PowerPost Analysis The Daily 202: Trump’s true priorities revealed in holiday news dumps

THE BIG IDEA: The tax cut bill wasn’t the only Christmas gift that President Trump gave billionaires and big businesses.
The fireworks seen at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve were paid for by billionaire industrialist David Koch, according to the Palm Beach Daily News, as part of another private party put on by an even more exclusive club.
The Koch party was held at the Flagler Museum, a 75-room mansion that was built by one of the founders of Standard Oil for his third wife at the turn of the last century. He was the business partner of John D. Rockefeller, who was as big a boogeyman among anti-monopolists in the 1890s as the Kochs are now on the left.
We are living through another Gilded Age, with growing inequality and a government that is once again tipping the scales in favor of the rich at the expense of the little guy.
“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump boasted to members of Mar-a-Lago on Dec. 22, according to CBS.
He was talking about the tax bill that he had signed a few hours earlier, which will add more than $1 trillion to the national debt to line the pockets of the 1-percenters who can afford the $200,000 initiation fee to join Trump’s club.In the week that followed, Trump kept giving his members new reasons to celebrate. While cable news fixated on how much he was golfing — NBC reports that Monday was Trump’s 91st day at a golf course as president – his political appointees back in Washington worked overtime to deconstruct the administrative state, eviscerate several of Barack Obama’s signature achievements and roll back significant environmental protections.
Underscoring how politically unpopular these moves are, most were rolled out on the Fridays before Christmas and New Year’s Eve to minimize media coverage and public notice.
Like Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell said, watch what they do — not just what they say. Trump campaigned like a populist. Now more than ever, he’s governing like a plutocrat.
1. Overturning key regulations on fracking:
“On the last business day of the year, the Interior Department rescinded a 2015 Obama administration rule that would have set new environmental limitations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands,” Chris Mooney reported Friday. “The regulation from the Bureau of Land Management, which had been opposed by the oil and gas industry and tied up in court, would have tightened standards for well construction and wastewater management, required the disclosure of the chemicals contained in fracking fluids, and probably driven up the cost for many fracking activities.”
Fracking entails blasting enormous volumes of water into wells to crack open rock layers and unleash oil or natural gas. “The technology has been transformational for the industry, driving down the price of natural gas dramatically,” Chris notes. “But it has also raised many environmental concerns, including that fracking fluids could pollute water supplies and that the flowback fluids or liquids that reemerge from the earth after hydrocarbons are released may be improperly stored and get into waterways.”
Smoke billows from the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. (Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg News)
2. Weakening the rules that were designed to prevent another Deepwater Horizon spill:
At the request of the oil companies, on the Friday before New Year’s Eve, the administration softened a pair of rules enacted in the wake of the 2010 BP spill.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) published new regulations for what’s called the production-safety-systems rule, which addresses devices used during offshore oil production. The agency also moved to water down the well-control rule, which is intended to prevent the kind of blowout that killed 11 workers.“Neither proposal amounts to a wholesale reversal of existing regulations, according to experts, but instead each minimizes some of industry’s obligations and changes compliance terms in several instances to language favored by drillers,” Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni report. “The proposed rule, for example, eliminates a requirement that safety and pollution prevention equipment be inspected by independent auditors certified by the BSEE. A bipartisan presidential commission established after the disaster had recommended such inspections. Instead, under new regulations, oil companies will use industry-set ‘recommended practices’ for ensuring that safety equipment works — as was done before the Deepwater Horizon incident. Recommended practices by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute ‘are simply that — they make recommendations but don’t require anything,’ said Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as a senior adviser to the presidential commission. ‘The documents are filled with ‘should’ instead of ‘must.’’
“The BSEE’s proposed revisions also include several other changes that the industry has long sought,” Juliet and Dino note. “For example, while it does not change the level of downhole pressure the agency requires operators to maintain in a given well to avoid an accident, it removes the word ‘safe’ in describing that balance. In the case of pressure tests, which failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, those no longer have to ‘show’ that a well is in balance. Instead, they should ‘indicate’ that. Some changes are more substantive. The existing well-control rule requires that companies completeany investigation and failure analysis within 120 days of an equipment failure. The proposed rule, by contrast, calls for this process to start within 120 days and provides no specific end date.”
Billionaire Harold Hamm, chief executive officer of Continental Resources Inc., speaks during the 2016 Republican National Convention. He pressed Trump to remove protections for birds. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
3. Declaring open season on migratory birds:
On the Friday before Christmas, the Interior Department quietly rolled back an Obama-era policy aimed at protecting migratory birds by announcing that oil, gas, wind and solar operators who accidentally kill birds will no longer be prosecuted.The new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), another big win for energy interests, was written by a former lawyer for the political network financed by the Koch brothers, whose fortune comes from oil. It was pushed hard by another billionaire, Harold Hamm, who advised Trump on energy issues during the campaign and in 2012 successfully challenged a fineunder the law in court.
