The ‘Swamp’ Trump Is Draining: Expertise

One of Trump’s favorite slogans during the 2016 election was a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. For most people, that sounded like a commitment to clean up the corruption of interest groups who bought access with money. But that actually seemed suspicious coming from the guy who, up until then, was best-known for being the ultimate con man.

Upon entering the White House, Trump proceeded to feed that swamp by both using his office to enrich himself and appointing the most ethically challenged cabinet in this country’s history. So it was easy to simply dismiss the “drain the swamp” rhetoric as yet another lie.

But as Catherine Rampell points out, we missed the boat on what Trump meant when he made that promise. What he was really talking about was that he would drain the swamp of expertise.

At last, the mystery of this apparent broken swamp-drainage promise has been solved. Turn outs what Trump and his cronies meant by “the swamp” wasn’t regulatory parasites or crooked officials, but experts.

When the Forgotten Man expressed rage at “swamp creatures,” he probably wasn’t envisioning civil servants with subject-matter expertise — career diplomats who speak Persian, say, or scientists who evaluate water quality. And yet the Trump administration has celebrated brain drains at the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other agencies and advisory councils.

What prompted Rampell to reach that conclusion was the decision by the Department of Agriculture to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from D.C. to Kansas City. Take a look at how Mick Mulvaney, the president’s chief of staff, talked about the fact that two thirds of the employees involved have refused reassignment and will lose their jobs.

In his keynote speech at the Republican Party’s black-tie-optional Silver Elephant Gala in South Carolina on Friday, Mulvaney seemed to celebrate the attrition at the agencies. “You’ve heard about ‘drain the swamp.’ What you probably haven’t heard is what we are actually doing. I don’t know if you saw the news the other day, but the USDA just tried to move, or did move, two offices out of Washington, D.C.,” he said…

“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” Mulvaney said. “I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried . . . By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out in the real part of the country,’ and they quit — what a wonderful way to sort of streamline government, and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

What Mulvaney doesn’t want you to know is that the ERS is an independent research agency that has been putting out information that the administration doesn’t want to hear. Of particular note is the fact that the USDA had to bury reports based on the kind of research provided by ERS.

The Agriculture Department quashed the release of a sweeping plan on how to respond to climate change that was finalized in the early days of the Trump administration, according to a USDA employee with knowledge of the decision.

Staff members across several USDA agencies drafted the multiyear plan that outlines how the department should help agriculture understand, adapt to and minimize the effects of climate change.

The significance of research like that was recently highlighted by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The world cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change without making serious changes to the ways humans grow food, raise livestock and manage forests, according to a landmark study Thursday from an international group of scientists.

The sprawling report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examines how land use around the world contributes to the warming of Earth’s atmosphere. But the report also details how climate change is already threatening food and water supplies for humans: turning arable land to desert; degrading soil; and increasing the threat of droughts, floods and other extreme weather that can wreak havoc on crops.

Since Donald Trump thinks climate change is a hoax spread by the Chinese, he doesn’t want experts in his administration talking to farmers about ways to adapt. So he’s draining the swamp of federal employees who might do that. That kind of brain drain is happening all over the federal government, including our intelligence services, as James Bruno just noted here at the Washington Monthly.

Trump is arguably the most ignorant person to ever occupy the Oval Office. But he delusionally calls himself a “stable genius.” As a result, he not only has to jettison anyone from the administration who fails to demonstrate total loyalty, but he also has to purge the federal government of anyone who might burst that delusional bubble.

Beyond the president, his enablers and supporters deride expertise when they label anyone with knowledge as “elitists.” An administration that is hollowed out except for “Dumb and Dumber” soothes their egos.

While it is not likely to come up on the campaign trail, any Democratic president who follows Trump will face the enormous task of repopulating the federal government with experts who actually know what they’re doing. So perhaps one of the most important skills to consider is someone who has the management capability to complete that task.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.