doubts about the law of gravity should think twice before jumping out of a second-story window.
Meanwhile, China is racing ahead and has already become the world’s leader in clean energy. A functioning science office, staffed with qualified scientists, would tell the president he is wrong to focus on coal, the fuel of the Victorian era, while ignoring the renewable energy sources that will power the rest of the 21st Century. But Trump hates being told he’s wrong. He chose an Environmental Protection Agency director, Scott Pruitt, who perhaps has even less regard for what science tells us about greenhouse gases and atmospheric warming. The result has been to make the world’s most powerful nation mute and irrelevant in the global conversation about climate change.
Even more alarming is the way our diplomatic corps is being decimated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This is a bipartisan issue: Sen John McCain, R-Ariz., added his name to a letter complaining that U.S. diplomatic power “is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.”
Tillerson, who once reportedly referred to Trump as a “moron,” is both sane and intelligent, unlike so many other Trump appointees. But he has approached the State Department as if he were an ambitious mid-level corporate executive tasked with downsizing an overstaffed branch office. He has forced out a host of senior diplomats, hired consulting firms to advise him on a reorganization, agreed to slash the department’s budget by 31 percent and refused to fill jobs that his predecessors considered vital.
But Tillerson’s main job isn’t management, it’s diplomacy. With every career ambassador or senior officer who is elbowed out the door, a lifetime’s worth of contacts and expertise depart as well. The administration will sorely miss that wisdom in a crisis.
Future presidents will have to restore what Trump and his team are casually destroying. Ignorance and petulance, rather than reason, now reign.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.