“While exact estimates are difficult to find, hundreds of thousands of birds probably die each year when they become caught in wind turbine blades,” Juliet reports. “Oil-waste pits kill between a half-million and 1 million birds each year, according to Audubon, while power lines cause the death of up to 175 million birds per year.”
Without the risk of fines for killing birds, energy exploration businesses are certain to spend less on precautionary measures and technologies that might prevent unnecessary deaths.
A person on a canoe paddles on one of the many waterways in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Trump administration has agreed to renew two mining leases near the area. (Dave Freeman)
4. Reinstating mining leases for Ivanka Trump’s landlord:
If you’ve never been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota, try to get out there this summer. It is one of the most pristine and beautiful places in America. I believe this despite getting hypothermia there while dogsledding as a Boy Scout.
On the Friday before Christmas, though, the Interior Department moved to renew expired leases for a copper and nickel mining operation on the border of the park, reversing a decision that was reached by the Obama administration after careful deliberation.
This directly benefits the Chilean mining firm owned by billionaire Andrónico Luksic, who rents a six-bedroom mansion to the first daughter and her husband, Jared Kushner, in the posh Kalorama neighborhood of Washington.
Reflecting the terrible optics of this, the Interior Department didn’t even put out a release to let reporters know the news. They also didn’t give a heads up to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D), who opposes the mines. Instead, Juliet reports, aides from Interior notified Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R), who then broke the story.
“This shameful reversal by the Trump Administration shows that big corporate money and special interest influence now rule again in Republican-controlled Washington,” Dayton said in a statement. “We will have to uncover why the financial interests of a large Chilean corporation, with a terrible environmental record, has trumped the need to protect Minnesota’s priceless [crown jewel.]”
Luksic says there is no connection between his business and his real estate relationship with the Trumps, and a White House spokesperson said Ivanka and Jared were “not aware of the situation, had nothing to do with it and have never met their landlord.”5. Letting nursing homes off the hook when patients suffer in their care:
“The Trump administration — reversing guidelines put in place under [Obama] — is scaling back the use of fines against nursing homes that harm residents or place them in grave risk of injury,” Jordan Rau of Kaiser Health News reported on Christmas Eve. “The shift in the Medicare program’s penalty protocols was requested by the nursing home industry. … The new guidelines discourage regulators from levying fines in some situations, even when they have resulted in a resident’s death. The guidelines will also probably result in lower fines for many facilities. … ‘They’ve pretty much emasculated enforcement, which was already weak,’ said Toby Edelman, a senior attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy.”
This is just the latest example of the Trump team taking the side of business over the elderly: “In November, the Trump administration exempted nursing homes that violate eight new safety rules from penalties for 18 months,” Rau notes. “In June, CMS rescinded another Obama administration action that banned nursing homes from pre-emptively requiring residents to submit to arbitration to settle disputes rather than going to court.”6. Civil servants may not get a bonus because the rich got a tax cut:
“By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees,” Lisa Rein and Andrew Ba Tran reported over the weekend. “The falloff has been driven by an exodus of civil servants, a diminished corps of political appointees and an effective hiring freeze. The White House is now warning agencies to brace for even deeper cuts in the 2019 budget it will announce early next year, part of an effort to lower the federal deficit to pay for the new tax law, according to officials briefed on the budgets for their agencies. One possible casualty: a pay raise that federal employees historically have received when the economy is humming …
“Federal workers fret that their jobs could be zeroed out amid buyouts and early retirement offers that already have prompted hundreds of their colleagues to leave, according to interviews with three dozen employees across the government,” per Lisa and Andrew. “‘Morale has never been lower,’ said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers at more than 30 agencies.”
Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chairperson of the Chemical Safety Board, sits at her desk. President Trump has marked her agency for elimination, but no members of Congress have yet concurred. (T.J. Kirkpatrick for The Washington Post)
7. Undercutting enforcement by waging a war of attrition against the bureaucracy:
Several important government offices that enforce the laws and ensure public safety have been decimated by neglect during Trump’s first year. From Lisa and Andrew’s must-read story:
“In some agencies, the number of people leaving has been crippling, according to former officials. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a wave of recent retirements has depleted the managerial staff at the enforcement agency’s 70 field offices, said Jordan Barab, who was a top OSHA official in the Obama administration. In all, the agency shed 119 permanent workers by the end of September, a 6 percent drop, personnel data shows. ‘It’s starting to create major problems,’ Barab said. Enforcement actions must be reviewed by supervisors in multiple offices, he said, and if too many months pass, they can be thrown out. ‘You can’t run an enforcement agency with no managers.’
“Meanwhile, other federal workers are in limbo because their jobs could cease to exist. That’s the precarious state right now of the tiny Chemical Safety Board, one of 19 small agencies Trump has marked for elimination. The $11 million office investigates the causes of major chemical accidents and makes recommendations for safety improvements. In early December, a White House budget official told Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland that because the deficit has grown, the safety board must do its part and prepare to shut down, she said.”
