At a time when a scandal involving Russia’s assistance to the Trump campaign continues to grow, much less noticed is how the administration’s approach to knowledge and experts threatens to cause far-reaching, long-lasting damage.
What’s happening under the radar is a hollowing out of expertise in agencies that employ and support professionals and research.
Scientists’ ability to gather information about the climate is threatened by a budget that slashes funding of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to The Washington Post, “The biggest single cut proposed by the passback document comes from NOAA’s satellite division, known as the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information. Researchers there were behind a study suggesting that there has been no recent slowdown in the rate of climate change — research that drew the ire of Republicans in Congress.”
The budget, according to the Post, would also eliminate the Sea Grant program, which supports research in Maine, and end funding aimed at “coastal management, estuary reserves and ‘coastal resilience,’ which seeks to bolster the ability of coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas.”
Other agencies are sidelining professionals, not hiring replacements, or using deceptive numbers. To make numbers look good, the Council of Economic Advisers was told by the Trump transition team to start using economic growth rates that are much higher than budget experts predict. Those absurdly rosy figures lead to flawed predictions about the impact of Trump policies on employment, debt, deficit and health care coverage.
Similarly, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan planned to schedule a committee vote on an Obamacare replacement before the Congressional Budget Office issued its estimates of the bill’s cost and how it would affect the affordability of coverage and how many would be covered.
On national security matters, Trump disregarded National Security Advisor McMaster’s exhortation not to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” while placing his white nationalist political adviser Stephen Bannon on the National Security Council and making decisions about a raid in Yemen at a dinner that included Bannon and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In navigating difficult international terrain, Trump would sharply cut State Department funding, and he disregards experts on particular regions of the world. Foreign policy experts and retired military officers have spoken out against major cuts to foreign aid and the State Department, arguing it makes the world less safe. Once extremely busy career officials who used to work with other agencies are being ignored. Pointing to Kushner’s role, one mid-level State Department official interviewed by Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic said what’s going on was like “the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”
Attention to Russian cyber warfare in the campaign is warranted. According to a declassified report from the U.S. Intelligence Community, “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” As Sen. Angus King put it, “This is an arrow aimed at the heart of democracy by a foreign government.”
Because they were not truthful about meeting with Russian officials, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian involvement in the election. Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned during the campaign after information emerged about his Russia ties.
An investigation outside of Congress has precedent. After probing the Iran-contra affair, a national security matter with executive branch malfeasance, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh indicted over a dozen people; nearly all were found guilty or preemptively pardoned. While Congress began investigating, President Reagan created a committee led by former Sens. John Tower, R-Texas, and Ed Muskie, D-Maine, as well Brent Scowcroft, an officer and top foreign policy hand. Fifteen years ago Peter Wallison, White House Counsel when the Tower Commission Report was released, told me that Reagan avoided impeachment because of his cooperation and his acknowledgment of errors pointed out by the report.
What happened in the 2016 campaign needs to be investigated, but the dismantling and denigrating of knowledge and expertise while favoring ill-informed political viewpoints and decision-makers is its own scandal.