Capping a day with some action but little progress on ending the government shutdown, President Trump showed that he’s not quite aware of how normal people engage with the world.
Asked about some inartful comments made by his secretary of commerce earlier in the day, Trump suggested that people ask their “grocers” to work with them.
“Local people know who they are, when they go for groceries and everything else,” Trump said of furloughed and unpaid federal workers.
But, for most Americans, long gone are the days of the community butcher or the corner bodega where that may in fact have been true.
It’s not just Trump who is out of touch. Trump has surrounded himself with people who seem to struggle with the concept of financial insecurity.
Since the partial government shutdown began 34 days ago over Trump’s demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the president, his family members and administration officials have made insensitive and dismissive comments about the 800,000 federal workers and their lost wages.
Trump ran for president as a populist who said he understood the plight of the common man. Never mind that he was raised wealthy, went to top schools, built his business with several hundred million dollars from his father, and spent his life in New York City hobnobbing with celebrities and literally living in a golden tower.
When he became president, he filled his Cabinet with fellow billionaires, almost assuring that they would not understand the struggles of the average American.
The latest example came Thursday morning, on the eve of federal employees missing their second paycheck, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, “I don’t really quite understand why” federal workers are visiting food banks for meals. He suggested they instead take out loans.
And he continued, minimizing the scope of the problem and noting that the employees will receive back pay eventually.
“Put it in perspective, you’re talking about 800,000 workers, and while I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases, 800,000 workers, if they never got their pay, which is not the case, they will eventually get it, but if they never got it, you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP,” he said. “So, it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.”
Let’s reframe that. Imagine a government official saying, well, the 70,000 people who died of drug overdoses last year is sad, but it’s just a small percentage of the population.
Also this week, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, was hammered for saying that going without pay is a “sacrifice” that federal employees are making for a greater good.
“This is so much bigger than any one person,” she said. “It is a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country, and their children and their grandchildren, and generations after them will thank them for their sacrifice right now.”
It’s not so dissimilar from something the president tweeted on Jan 13 when he said the “damage done to our Country from a badly broken Border ... is far greater than a Shutdown."
Perhaps the most tone-deaf comment came from White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett, who believes that having all this time off with the promise of back pay is like a free vacation without having to use vacation days.
“Then they’re — in some sense they’re better off,” he said.
They also neglect the fact that while federal workers will eventually get back pay, there are an estimated 1.2 million people who work for the government on contracts who are not ever going to be paid for this lost time. Those are people who work as janitors and security guards, for whom a lost paycheck can be the difference between surviving and living in poverty.
The overarching issue is that Trump has surrounded himself with people for whom it is incomprehensible that someone wouldn’t have a pool of money to tide them over while they go weeks without pay. That most Americans depend on their weekly or biweekly wages to pay for housing, cars, child care and other expenses that are part of daily life.
Democrats pounced on Ross’s comments as an example of the White House’s ambivalence toward these workers.
“Those comments are appalling and reveal the administration’s callous indifference towards the federal workers it is treating as pawns,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
At least some federal agencies seem to understand the desperation these unpaid Americans are feeling. But what they’ve suggested people do about it is just as insensitive.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the government’s civilian workforce, suggested shortly after the shutdown began on Dec. 22 that workers barter chores such as maintenance projects and painting in exchange for leniency on their rent payments. And the shuttered Coast Guard provided a tip sheet suggesting that workers take side jobs such as babysitting or working as a “mystery shopper” to supplant their income.
But according to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and one of the most strident proponents of building a wall, this is the risk you take when working for the government.
“It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position,” Meadows said the day before the government shut down. “And it’s not lost on me in terms of, you know, the potential hardship. At the same time, they know they would be required to work, and even in preparation for a potential shutdown, those groups within the agencies have been instructed to show up.”
So, according to Trump and his allies, anyone taking a job in public service should be prepared mentally and financially to lose their pay on the assumption that Washington can’t do its job.