Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in the Oval Office last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

When Donald Trump ran for president, many in the Republican Party worried about the depths of his commitment to ideological conservatism — in particular whether he truly had a desire to shrink government. After all, he would sometimes blurt out promises to not cut Medicare or Social Security, and his general populist tone suggested he cared much more about demonizing immigrants and barring Muslims from entering the country than about dismantling bureaucracies and slashing the safety net.

But it turned out the president would do as much or more to undermine government as any Republican in memory. Even though — and perhaps even because — it’s still not something he particularly cares about.

We have a good exploration of one front in that war from Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times, who reports on the efforts current acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney took to dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) from within.

It’s hard to find a story more emblematic of how conservative ideology has dovetailed with Trump’s style of governing to destroy consumer protections and to worsen inequality.

As you may know, the CFPB was the brainchild of now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who proposed the idea in a 2007 article when she was still a Harvard law professor. It grew out of her research on bankruptcy, which revealed that people were increasingly at the mercy of financial companies that buried all kinds of exploitative terms in the fine print of agreements for loans and credit cards.

Warren suggested a regulatory agency that would police financial products in the same way the Consumer Product Safety Commission makes sure the goods you buy are safe. “It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house,” she wrote. “But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street — and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner.”

When the Dodd-Frank Act was passed in the wake of the financial crisis, Warren’s idea became a reality, to the horror of not only Republicans but industries like payday loans that turn the exploitation of poverty into vast profits. One of the CFPB’s harshest critics in Congress was South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney, who was elected in the tea party wave in 2010.

When Trump became president, he first made Mulvaney his White House budget director, and then put him in charge of the CFPB to boot. From the inside, Mulvaney set about destroying the agency he had long despised.

He imposed a hiring freeze. He stopped enforcement of the Military Lending Act, which prevents payday lenders from exploiting military personnel. He stocked the agency with political appointees who shared his antipathy toward its mission. He stripped power from the office whose job it was to police discriminatory lending. And as Confessore describes, that was just the beginning:

Over the last year, Mulvaney’s temporary hiring freeze has turned into an indefinite one, slowly shrinking the C.F.P.B.’s staff by attrition. Bureau news releases, once packed with colorful details about abusive lending practices, have been toned down to dry legalese. According to a report by Christopher Peterson, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, enforcement at the bureau appears to have dwindled radically. In 2018, the bureau announced just 11 lawsuits or settlements, less than a third of the number during Cordray’s last year. In the months since Mulvaney reorganized the Office of Fair Lending, the bureau has not brought a single case alleging illegal discrimination. While Mulvaney pledged data-driven enforcement, his bureau brought only one case against debt collectors, who account for more complaints to the C.F.P.B. than almost any other industry.

Where Mulvaney or his successor have allowed cases to go forward, lenders have often settled with lowered fines or none at all. When the bureau settled a three-year prosecution of a group of payday lenders called NDG Enterprise — which found that the group had falsely threatened American customers with arrest and imprisonment if they failed to repay loans — NDG walked away without paying a cent.

It’s precisely Trump’s indifference to policy combined with his relentless focus on his base that makes this kind of thing possible. Trump attracted not only the venal and corrupt to work for him, but also ideologues who don’t worry about the damage their reputations might suffer by being associated with him, and see in his lack of concern for policy an opportunity to pursue their wildest anti-government fantasies.

Because Trump feels no need to appeal to moderates or independents, he doesn’t much care how far those in his administration go toward dismantling environmental laws or undermining consumer protections — so long as they don’t distract attention from him. A different Republican president might want to keep the war on government within certain reasonable limits, if for no other reason than to contain potential controversies. Trump just doesn’t care.

However, I suspect the president is particularly pleased about the attack on the CFPB and its mission. Even though he hasn’t said much personally about the bureau, it’s obviously not the kind of agency he’s likely to have warm feelings about. After all, it is devoted to protecting consumers from the predations of wealthy and powerful companies who seek to exploit those consumers’ powerlessness, lack of resources, and ignorance to make themselves rich at the consumers’ expense.

Which is pretty much exactly what Trump did again and again during his career with projects such as Trump University, the Trump Institute, the Trump Network, and many other cons: He preyed on struggling people who didn’t realize he was a grifter, in some cases robbing them of their life savings.

So Trump looks at a payday lender trapping people in usurious loans they can't possibly pay back, forcing the suffering consumers to spend many times what they borrowed in interest and fees, and all his sympathy goes toward the payday lender. Seems like nothing more than a smart company making money off a bunch of losers. Why should the government do anything about it?

If a Democrat becomes president after 2020, the CFPB, like many other agencies, can be rebuilt. But in the meantime, a lot of Americans’ lives are going to be affected, and inequality will get worse. Which is just fine with the Trump administration.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: The Trump administration’s census question degrades our data — and our democracy

Michael Gerson: The real threat to religious freedom is Trump

Eugene Robinson: Trump invented an immigration crisis to further his most consistent goal

Karen Tumulty: The Trump White House sets a new standard for cynicism and callousness