Passengers look up to a train schedule board while waiting in New York's Penn Station. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
8. Reneging on a federal commitment to fund a major infrastructure project:
“Trump dropped his own New Year's ball — in the form of a wrecking ball — with a late Friday afternoon announcement that effectively wipes out plans for perhaps the nation's most crucial infrastructure project,” Will Bredderman of Crain’s Business reported on Dec. 29. “The president officially scrapped his predecessor's proposal to have the federal government underwrite half the cost of a multi-billion-dollar Amtrak tunnel connecting New Jersey to Penn Station, the busiest transit hub in the U.S. The lone existing tunnel is rapidly deteriorating, threatening to sever Amtrak's popular Northeast Corridor and to divert tens of thousands of New Jerseyans from their daily Manhattan commutes via New Jersey Transit …
“The administration released the news on the cusp of a holiday weekend in a letter from a top Federal Transit Administration official to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his New Jersey counterpart Chris Christie, who had agreed with the Obama administration to split the project's costs 50-50,” Crain’s notes. “Obama's Department of Transportation, which encompasses the FTA, had consented to that framework with Christie, Cuomo, now-Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker in 2015. Friday's letter, in response to an updated proposal by the two states to fund their half of the plan with federal loans, declared the deal null and void.”
There’s speculation up and down the Acela Corridor that this is a political maneuver by Trump to punish Schumer or perhaps coax him to come to the table to negotiate for this money as part of a bigger infrastructure package.
But this is part of a pattern: Trump governs as if he’s the president of the Red States of America, not the United States. He routinely pushes policies that are tailormade to help places that elected him at the expense of those who voted against him. This was on vivid display during the tax negotiations.
Reflecting his red-state mentality, he just became the first president since 1953 to skip a visit to California during his first calendar year in office. “A president so fixated on the 2016 election results as Trump may not want to be reminded that just 31% of California’s voters chose him,” the Los Angeles Times noted last week. “Of the 29 states Trump has visited since taking office, just eight are west of the Mississippi River. He’s mostly visited friendly red states in the Southeast and the Northern industrial belt that he won … Of the 20 states that went to Clinton, Trump has been to eight.” (And that includes New York, New Jersey and Virginia, where he owns golf clubs.)
A red ribbon is displayed on the North Portico of the White House to recognize World AIDS Day in 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
9. Firing all the members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS:
“Months after a half-dozen members resigned in protest of the Trump administration's position on health policies, the White House dismissed the rest through a form letter,” Ben Guarino reported on Friday. “The notice ‘thanked me for my past service and said that my appointment was terminated, effective immediately,’ said Patrick Sullivan, an epidemiologist at Emory University who works on HIV testing programs. He was appointed to a four-year term in May 2016. … The council, known by the acronym PACHA, has advised the White House on HIV/AIDS policies since its founding in 1995. Members, who are not paid, offer recommendations on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, a five-year plan responding to the epidemic.”
The termination letters were delivered without warning by FedEx, according to the Washington Blade.
This follows a New York Times report on Christmas Eve that an enraged Trump blew up at members of his national security team during a June meeting over the number of immigrants who were being given visas to enter the country: “Haiti had sent 15,000 people. They ‘all have AIDS,’ he grumbled, according to one person who attended the meeting and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there. Forty thousand had come from Nigeria, Mr. Trump added. Once they had seen the United States, they would never ‘go back to their huts’ in Africa, recalled the two officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive conversation in the Oval Office.” (The White House denies that Trump made any derogatory statements about immigrants during the meeting.)10. Maneuvering behind the scenes to “sabotage” the Census:
“The Justice Department is pushing for a question on citizenship to be added to the 2020 census, a move that observers say could depress participation by immigrants who fear that the government could use the information against them,” ProPublica’s Justin Elliott reported on Dec. 29. “That, in turn, could have potentially large ripple effects for everything the once-a-decade census determines — from how congressional seats are distributed around the country to where hundreds of billions of federal dollars are spent. The DOJ made the request in a previously unreported letter, dated Dec. 12 … to the top official at the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department. A Census Bureau spokesperson confirmed the agency received the letter and said the ‘request will go through the well-established process that any potential question would go through.’”
Trump political appointees at DOJ claim that their goal is to use the information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but this spin doesn’t pass the smell test. “A recent Census Bureau presentation shows that the political climate is already having an effect on responsiveness to the bureau’s American Community Survey, which asks a more extensive list of questions, including on citizenship status, to about one in 38 households in the country per year,” ProPublica notes. “In one case, census interviewers reported, a respondent ‘walked out and left interviewer alone in home during citizenship questions.’”
The framers of the Constitution wanted to count everyone in the country, not just citizens. The 1790 census illustrates that, and the full census hasn’t included questions about citizenship since 1950. “This is a recipe for sabotaging the census,” Arturo Vargas, a member of the National Advisory Committee of the Census and the executive director of NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group, told ProPublica.

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