The Fifth Risk
By Michael Lewis
W W Norton (2018)
This is a fascinating book about the bungled Trump transition following his 2016 election. As of February 2016, federal law required all remaining primary candidates to set up transition teams – in the off chance they actually won the presidency. Two million people work for the US government, with 70% employed in national security. Of these, 4,000 are political appointees who lose their jobs on the day the new president takes office.
Although the federal government provides office space for transition teams, the candidates have to pay transition staff from their campaign coffers. No one (including Trump himself) believed he would win in November. In fact he was livid on discovering former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was running his transition team from campaign funds.
Lewis’s book is a collection of in-depth interviews with the Obama appointees who spent most of 2016 attempting to orient a handful of Trump appointees to take on the massive work of these three federals departments. Their main fear was that without understanding the essential work undertaken by key agencies, the incoming Trump administration might eliminate or massively downsize vital work. In the end, this is exactly what happened.
Largely because there was no one on the Trump campaign team (other than Chris Christie or Rudolph Giuliani) with prior political experience, Christie was unable to send teams of 30-50 people (as Obama had done) to accept the handovers. So essentially they didn’t happen.
Lewis focuses on three departments, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce. I found his book a real eye opener concerning the actual work they do. For example:
- The Department of Energy (DOE) has a $30 billion budget, of which half goes to safeguard the US nuclear arsenal. This $15 billion covers programs to detect and prevent espionage and to prevent accidental loss or explosion, as well as the international monitoring of all weapons grade uranium and plutonium stores, the training of all international nuclear inspectors and the clean-up of the extremely hazardous (and leaking) Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State. When Trump took office on Jan 20 2017, the Obama appointee in charge of the nuclear weapons program notified a number of senators that Trump had failed to appoint his successor.*
- The USDA runs the US Forest Service and its massive firefighting program. This is in addition ensuring the safety (?) of all meat Americans eat (the FDA regulates other foodstuffs). The are also responsible for food stamps, school lunches and programs offering catastrophic crop insurance to farmers and (using Weather Bureau data) advising them on the best dates to plant, fertilize and harvest their crops. Ironically they also run a Rural Development Program** providing grants and loans to the struggling rural communities that turned out for Trump in such large numbers.
- The Department of Commerce runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Bureau and the Census, as well as a massive data bank created to assist other departments (eg global atomic weapons numbers, violent crime statistics, consumer complaints against banks, cop shootings of civilians). Much of this data has disappeared from government websites since Trump took office.
*These Republican senators forced Trump to temporarily re-appoint him.
**Which Trump cut by roughly 16%. See https://www.dailyyonder.com/trump-budget-cuts-usda-16/2018/02/12/