The Dumpster Fire Presidency in Review
When Donald Trump won in November of 2016, my first reaction was: “the Barbarians are at the gate.” Little did I think that four years later, that would turn into literal reality at the Capitol, in the frightening, deadly insurrection of January 6th. That was the most acutely horrible event of the Trump era, but we should not lose sight of the chronic smaller horrors of this offensive “Dumpster Fire” presidency.
In addition to pursuing regressive, and sometimes illegal, policy changes, the Trump Administration went out of its way over the last four years to violate “good government” laws and norms that have been built up over the last five decades, going back to the Nixon era abuses. Respecting good government principles was far from the minds of the extreme Tea Party-based wing of the Republican Party that Mr. Trump loosed on the nation, whose philosophy is that the Federal government itself is the problem, exemplified by Mr. Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, the former far-right congressman from North Carolina.
The Administration took discrete “bad government” steps that we must not forget. Their overall effect was not only poor performance of their duties, but also agencies were delegitimized in the eyes of many stakeholders. Most tragically, one need go no further than the completely unacceptable Federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic to see the wreckage the Trump Administration is leaving, including a formerly highly-respected agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), whose reputation now is in tatters.
Here is my list of a “dirty dozen” of the worst abuses, each of which I am proud to say that PEER worked on in some form during the last four years (examples cited in the endnotes). Now, our goal is to make sure the Biden Administration does not fall into any of the same bad practices.
- Allowing political objectives to override expertise. This is most acutely displayed in the botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when numerous expert and CDC-advised measures were rejected in favor of perceived short-term economic/political advantages favoring a libertarian approach to the crisis, which was doomed to failure. More chronic, but even more devastating over the long term, is the same political override as far as coping with global warming, the existential threat to our planet. The Administration chose “head in the sand” denial, which was the absolute last thing needed.
- Violating separation of powers in regards to agency leadership appointments. Fringe unconfirmed figures with conflicts of interest led several key bureaus, often for several years, all of which could have been remedied by the process of Senate confirmation as required by the Constitution (Art. II, Sec. 2), which Trump routinely ignored, despite the fact that the Senate was controlled by his party. The transparent “advice and consent” and confirmation hearing process exposes much more information about the nominees and usually weeds out fringe figures. Several agencies, even uncontroversial ones with strong reputations such as the National Park Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, for the first time in their histories, went through an entire presidential term with no Director. This harmed their overall functioning and sank agency morale.
- Improperly allowing acting officials to lead key agencies. Related to number 2, the Administration frequently allowed lower deputies and political appointees to be the acting heads of various agencies. This left agencies “hollowed out” – that is, short-staffed in key leadership slots – including, most tragically, the agencies responsible for the pandemic response.1 Further, it was illegal under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act in many situations and litigation has resulted in at least five Federal District Court decisions throwing out actions by these improper acting officials, specifically in the Department of Homeland Security by the former “acting” Secretary, Chad Wolf, and in the Department of the Interior by the former de facto Director of the Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley. It obviously is terrible government to allow improper officials to make decisions and then later, to have their decisions vacated after long, drawn-out litigation. And more such cases are still working their way through the courts, including those filed by PEER, with more actions likely to be vacated.
- Unqualified nominees. Several agency leaders who did get nominated to the Senate for confirmation were unqualified for their positions. An example is Aurelia Skipwith, the least-qualified Director ever confirmed to run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service had a long history of being run by highly qualified scientific and/or management professionals. Ms. Skipwith is a lawyer who had worked for Monsanto and other biotech companies and had no wildlife management background or training.2 Trump’s nominee for USDA’s Chief Scientist, Sam Clovis, lacked scientific qualifications and denied basic climate science. Thankfully, he was never confirmed after reporting revealed he was embroiled in the FBI’s investigation of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
- Trashing the civil service and merit protections. Trump issued a number of Executive Orders aimed at weakening civil service protections and eliminating them altogether for a broad swath of federal professionals, who were to be labeled as Schedule F, and who would become “at-will” employees equivalent to political appointees.3 That proposal remains in limbo. Further, in cahoots with the Republican-led Senate, the Administration failed to get board members seated on the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), therefore forcing the MSPB to stop functioning for lack of a quorum. As a result, personnel case appeals from administrative judges that address civil service violations have backed up into the several thousands, with no prospect of being decided for years. This drastically weakened the MSPB appeals process as a protection for whistleblowers and others who have suffered merit system abuses.
