The Perils of Palace Intrigue

When the White House is overcovered, the rest of the executive branch gets neglected.

The mayhem inside Donald Trump’s White House is so transfixing that news organizations tend to think the West Wing is the only theater of operations that matters. In saner times, the New York Times and Washington Post needed only two or three reporters to cover the White House. Today, they can’t seem to manage without half a dozen reporters each on the beat.

That impulse is understandable, up to a point. Bob Woodward reported in his recent book Fear that the White House was teeming with patriotic insubordinates permanently bent on preventing a reckless president from acting on his wilder impulses. That’s a hard story not to chase. In September an anonymous senior official assured New York Times readers that he or she and other likeminded members of the administration were “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” There ensued a mad but thus far unsuccessful dash to unmask the MAGA Pimpernel.

Fifth Risk

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton, $26.95, 221 pp.

The most plausible candidate was not, as it happens, easily accessible to the vast army of White House correspondents. That’s because Jon Huntsman, Jr., doesn’t work in the White House; he doesn’t even work in Washington. He’s the ambassador to Russia, and therefore lives in Moscow. If Huntsman wrote the op-ed (he denies it), then he’s living proof that the White House often isn’t the best perch from which to find out even what’s happening at the White House. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, remember, broke the Watergate story from the Washington Post’s metro desk.

But that isn’t the main reason to resent the excessive coverage of White House palace intrigue. The real problem is that when the White House is overcovered, the rest of the executive branch—cabinet-level and independent agencies, where governance actually takes place—are apt to go undercovered.

The agencies have never attracted sufficient attention from major news outlets; political appointees and civil servants who work at the sub-cabinet level aren’t typically keen to talk to reporters, and in the past, a popular prejudice that these bureaucrats were inconsequential paper-pushers kept reporters from trying very hard to find them. Today, Trump and the alt-right have rechristened (and inadvertently glamorized) the federal bureaucracy as the Deep State. This paranoid view prompts much eye-rolling from news organizations, and rightly so. But if agency officials aren’t the diabolical geniuses that Steve Bannon thinks they are, neither are they the bland dullards that the big news outlets tend to imagine. And as Michael Lewis demonstrates admirably in The Fifth Risk, they hold a front-row seat to what Donald Trump is doing as president.

Most people, Lewis points out, haven’t the vaguest idea what the various agencies of the federal government actually do. The Department of Energy, created in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, allots a surprisingly small portion of its budget to reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuels; fully half its budget, Lewis notes, maintains the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Similarly, Lewis writes, “most of what [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] does has little to do with agriculture.” The USDA fights fires; it gives low-income kids free school lunches; it even keeps Canada geese from flocking too close to airport runways. It also spends money in various, largely invisible ways to subsidize institutions, businesses, and utilities in those same rural places where Trump voters deem the federal bureaucracy indifferent or hostile to their interests. (Lewis reports that more than one small-town southern mayor has asked the USDA not to publicize its role in underwriting rural development, lest it disabuse the community of its rugged independence.)

In the best of times, an administration that takes office with a limited understanding of what agencies do uses the presidential transition period between November and late January to wise up. These are not the best of times. Trump’s transition team, Lewis reports, often didn’t show up for briefings until December or January, and they showed little interest in what they were told. The cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs who trickled in after inauguration day were slow to fill vacancies in their departments, bringing policymaking to a crawl—which may have been the idea.

The Fifth Risk derives its title from Lewis’s conceit that the federal government is a gigantic risk-reduction machine. That’s hardly the only function that government performs, but managing risk is certainly an important one, and Lewis quizzes various former government officials about how they rank those risks.

John MacWilliams, former chief risk officer at the Energy Department, tops his list with an accident involving nuclear weapons. Cathie Woteki, former chief scientist at USDA, ranks highest a salmonella outbreak attributable to an increase in line speeds in poultry slaughterhouses. Kathy Sullivan, former administrator of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worries most about people dying needlessly in hurricanes. These crises are more likely to occur when a president and his appointees are indifferent or inattentive to how the government manages risk, and it is that inattention—what Lewis calls “willful ignorance”—that constitutes the fifth risk.

Lewis’s book is written more as a warning than as documentation of fifth-risk consequences, but since he completed his reporting, some evidence has begun to trickle in. A burgeoning trade war is starting to depress U.S. capital investment, according to the Business Roundtable. Mass detentions of migrant children, the result of a zero-tolerance Trump policy on border crossings, quickly overwhelmed detention camps, leading to reports of children being abused by guards, unable to bathe, and forced to drink toilet water to stay hydrated. Hurricanes have increased in severity even as the Environmental Protection Agency has moved to eliminate rules intended to halt or slow future climate change by limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. One of those hurricanes, in Puerto Rico, killed an estimated 2,975 people, an off-the-charts death toll that might be attributable to the Trump administration’s documented inattention to the island’s humanitarian needs.

Of course, it’s early days yet. Much work lies ahead for reporters who track the fifth risk, and to track it reliably they’ll need to cultivate sources inside the alphabet agencies as assiduously as their more cable-ready colleagues do inside the White House. Here’s hoping Lewis’s book persuades more news executives that this work is vitally important, and also pretty interesting.

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is the labor policy editor at Politico, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and the author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.