Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
What if Donald Trump became your boss?
No, seriously, imagine that, after years of doing your job, watching higher-ups come and go, the very top office at your place of work suddenly went to Trump. Picture the team of middle managers and supervisors he’d bring with him, a ragtag battalion of liars, ideologues and frauds, all armed with a terrifying agenda. What if they ignored long-standing protocols and actively worked against your department to implement their own destructive vision? What if they rendered your work and position essentially obsolete, reducing you to a title exploited to maintain appearances?
That’s the position four former members of the current presidential administration found themselves in after Trump took office. Many of them had previously worked for both Democrats and Republicans. They had lengthy careers in civil service. They had approached the prospect of serving the Trump administration in good faith, only to realize the task before them was undoable. So they resigned, feeling they had essentially been left with no other choice.
The Huffington Post assembled these “Trump quitters” to discuss their decisions and reflect on what led them to it. In attendance were Mike Cox, the ex-climate change advisrr to the Environmental Protection Agency; Ned Price, former CIA agent and National Security Council spokesperson; Sharon McGowan, the former principal deputy chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division; and Walter Shaub, former head of the Office of Government Ethics.
The resulting conversation was filled with insights into the Trump administration, from its anti-truth stance and its anti-fact outlook to its ineptitude and essential malevolence. Below are 10 revelations on how truly awful this administration is.
1. A leader of Trump’s transition team skipped out on the transition to go play Journey cover songs.
Walter Shaub, who served under three presidents, resigned as head of the Office of Government Ethics in July. He’d already become a celebrity of sorts for his public criticism of the administration, including a post-inauguration tweetstorm that pointedly challenged Trump to divest from his conflicting business holdings. Shaub says he was “fairly optimistic” about working with the Trump transition team—at least until it became obvious how unprepared staffers were. That included Don McGahn, the Trump campaign’s top lawyer and the chief attorney of the transition.
“[W]e read news reports that suggested that [McGahn] might be serving as counsel to the transition, but we couldn’t get a meeting with him for a period of time. And then when we did, it was unbelievably obvious how in over his head he was,” Shaub told the Huffington Post. “At one point he asked me if I was the one who gave security clearances or reviewed the background investigation conducted by the FBI of nominees. And I told him, ‘No, you are.’ And the response was, ‘I am?’”
Shaub also notes that though McGahn was too swamped to learn the details of how the transition should go, he did manage to make time to play some sweet licks on guitar for Scott’s New Band.
“The highlight for me, or the lowlight, rather, was one weekend when nobody could figure out where Don McGahn was,” Shaub told the outlet, “and then we read in the newspaper that he did a gig with his ’80s cover band up in Philly.”
Don McGahn, on guitar, covering “Don’t Stop Believin'” with Scott’s New Band.
2. The Trump team intentionally created this tire fire.
There’s no way to underestimate the dual roles of cruelty and incompetence in the Trump administration’s decision-making, but destruction was also a goal. Senior adviser and war fetishist Steve Bannon, who once reportedly described himself as a Leninist set on “destroy[ing] all of today’s establishment,” was pretty open about this. In February, at the conservative circle jerk that is CPAC, Bannon proudly announced that Trump’s cabinet nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.” That’s why Scott Pruitt was tasked with leading the Environmental Protection Agency, an entity he had previously sued 14 times, and Rick Perry—a non-scientist, execution-happy, former “Dancing With the Stars” contestant—was charged with heading the Department of Energy, which he once forgot he wanted to destroy.
Sharon McGowan, who describes herself as a “5’3” lesbian from Queens,” served as the principal deputy chief in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. She noted that the Trump administration had clearly curated a White House made of people bent on demolishing the institutions in their charge.
“I think it’s that there was a concerted effort to pick the appointees who were the most thumb-in-the-eye choices for the agency they were serving,” McGowan told HuffPo. “That deconstructionist kind of mantra, where you want to send a message of how fundamentally devalued the work and the people are at a certain agency.”
She now leads strategy for Lambda Legal, and recently wrote a piece for the organization titled, “I Left the Government to Sue the Government Because I Believe in the Constitution.”
3. They really had it in for the Environmental Protection Agency.
After three decades at the EPA under presidencies “from Reagan’s until this one,” Mike Cox resigned because he sensed the administration’s goal was “to dismantle the organization and really do damage to it.” (On his way out, he wrote a resignation letter that was so honest in its disgust that to summarize it you only need the words “fuck” and “you.”) His description of the first EPA staff meeting with Pruitt reads almost like a hostile encounter.
“It was very clear that he was talking down to us. We were the EPA. We were the bad guys. We were the problem,” Cox told HuffPo. “There was this fundamental feeling he didn’t get it, or if he did, he was purposely poking a finger in the staff’s eye.”
A series of immediate red flags were raised, including budget hacking and staffing cuts that showed the direction the Trump team was going. Among these was eliminating all climate change-focused efforts.
“Many people thought, How could the head of EPA say climate change is not a part of our mission? We felt the core of what we did, I don’t want to use the word ‘violated,’ but it was being undermined.”
4. Trump’s disrespect for the office he was filling was demoralizing.
Just over a year ago, the 17 agencies within the U.S. intelligence community jointly implicated Russia in cyberespionage attacks on the Clinton campaign and DNC. Not only did Trump dismiss those reports, but just days shy of the inauguration following the emergence of the Steele dossier, the president-elect compared those intelligence agencies to Nazis (a term he refuses to use against actual Nazis).
The whole spectacle left a bad taste in the mouth of career CIA analyst Ned Price, who began to have a crisis of confidence in Trump that started before the election, and continued as he disgraced the office of the presidency.