- Gross abuse of the Hatch Act. This took too many forms to count; it consists of improper political and electioneering actions by federal employees. Several times, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, warned White House personnel about specific violations and was basically laughed off. 4 In the 2020 election season, we saw the unprecedented use of treasured Federal facilities for electioneering events, ranging from the Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota to Fort McHenry in Baltimore to the White House itself.5
- Meddling with, and frequent rejection of, the Inspectors General (IG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). These are key good government agencies and not respecting their findings is a blinking neon light of bad government. Trump fired several agency IGs for no apparent reason, other than that his agency heads were under threat from IG investigations or findings.6 And when the GAO issued adverse opinions, several were rejected by the Administration.7
- Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) abuse. Citizens, the media, and NGOs all benefit from FOIA, which helps to shine light on Federal government actions. The Trump Administration was the worst in memory in terms of politicizing FOIA response processes, such as allowing affected officials to review and change or redact responses before they went out — so-called “awareness reviews” – and, further, in not delivering responses within the time deadlines set by the statute.8 As a result, FOIA litigation, including PEER’s many cases, ramped up to unprecedented levels to compel compliance.
- Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) violations. Congress created FACA to ensure that agency advisory committees were unbiased and allowed public input. Trump repeatedly set up biased industry-dominated committees, while terminating an unprecedented number of pre-existing FACA committees, as well as creating secret illegal advisory committees that did not comply with the statute.9
- Breaches of scientific integrity. This was most blatant in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule context, which drastically reduced Federal environmental protections for the nation’s waters. As PEER revealed in a detailed scientific integrity complaint to EPA, the agency suppressed the work of its career employees and flatly dismissed legitimate science in issuing its final WOTUS rule.10 Similar breaches occurred in many other contexts, perhaps most ridiculously when Trump apparently used a black Sharpie pen to alter NOAA’s map that predicted the expected path of Hurricane Dorian in September of 2019, which he then displayed on television in the Oval Office. After pressure from the White House, two NOAA administrators violated the agency’s scientific integrity rules by supporting the President’s alteration over the original hurricane map prepared by NOAA meteorologists.11
- Ignoring the Office of Government Ethics. These abuses were concentrated early in the presidency when Trump and his family, as well as many Cabinet members, ignored long-standing ethics guidelines by not revealing conflicts of interest, not divesting stocks or business interests, and otherwise aiming for the bare minimum ethically, if that.12
- Improper actions during government shutdowns. Two shutdowns occurred under Trump, including the notorious 35-day shutdown of 2018-2019, the longest in U.S. history, due to a largely frivolous dispute pushed by the administration over funding for the Border Wall. Nevertheless, recognizing the political weakness of their position, Trump’s cabinet allowed some favored activities to continue despite violating anti-deficiency laws. For example, an authoritative GAO report found that diverting funds for keeping facilities such as the Grand Canyon National Park open were illegal.13But, of course, the Interior Department rejected the GAO’s opinion.
Ignoring laws and long-standing norms, weakening Federal agencies, and stripping the protections of civil servants is a recipe for failure. Over the long term, they make the agencies unattractive places to work, which means the quality of the workforce declines. And the quality of the services provided to American citizens declines correspondingly.
So, as the twice-impeached Trump and his enablers exit the stage, good riddance to bad garbage. PEER urges the Biden Administration to take these “good government” issues very seriously and make sure it leaves a positive legacy over the next four or eight years.14The 117th Congress has already proposed bills such as the Protecting Our Democracy Act and H.R. 1, that can help address many of the dirty dozen problems above.15 Doing so is not as dramatic as coping with an insurrection, but still vital to the future health of the government.
Peter Jenkins is PEER’s Senior Counsel.
