Democrats take over the House of Representatives in January. Can they use their new majority to counter, or at least push back on, one of the most destructive aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency — that is, his ceaseless war on facts, science, and reality?
This question is thrust upon us by new indications that this war is growing more damaging. We’re seeing this in two big stories of the moment — the Trump administration’s new conclusion that climate change is accelerating, and President Trump’s unhinged handling of the crisis at the border.
First, a comprehensive assessment by more than a dozen federal agencies — within Trump’s administration — has concluded that global warming poses a dire threat to U.S. interests over time, one whose severity will be linked to whether we take sufficient action. Trump responded by blithely saying: “I don’t believe it.”
Now Bloomberg Businessweek reports that one House Democrat intends to fight back against this. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas is expected to become the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — which has jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency that is taking all kinds of steps that are at odds with the administration’s new findings.
Johnson plans to use this new perch to shed light on how the EPA is failing to act on the administration’s own scientific data, and also on its efforts to make that data disappear — literally. Bloomberg reports that in multiple ways, the EPA is trying to reduce information at its disposal, from dissolving panels designed to synthesize air-pollution research to pushing a rule to limit the science used in developing policy.
As Johnson told Bloomberg: “We’ve gotten way off course by trying to stifle researchers and their research. I intend to get us back on track.”
“I don’t believe it”
The degree to which Trump’s policies run counter to the administration’s new findings on global warming is extraordinary. Trump continues to work to undo the Obama administration’s rules curbing greenhouse-gas emissions at power plants and increasing vehicle fuel efficiency. According to a good overview of Trump’s efforts in the New York Times, if he gets his way on these, it could mean hundreds of millions of tons more carbon dioxide and greenhouses gases in the atmosphere than if the rules proceed.
As the Times summarizes, Trump is taking “aggressive steps that will increase emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases — despite unequivocal scientific evidence that those pollutants are warming the planet to dangerous levels.” Emphasis mine.
“I don’t believe it,” Trump says of that unequivocal scientific evidence. Whatever Trump believes, it’s possible this new assessment will help block his rollbacks in court, in effect compelling Trump to act on his own administration’s scientific findings about what is in the public interest, against his bad-faith efforts to dismiss or ignore them.
It’s a bit unclear what congressional oversight designed to shine light into these deep caverns of bad faith might look like. But one possibility might be hearings designed to illuminate what went into his administration’s decisions on climate policy.
No end to the bad faith
Trump’s decisions have been at odds with his own administration’s findings on other high-profile fronts — and this, too, suggests a role for House Democrats.
Take the current border turmoil. Amid political blowback from the tear-gassing of asylum-seeking migrants, Trump is claiming the tear gas didn’t impact children and was necessary because agents were “being rushed by some very tough people.” Salvador Rizzo has an excellent debunking, noting that Trump is presenting no proof of this widespread criminal element, and that the evidence shows children were affected.
Meanwhile, Trump’s homeland security secretary is asserting that these children were used as “human shields.” But as Rizzo notes: “Photos and video taken on site show that these children were with their mothers, not hardened criminals.”
Yet the dishonesty run much deeper than this: Much of Trump’s broader immigration policy agenda is based on bad-faith dismissal of reality as well. The travel ban went forward despite two internal Homeland Security analyses undercutting its national security rationale. Trump dramatically slashed refugee flows after his administration buried findings showing them to be a net economic positive.
Trump’s rationales for restricting asylum seekers are also based on lies about the threat they supposedly pose and absurd exaggerations about the rates at which they don’t show up for hearings. These invented motives could lead to much worse to come: Trump is fighting to cruelly restrict the ways people can exercise their legal right to apply for asylum and is considering a total border shutdown.
To be clear, we have only the dimmest sense of what went into these decisions. But one can envision oversight that tries to flesh out the degree to which Trump ignored his own administration’s factual findings — and internal advice — in making them. Trump sent in the military to make his fictional horror stories about asylum seekers come true on voters’ television sets. Scrutiny could also fall on what went into that decision, too.
For a glimpse of what that might look like, recall that a congressional hearing revealed that Trump’s family separations — one area in which we saw oversight — went forward despite warnings that they could psychologically traumatize children.
I don’t want to overstate what oversight can accomplish. But House Democrats must try to use their new majority to get into the fight against Trump’s war on empiricism. “I don’t believe it” is Trump’s answer to “the buck stops here,” the four words that future historians will point to as the catchall phrase that perfectly defines this presidency’s extraordinary saturation of bad faith and ongoing abuse of the public trust. We might be only just beginning to learn just how deep those things run.