Ever since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republicans have been trying to convince the American people that the federal government is the problem, not the solution. And yet, in writing about an awards ceremony Max Stier created to celebrate people who have done extraordinary things in government, Michael Lewis documented this:
When all else failed, he would explain the many places the US government stood between Americans and the things that might kill them. “The basic role of government is to keep us safe,” he would say.
The US government employed 2 million people, 70% of them one way or another in national security. It managed a portfolio of risks that no private person or corporation was able to manage. Some of the risks were easy to imagine: a financial crisis, a hurricane, a terrorist attack. Most were not: the risk, say, that some prescription drug proves to be both so addictive and so accessible that each year it kills more Americans than were killed in action by the peak of the Vietnam war.
Lewis, the author of The Big Short and Moneyball, has written a new book titled, The Fifth Risk, that might top the revelations from Bob Woodward and Michael Wolff in terms of outlining the direct threat to all Americans posed by the Trump administration. He does this by documenting how “the engine rooms of government are under attack by its own leaders.”
The Guardian has printed an except from Lewis’s book that zeros in on the Trump transition and contains several important revelations. For example, when Chris Christie first approached Trump about setting up a transition team, the then-presidential candidate didn’t understand why he needed one. When he read in the newspaper that Christie was raising money to fund the team, he went into a rage.
The moment he saw it, Trump called Steve Bannon, the chief executive of his campaign, from his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, and told him to come immediately to his residence, many floors above. Bannon stepped off the elevator to find Christie seated on a sofa, being hollered at. Trump was apoplectic, yelling: You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?
Seeing Bannon, Trump turned on him and screamed: Why are you letting him steal my fucking money? Bannon and Christie together set out to explain to Trump federal law. Months before the election, the law said, the nominees of the two major parties were expected to prepare to take control of the government. The government supplied them with office space in downtown DC, along with computers and rubbish bins and so on, but the campaigns paid their people. To which Trump replied: Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money. Bannon and Christie tried to explain that Trump couldn’t have both his money and a transition.
Shut it down, said Trump. Shut down the transition.
Trump finally acquiesced when Bannon and Christie explained to him that if he shut down the transition team, the hosts on Morning Joe would say that it was because he didn’t think he had a chance of being president.
Perhaps the juiciest detail comes when Lewis explains the shock that took over the Trump team on the night of the election.
Chris Christie was sitting on a sofa beside Trump when Pennsylvania was finally called. It was 1.35am, but that wasn’t the only reason the feeling in the room was odd. Mike Pence went to kiss his wife, Karen, and she turned away from him. “You got what you wanted, Mike,” she said. “Now leave me alone.” She wouldn’t so much as say hello to Trump. Trump himself just stared at the TV without saying anything, like a man with a pair of twos whose bluff has been called. His campaign hadn’t even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech. It was not hard to see why Trump hadn’t seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: why study for a test you will never need to take? Why take the risk of discovering you might, at your very best, be a C student? This was the real part of becoming president of the US. And, Christie thought, it scared the crap out of the president-elect.
It sure sounds like “Mother” wasn’t all that thrilled about her new role as Second Lady. But the entire Trump team, including the president, were shocked and unprepared.
Lewis confirms some gossip we heard about the fact that it was Jared Kushner who made the decision to fire Chris Christie from his role as head of the transition team not long after the election. Even so, it was Bannon who was given the task of showing Christie the door. He wasn’t the only one.
It was the entire transition team – although no one ever told them so directly. As Nancy Cook reported in Politico, Bannon visited the transition headquarters a few days after he had given Christie the news, and made a show of tossing the work the people there had done for Trump into the bin. Trump was going to handle the transition more or less by himself.
Lewis summarizes what happened at the Department of Agriculture.
Among other things, the department essentially maintained rural America, and also ensured that the American poor and the elderly did not starve. Much of its work was complicated and technical – and yet for the months between the election and the inauguration, Trump people never turned up to learn about it. Only on inauguration day did they flood into the building, but the people who showed up had no idea why they were there or what they were meant to do. Trump sent, among others, a long-haul truck driver, a telephone company clerk, a gas company meter reader, a country club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern and the owner of a scented candle company. One of the CVs listed the new appointee’s only skill as “a pleasant demeanor”.
All these people had two things in common. They were Trump loyalists. And they knew nothing whatsoever about the job they suddenly found themselves in.
In writing about Lewis’s new book, Alex Blasdel provides another example:
“The woman who ran the Obama department’s energy-policy analysis unit received a call from Department of Energy staff telling her that her office was now occupied by Eric Trump’s brother-in-law,” Lewis writes… “Why? No one knew.” Trump’s people, Lewis makes clear, are largely inept and animated by greed, anti-government ideology and a “commitment to scientific ignorance”.
We’ve known for a while now that Donald Trump is an ignorant liar who is unfit for office. We also know that he filled many of his cabinet positions with people who have spent their careers undermining the very mission of the departments they were chosen to lead. But what Lewis is adding to this scenario is that we could be one disaster away from learning just how directly we are all threatened by the incompetence that is permeating the entire federal government. Based on that, none of us should be sleeping soundly—including the president’s congressional enablers.