Damming the swamp

Damming the swamp

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing
President Donald Trump and Mick Mulvaney

Could this be the Trump administration’s most outrageous act yet?

The list of execrable actions taken by President Donald Trump during his first ten months in office is a long and deeply disturbing one. Even if one sticks strictly to policy actions and appointments and sets aside the President’s serial personal dishonesty and the criminal behavior in which he and multiple senior administration officials may have engaged, it’s still been a horror show.

Time after time, Trump has taken action that will enfeeble and delegitimize the federal government and enrich himself and his cronies while directly harming people of modest income – many of whom, tragically, make up the core of his political base.

In just the last few weeks, for instance, the President has:

  • Nominated a 36 year old lawyer who has never tried a case and who was once a “paranormal investigator” to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge (the nominee, who was approved by a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee – including Sen. Thom Tillis – was unanimously deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association and is the fourth judicial nominee under President Trump to receive a “not qualified” rating from the group this year);
  • Nominated a longtime chemical industry hired gun to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution (a nomination so over-the-top abhorrent that even Tillis and Richard Burr have opposed it);
  • Endorsed a series of tax policy proposals that, together, represent one of the most blatant and egregious giveaways to the rich and to profitable corporations in American history.

Amazingly, however, an action that has come to a head in just the last few days may top the list. The subject is an important and still relatively new federal agency that came to life during the Obama years (over the relentless opposition of Republicans) known as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

This is from a letter signed by 341 national and state-level consumer advocacy, civil rights and social justice organizations that provides some helpful background:

The CFPB was established by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010; it opened its doors as the nation’s only financial regulator completely devoted to consumer protection in July 2011, and its first Director, Richard Cordray, was confirmed in July 2013.

Since then, the CFPB has been protecting consumers by ensuring that markets work in an open, transparent, and fair way. The Bureau’s mission is to hold financial companies accountable for being upfront about the costs of, and risks associated with, their products, and also to ensure that consumers are treated with dignity and respect, rather than set up to fail. The Bureau has successfully gone to bat for consumers, delivering results that are making markets work more fairly and putting a stop to fraud and abuse. The CFPB has recovered billions of dollars in restitution for consumers, from Service members to credit card holders. The Bureau has done this through their investigation of various companies for potential violations of consumer financial laws. In total, CFPB enforcements have resulted in over $4.6 billion returned to over 12 million people who have been harmed by illegal, deceptive, and discriminatory practices of various companies.”

The numbers of people protected and sums recovered from bad actors have only multiplied in the years since. Best estimates place the amount of money returned to consumers as a result of CFPB enforcement actions in the $12 billion range and the number of Americans aided at as many as one out of every eight adults in the country. The largest share of recovered funds has come from cases in which major banks have been found to have committed fraud against their customers.

Simply put: Whether it’s protecting seniors victimized by scam artists, veterans plagued by debt collectors, student loan borrowers, home and auto purchasers, victims of predatory payday loans or dozens of other categories of consumers, the CFPB represents public service at its absolute best.

It comes as little surprise therefore that Trump and his allies have been doing their worst to eviscerate the agency and have, in a new and troubling power play, sought, quite literally, to seize control.

Trump moves to place an industry lackey in charge

As multiple news agencies have reported in recent days, the CFPB’s founding director – Obama appointee Richard Cordray – resigned last Friday, several months short of the completion of his five-year term. Upon his resignation and in accordance with the original law that created the agency, Cordray’s Deputy Director, Leandra English, became the Acting Director. The law specifies that English will lead the agency until such time as a new one is appointed by the President and officially confirmed by the Senate.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly given his lack of understanding of and appreciation for the law, Trump is ignoring these requirements in the statute. This is from a federal lawsuit English filed against Trump on Sunday:

Disregarding this statutory language, President Trump issued a press release on the evening of November 24 indicating his desire to install defendant Mulvaney, the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, as the Bureau’s Acting Director. Under this scenario, Mr. Mulvaney would seek to serve indefinitely as the interim head of a statatutorily “independent” agency while simultaneously occupying his current White House post.”

You got that? Not only is Trump trying to install one of his cronies (“Mick Mulvaney,” a tea partying former congressman and lending industry apologist from South Carolina who won confirmation in his current job by a razor-thin 51-49 margin) to seize control of a vital consumer protection agency, he’s attempting to do so in such a way that any semblance of independence for this vital consumer watchdog is permanently compromised.

English’s lawyer described the situation this way:

The President’s attempt to install a White House official at the head of an independent agency — while allowing that officer to simultaneously serve in the White House — is unprecedented.”

And this is from a statement issued by advocates at the nation’s preeminent consumer protection nonprofit, National Consumer Law Center:

President Trump’s purported appointment of Mick Mulvaney as interim director of America’s consumer watchdog is an illegal affront to the American public. Mulvaney has said that he would like to ‘get rid of’ the consumer bureau and has called the watchdog that has returned nearly $12 billion to 29 million Americans a ‘joke…in a sad, sick kind of way.’ But it is no joke to ordinary families to attempt to defang the one agency in Washington with the tools and independence to take on the Wall Street banks, giant credit reporting agencies, and predatory lenders that abuse the American public.

In an attempt to install a wrecking ball at the helm of the consumer watchdog, President Trump has ignored the law that dictates that the consumer bureau’s deputy director takes over until Congress can confirm a new director. The law is designed to protect the consumer bureau’s independence and to make sure that the qualifications and biases of a new director are examined through the regular confirmation and hearing process.”

Going forward

In keeping with the brand of lawless and morality-free governance that Trump has brought to virtually all subjects within his reach, Mulvaney simply showed up at the agency offices yesterday and claimed to be in charge. He even purported to issue an immediate freeze on all agency hiring and rulemaking.

The situation is, in short, a mess of enormous proportions and emblematic of the destructive chaos that Trump has brought to so many other honorable and important public enterprises.

As noted above, it is also but the latest and perhaps the most brazen in a long series of actions by Trump in which he has directly violated his supposed “promise” to “drain the swamp” in Washington and has, in effect, dammed the swamp and imported snakes and alligators to populate it.

The bottom line: The matter now rests with the federal courts. Let’s hope they act swiftly to do the right thing. Given the GOP’s ongoing wrecking ball-like assault on the judiciary, however, this may an increasingly thin reed upon which to hang our hats. Stay tuned.