- Davidson, J. 2020. Vacancies have hindered the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus. Washington Post, Apr. 15, at: www.washingtonpost.com/politics/vacancies-have-hindered-the-trump-administrations-response-to-the-coronavirus/2020/04/14/8c412180-7e94-11ea-8de7-9fdff6d5d83e_story.html
- PEER press release, The Woman from Monsanto Inside Interior, Mar. 29, 2019, at: www.peer.org/the-woman-from-monsanto-inside-interior/
- Wagner, E. 2020. As White House Steps Up Schedule F Implementation, ‘Lawmakers Don’t Get It.’ Government Executive, Dec. 14, at: www.govexec.com/management/2020/12/white-house-steps-schedule-f-implementation-lawmakers-dont-get-it/170722/
- Ogrysko, N. 2020. Many feds do care about the Hatch Act. But the law allows others to shrug it off. Federal News Network, Aug. 31, at: https://federalnewsnetwork.com/mike-causey-federal-report/2020/08/many-feds-do-care-about-the-hatch-act-but-the-law-allows-others-to-shrug-it-off/; and Clark, C.S. 2019. EPA Press Office Under Fire for Releasing Politically Charged Resignation Letter. Government Executive, Feb. 11, at: www.govexec.com/oversight/2019/02/epa-press-office-under-fire-releasing-politically-charged-resignation-letter/154792/
- Jenkins, P. 2020. Pence’s use of Fort McHenry threatens Park Service employees. The Hill, Aug. 26, at: https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/513719-pences-use-of-fort-mchenry-threatens-park-service-employees
- Wilber, D.Q. 2021. He was told to be independent, and Trump fired him for it. LA Times, Jan. 11, at: www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-11/he-was-told-to-be-independent-and-trump-fired-him-for-it; and Johnson, C. 2020. Reeling From Trump-Era Chaos, Watchdogs Seek Greater Protections, NPR, Dec. 28, at: www.npr.org/2020/12/28/949202926/with-much-work-to-do-federal-watchdogs-seek-greater-protections
- Adragna, A. 2019. GAO: Trump administration violated law to keep parks open during shutdown. Politico, Sep. 5, at: www.politico.com/story/2019/09/05/gao-trump-parks-shutdown-3795674
- Green, M. 2019. New EPA rule could expand number of Trump officials weighing in on FOIA requests. The Hill, June 25, at: https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/450169-new-epa-rule-would-allow-more-administration-officials-to-weigh-in-on-foia-requests
- E.g., PEER press release, Industry E-Bike Advisory Group Shut Down As Illegal. Dec. 17, 2019, at: www.peer.org/industry-e-bike-advisory-group-shut-down-as-illegal/
- Katz, E. 2020. Career Employees Allege EPA Leaders Silenced Them on Key Deregulation Effort, Government Executive, Jan. 21, at: https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/01/career-employees-allege-epa-leaders-silenced-them-key-deregulation-effort/162559/
- Freedman, A., and J. Samenow. 2020. Investigation rebukes Commerce Department for siding with Trump over forecasters during Hurricane Dorian. Washington Post, July 9, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/07/09/sharpiegate-inspector-general-final-report/
- Lizza, R. 2017. How Trump Broke the Office of Government Ethics. New Yorker, July 14, at: www.newyorker.com/news/ryan-lizza/how-trump-broke-the-office-of-government-ethics
- Broussard, K. 2019. Report: Using funds to keep parks open in government shutdown violated law. Tucson Sentinel, Sep. 12, at: www.tucsonsentinel.com/nationworld/report/091019_parks_funds/report-using-funds-keep-parks-open-government-shutdown-violated-law/
- An excellent guide to the details of several of these topics is: Kelly, M., et al. 2021. Safeguarding Against Distortions of Scientific Research in Federal Policymaking. Environmental Law Reporter, 51:10014-10025, at: https://www.law.uci.edu/centers/cleanr/news-pdfs/elr-defense-of-science.pdf
- Williamson, E. 2021. Beyond Impeachment, a Push for Ethics Laws That Do Not Depend on Shame. New York Times, Jan. 11, at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/politics/trump-ethics-democracy-biden.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage