Welcome to another edition of What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s roundup of news items that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or were at least under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and threats of nuclear annihilation coming out of the current White House.
On the stump, Donald Trump’s repeated vow to hire “only the best people” was important. It wasn’t just his typical self-flattery, it was meant to blunt concerns about the fact that he was a political neophyte whose knowledge of government made you think that he’d been one of those kids who hadn’t paid attention when Schoolhouse Rock interrupted the cartoons.
We tend to focus on the crackpots and half-baked ideologues he’s surrounded himself since taking office with not only because “personnel is policy” – and because presidential appointments don’t make big headlines — but also because competence and some knowledge should have value regardless of one’s ideology. And because the next normal president is going to have to deal with a bunch of white nationalist crackpots embedded across the government. Rooting them out is going to have to be high on the agenda – perhaps the first thing after completing that epic global apology tour.
Anyway, you’ve probably seen this viral video of Matthew Petersen, Trump’s pick for a lifetime appointment on the crucially important DC Court of appeals, being humiliated by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), who had the audacity to ask him some basic questions about judicial procedure that any first-year law student could answer.
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) December 15, 2017
In 2008, Matthew Petersen was hand-picked to serve on the Federal Elections Commission by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell because he doesn’t believe that campaign finance limits are legitimate. He has since formed a voting bloc with the other Republican appointees that has effectively neutered the watchdog agency and helped create the Wild West world of campaign cash we live with today.
And he represents a trend. We’ve mentioned previously that Donald Trump has nominated twice as many judicial candidates who were rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association (ABA) as the past four previous presidents combined.
If you’re a Republican lawmaker, you might follow Sen. Kennedy’s lead and demand that the White House send over less embarrassing nominees. Or you might attack the American Bar Association, claiming that it, like all those other supposedly neutral sources of knowledge, is hopelessly biased against conservatives. Those are the choices, and last month, Slate reported that “it now appears that at least one GOP senator, John Kennedy of Louisiana, is drawing a line in the sand over Trump’s most egregious picks.”
As for the rest, “Senate Republicans have declared war on the American Bar Association,” reported Seung Min Kim and John Bresnahan for Politico this week.
Since 1953, the venerable legal organization has played a critical, behind-the-scenes role in assessing judicial nominees and their fitness to serve on the bench.
But with the ABA emerging as a major stumbling block in President Donald Trump’s effort to transform the courts, the GOP is accusing the nonpartisan group of holding a liberal slant and is seeking to sideline it.
When in doubt, shoot the referee…
Getting anti-terror policy right is tough enough for serious professionals. This week, Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie and Nathan McDermott profiled a guy named Frank Wuco for CNN. Wuco is a senior official with an important job: he’s the White House Advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, and he leads “a team tasked with helping to enforce President Donald Trump’s executive orders, including the administration’s travel ban.”
He’s also a nutjob.
According to the report, Wuco “previously promoted conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace, lamented the ‘Zimbabwe-fication of America,’ and mocked the LGBT community.”
A retired naval intelligence officer, Wuco’s previous job was hosting a right-wing radio show out of Florida. As such, he has “dressed up as a jihadist character named Fuad Wasul in videos to teach others about the dangers of Islam,” “said that gay people had hijacked the word ‘gay’ from happy people” and said Barack Obama wasn’t black enough to be called the first black president.
Now his job is to implement Trump’s totally-not-targeted-at-Muslims travel ban and otherwise try to keep us safe.
Meanwhile, Trump’s State Department is in chaos. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sidelined most of the agency’s career foreign service professionals, and surrounded himself “with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department,” according to The Washington Post. There have been dozens of resignations – and a number of senior positions remain unfilled — and morale at Foggy Bottom is at an all-time low.
And what all this means is that those positions that that have a warm body occupying them have an outsized influence on policy formation.
Meet Andrew Peek, Trump’s choice for “a key position managing policy on Iran and Iraq, a move that will replace two civil servants with a political appointee.” Peek’s a former GOP staffer and captain in the US Army Reserve who lists his current profession as a columnist and political commentator and, according to Foreign Policy, “has no prior diplomatic experience and has not earned a reputation as an established expert on Iran or Iraq.”
Peek’s primary qualification appears to be that he’s a belligerent Iran hawk. As FP’s Robbie Gramar and Dan DeLuce write, “since Trump entered office, White House officials have privately expressed frustration with the career foreign service officers handling Iran policy in the State Department. In deliberations over the Iran nuclear deal, some officials on the National Security Council have clashed with their counterparts, arguing for a more aggressive stance toward Tehran and for laying out options to abandon the nuclear accord.” So Peek’s going over to State to make sure that they pursue a Breitbartian approach to Iran.
The nice thing about his appointment, from the White House’s perspective, is that deputy assistant secretaries don’t require Senate confirmation, so there won’t be an embarrassing Youtube video of this guy struggling to cite basic facts about the Middle East.
The EPA is another agency that’s being run into the ground under climate change-denying wingnut Scott Pruitt. This week, CNBC reported that the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General “will examine whether the head of the Environmental Protection Agency misused taxpayer money” by spending $25,000 on “a soundproof booth for making private phone calls from his office.”
When news of Pruitt’s renovations first broke, of course everyone referenced this…
And maybe the bad publicity which followed explains another report this week. According to Mother Jones’s Rebecca Leber, Andy Kroll and Russ Choma, the EPA is “using taxpayer dollars” to pay “a cutting-edge Republican PR firm that specializes in digging up opposition research to help Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office track and shape press coverage of the agency.”
According to federal contracting records, earlier this month Pruitt’s office inked a no-bid $120,000 contract with Definers Corp., a Virginia-based public relations firm founded by Matt Rhoades, who managed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign…
The company… specializes in using the press and social media to “validate your narrative.” According to the company’s website, one of the tools to help do this is its “Definers Console” media-tracking technology. Reed said his firm contracted with Pruitt’s office at the EPA, which is the first governmental client to pay for the Definers Console. The technology promises “war room”-style media monitoring, analysis, and advice, according to marketing materials.
Finally, imagine being a scientist working at Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You’re a grown-up, you spent years obtaining a degree, and now you get a list of words that you’re not supposed to use in your official capacity.
The Washington Post reported this week that “the Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including ‘fetus’ and ‘transgender’ — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.”
The other forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” Because you wouldn’t want a scientific agency to pursue science- or evidence-based policies – that’s no way to Make America Great Again.