WASHINGTON — Last year, Mark Meckler, one of the founders of the tea party movement, had concerns about Donald Trump but gave the Republican nominee the benefit of the doubt, because Trump “at least says he’s going to attack” the crony-capitalist system.
Now the conservative activist has revised his opinion. Trump “said he was going to D.C. to drain the swamp,” Meckler said in a recent Fox Business interview, but “now it looks like we’ve got the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the White House.”
For everybody else who believed Trump’s populist talk about tackling a rigged system, it’s time to recognize you’ve been had. The president of the United States is a swamp monster.
The billionaire has embraced a level of corporate control of the government that makes previous controversies involving corporate influence — Vice President Dick Cheney’s attempt in 2001 to keep secret the names of industry officials who participated in his energy task force, for example — seem quaint by comparison.
In the quiet of Good Friday, President Trump’s White House announced that it would end the practice of releasing White House visitor logs, giving the public no way to know which corporate suitors have the ear of Trump and his staff. Trump was already insulated from such disclosure during the disproportionate amount of his presidency he spends at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties.
Trump seems to think people won’t care about this any more than they do about his refusal to release his tax returns and other disclosures that would reveal his conflicts of interest. It’s true that “transparency” is the sort of subject that usually excites only good-government types. But in this case the opacity is obscuring the rise of a new American plutocracy.
Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said Trump’s actions are testing “the character of the U.S. government” and raise the possibility of the government “devolving into some kind of corporate mutation where the wealthy and well-connected rule.”
Trump has made a series of policy reversals in recent days from his populist campaign positions — on Chinese currency, trade, the Export-Import Bank and more — as the nationalist influence of Steve Bannon fades. This isn’t solely because Trump has stocked his administration at the highest levels with fellow billionaires, corporate types such as son-in-law Jared Kushner and veterans of Goldman Sachs.
ProPublica and The New York Times reported last weekend that the Trump administration is being populated with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who are making policy for the industries that had been paying them. The arrangement has violated Trump’s (already weakened) ethics rules, and the administration is secretly issuing waivers exempting the former lobbyists from rules blocking them from working on issues that would benefit their former clients. Trump White House officials had more than 300 recent corporate clients and employers, the Times reported, and more than 40 former lobbyists are now in the White House and federal government. The director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics says even he has “no idea how many waivers have been issued.”
And these corporations are set to get what they paid for.
My Washington Post colleague Juliet Eilperin reported Sunday on some of the 168 requests corporate interests have made, and are likely to be given, for regulatory relief, many of them seeking reduced environmental protections and worker rights. BP wants to make it easier to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. The pavement industry wants a halt to research on the environmental impact of coal tar. And my favorite: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s request that employers no longer be required to report their injury and illness records electronically to the Labor Department.
This should give the lie to Trump’s claims that deregulation is about creating jobs. The Chamber is upset that the government “intends to post the injury and illness records on the internet for anyone to see,” because this “will provide unions and trial attorneys with information that can be taken out of context.” As The Post’s James Hohmann noted, Trump already signed legislation removing a rule requiring businesses seeking large federal contracts to disclose serious safety and labor-law violations.
Can Trump marginalize those who question his plutocracy? Eric Liu, an expert on mobilization and author of the new book “You’re More Powerful Than You Think,” sees Trump’s abandonment of the little guy as an opening for a “nascent progressive populism.”
But be careful: You don’t have to have seen “Creature from the Black Lagoon” to know that, in the swamp-monster genre, the beast seldom goes quietly.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group