“It actually began for me during the campaign when I heard candidate Trump repeatedly take on the intelligence community in an aggressive, concerted manner,” Price told HuffPo. “It wasn’t just the fact that he was citing WikiLeaks. It wasn’t just the fact that he was comparing the intelligence community to Nazis. You could sort of dismiss all that as rhetorical flourish. But he would just automatically cast aside the high-confidence analysis of the intelligence community on things like Russia’s meddling in our election, and he would call that fake news, and he would call it a hoax.”
Price continued, “That he didn’t respect the weight of serving as commander in chief really came to the forefront on his first full day in office, when he went out to CIA headquarters in Langley. He stood before the Memorial Wall, the wall marking the CIA officers who had given their lives in the line of duty, and talked about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. He joked about going back into Iraq to steal Iraq’s oil. A mentor of mine is etched into that wall, as are several former colleagues.”
5. The Trump administration has no interest in, and even opposes, both facts and expertise.
Asked to cite a recurring theme in the stories explaining their decisions to resign, former climate change advisor Cox points to an overt indifference to facts.
“[T]hese are people who don’t care for other opinions,” Cox stated. “On many occasions, they would ask to be provided with background on a specific issue and indicate that there would be a follow-up meeting. But those would never happen. Once it got to decision time, Pruitt and his closest staff would just do what they wanted to do, and that was that. And the EPA is a science organization! We’re supposed to value facts! Even during the Bush administration it wasn’t like this.”
Ex-CIA agent Price cites the removal of military and intelligence experts from, and elevation of Bannon to, the National Security Council as a warning sign he needed to get out of Dodge.
“That confirmed in my mind that this was an administration that would look to political advisers and ideologues,” Price recalled. “I decided as an intelligence analyst, I would either be twiddling my thumbs all day, or producing reports that would gather dust.”
6. The Trump administration is attacking representative government itself.
The ideal of “American democracy” has always been a fallacy, but the Trump administration is working hard to blow it up from the inside. Former ethics head Shaub says Trump’s flouting of rules, as well as his admiration for dictators, should alarm us all.
“I see the structures of our representative form of government as the container, and then the policy as just whatever you dump into it. What has concerned me is the assault on the container. When you have a president who retains his financial interest, even if you’re supportive of him, you can’t know what his decisions are based on. And that becomes particularly acute when you see him praising [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan for seizing more power, or inviting the murderous [Rodrigo] Duterte to Washington, when he has property interests in Turkey and the Philippines,” he stated.
7. The Trump administration has assembled a group of corruptocrats.
Ethics waivers allow appointees to skirt conflict of interest rules, and unsurprisingly, Trump has been doling them out at a clip. The Obama White House gave out 17 waivers in eight years; the Trump administration issued that many—some of them in secret—in four months. Shaub describes his astonishment at the flagrant dishonesty so many Trump picks displayed.
“The biggest surprise came after I finally saw the waivers. Many of them were unsigned, undated and either explicitly or implicitly retroactive. Of course, if you need a retroactive waiver, it means you’ve broken a rule. In addition, two of the waivers were given to a group of employees that seemed to include the individual who issued the waiver. He may have just given himself a waiver.”
At a certain point, when you work at a place that’s festering with fraudulence, it becomes pretty hard not to become infected. Shaub saw his role becoming more and more diminished and his office being used as a meaningless signifier.
“At that point I realized these guys were capable of just about anything,” he said. “And they had also started to adapt to my going public with these ethical breaches by simply cutting OGE off. That put me in the position of knowing I would have to certify a number of White House financial disclosure reports without knowing what the appointees did for a living. So I became concerned that I would be window-dressing for corruption.”
8. A culture of paranoia and fear pervades the White House.
The president is known for his mafioso-like demands of loyalty from those around him. With help from DOJ head Jeff Sessions, he has made catching leakers a far bigger priority than fixing the sewage pumping station that is his administration. The result is a culture where fear is rampant, and any association with staffers perceived to have been disloyal—particularly those who have left the fold—can have big consequences.
Price notes that his former colleagues at the CIA don’t share classified information with him, but after years of working together, they would like to remain in contact. But many fear the most innocuous exchanges could result in reprisals.
“The thing that strikes me is the deep sense of paranoia. No one will just text me or call me. They’ll all start a conversation by asking if I’m on Signal, or if I’m on WhatsApp. Choose your encrypted service,” Price said. “What’s funny is that they will ask me that, and then the next day I’ll get a message from them on Signal saying, Hey, how are you, I just wanted to catch up.”
McGowan backed this up, adding, “The feeling is that even to be seen associating with someone who left is scary.”
9. Public pressure can have an effect.
While discussing ethics waivers and conflicts of interest among Trump Cabinet officials, Shaub noted that the Trump team finally handed over information not out of principle, but because of public outcry.
“[W]e won a battle to get our hands on the ethics waivers the White House was issuing [in secret]. They fought us very publicly for a month not to release them, but the public pressure actually worked.”
10. Their disappointment in Trump has affected their thinking about public service.
All of the former Trump civil servants expressed a love for civil service, despite their experiences with this administration. Ex-CIA analyst Price says he “hope[s] to go back into public service when the coast is clear.” And Shaub noted his concern about the “chilling effect” the Trump era might have on young people in terms of steering them away from public service.
“[I]t’s much harder for me to convince people that federal service is where they can go to feel the kind of fulfillment that I did when I was there,” Sharon McGowan admitted. “Knowing that power of the federal government is being used to cause so much harm—to tear families apart, to endorse discrimination—it actually feels insensitive for me to try and sell federal service to someone who is part of one of the communities targeted for abuse. I look forward to the day when that is no longer the case.”
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.