No one showed up to be briefed

Michael Lewis on Fresh Air yesterday on how Trump appointees in the departments of Energy and Agriculture are “ill-prepared for the jobs they have and uninterested in the work of the departments they’re running” and how bad and dangerous that is.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, my mind when Trump was elected was on the subject of risk because I just finished a book, “The Undoing Project,” about people’s – the difficulty people had processing risk, in evaluating risk. And I was wondering what risks Trump brought with him. I then saw that the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration basically didn’t happen, (laughter) that – what normally happens after a new president comes in is that the day after the election, dozens of people roll into each of the agencies and start getting briefings from the people who are on their way out or from the career civil servants.

And across the government, there were people waiting inside the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and no one showed up to be briefed. And so I thought, well, maybe this is a way to get at the question of what risk we’re running with this new kind of president, go in and get the briefings myself that they didn’t get and see and ask them. Like, what are the risks to the society if the government is neglected or mismanaged or misunderstood?

What does the Department of Agriculture do? A lot more than you think, Lewis says.

LEWIS: You know, so – right, if I ask you, the USDA shoots geese at LaGuardia airport so they don’t get into airplane engines – if you answered no, you’d be wrong. They – the USDA polices essentially all conflict between animals and people in the country.

The USDA makes sure that circus elephants aren’t being abused. The USDA makes sure that each of the 9 billion birds we kill each year to eat are – aren’t going to make us sick. The USDA oversees firefighting in the country while firefighting and the National Forest Service and 200 million acres of national forest. The USDA funds a vast majority of the science research into food production. The USDA feeds poor people and schoolchildren who can’t afford school lunches.

I mean, it goes on and on. And the actual farming part of it, the agricultural part of it, the farm subsidy part of it, even if you count it generously, is less than 10 percent of the budget.

And they were ready to brief the Trump people, and the Trump people never showed up.

DAVIES: Did – were they really expecting people the day after the election? Is that…

LEWIS: Oh, my God. They had parking spots reserved, and they had offices set aside and the briefing books on the table. And they’d arranged Wi-Fi for the computers and passwords for everybody and, you know, badges to get in and out of the buildings. They expected a team of people to show up. And this wasn’t just the Department of Agriculture. There were other agencies where they were similarly prepared that just wondered, where is everybody?

And then days passed, and they finally kind of get word that, well, they’re a little disorganized, and nobody’s coming. And it was actually the better part of two months before anybody shows up who’s going to be – who’s going to represent Trump’s transition to the Department of Agriculture. So they had – they were just left waiting for a long time.

They were expected the day after the election, and it took them two months. That’s the level of incompetence and indifference here. If they just drove tanks through all the buildings it couldn’t be worse.

And the thing that’s bewildering to the people inside the USDA who thought they were going to be passing the baton and explaining to the Trump administration how the Department of Agriculture works is that they thought this is a job for 20 people to be done over 80 days, not one person over a couple of weeks. So the feeling generally inside the institution was that the transition never really happened, and the people who eventually come in never really got the briefings.

DAVIES: And so Klippenstein wasn’t interested in details.

LEWIS: Well, according to my sources, he was interested in some things and not others. And he took a peculiar interest in anything having to do with climate change. He wanted to know who inside the agency had been responsible for responding to climate change. And this also happened in the Department of Energy.

Essentially there was a witch hunt across the government for scientists, policy people who were responsible for responding to climate change because the position of the Trump administration was that basically it didn’t exist. And so the career civil servant who was asked for the names of people in the Department of Agriculture who might be involved in, say, researching climate change refused to give up names. So that got shut down right away.

It goes on like that. It’s enraging.

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