The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump appointees continue to erode government from within

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill in March. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Over the weekend, the New York Times revealed that Betsy DeVos is scaling back a major Education Department investigation into fraud at for-profit colleges. Investigations into specific institutions are being ended, people working in the division are receiving new duties, and a former dean of one of the schools that had been the focus of department questions about possible fraud is now in charge of the investigative team.

It is the latest piece of evidence that President Trump’s appointees are using their positions not to improve life for Americans, but to take apart decades of regulation and customs that make our lives easier, safer, healthier and better.

This is, in one sense, a long-standing play from the Republican playbook. It was President Ronald Reagan, after all, who said in his inaugural speech in 1981: “Government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.”

But the Trump administration is taking this to a whole new level. His Cabinet and other appointees are like termites, burrowing inside the government structure, taking it apart from within, and causing foundation rot and damage as they go about their work.

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DeVos is far from alone:

  • At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, acting director Mick Mulvaney, who previously described the agency as a “sick, sad” joke, has, like DeVos, shut down multiple investigations into financial-firm malfeasance that began during the Obama administration. He nixed a probe into the payday loan industry; supported a successful effort to roll back regulations meant to ensure African Americans and Latinos were not discriminated against when they sought auto loans; didn’t request money from the Federal Reserve to run his agency; and is now eyeing steps to shut down public access to a database of consumer complaints about financial-services firms.
  • At the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt is intent on seeing how much personal corruption he can pull off before getting shown the door. But that’s not all. He is also unraveling decades of environmental protections. In recent months, he backtracked on an EPA proposal to ban a pesticide that can cause brain damage in children.  Pruitt is so gung-ho, he’s attempting to roll back auto emissions standards in excess of what the car industry itself wants. News emerged on Monday that the EPA blocked the publication of a study on water pollution.
  • At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson wants to raise the rent for low-income tenants. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by people who know little about how housing policy works; CNN reported on Monday that one of his top aides is a former Uber driver.

Even attempts to fix long-standing problems can seem more like sabotage. Politico reported last week that at Veterans Affairs, a multibillion-dollar digital rollout meant to improve health care — one supported by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a White House senior adviser — is “riddled with problems so severe they could have led to patient deaths.” Nevertheless, the project is expected to continue.

Trump’s scorn for government rulemaking was not exactly a secret before his election. He has long argued that government is a hotbed of fraud and waste. In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump wrote that the United States needed to “get government out of activities it can’t do well,” adding that this would be “a very long list.”

While campaigning for president, Trump claimed that many government rules “are just destroying us” and, as president, he vowed to eliminate two regulations for each one his administration added.

There is a certain amount of logic at work here. If Trump starves the government of resources and its enforcement abilities, and also brings on inexperienced cronies to help run major departments, it will convince a certain percentage of Americans that civic rule is too incompetent to take on the functions we expect of it — making it easier to institute further cutbacks. In a nutshell, people don’t trust government to look out for them because government is not looking out for them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, of course, the agencies that actually help people seem most likely to take a big hit from the Republican tax cuts signed by Trump in December. Trump’s proposed budget for 2019, for example, proposes significant cuts to the EPA, the Department of Labor and Medicare — while upping the amount spent on defense.

The only plus to all this? People appear to be getting hip to Trump’s Cabinet of termites. A recent Politico/Morning Consult survey found that nearly half of Americans think the Trump administration is doing a poor job of attracting and appointing qualified people to official positions. At the same time, significantly more voters had a poor opinion of DeVos and Pruitt than a favorable one.

But this is small comfort. After all, Trump is president, and the damage that his appointees are doing continues unabated. His Cabinet of termites is going well beyond destroying President Barack Obama’s legacy. It is a wholesale attempt to change the focus of government from protecting people to getting it out of the way and allowing companies to prioritize profits over good citizenship. And until he is voted out of office, it’s likely to be successful.