Analysis |

Trump's Appointments So Far: Filthy Rich, Arch-reactionary and uber-Islamophobic

The U.S. president-elect's switcheroo of Goldman Sachs from satanic bogeyman to steward of America’s finances ranks in the Guinness book of chutzpah.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions.
Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions.Credit: Photos by AP and Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The U.S. Constitution does not mandate a presidential cabinet; its existence is a matter of custom rather than law. But Section 4 of the 25th Amendment confers on the “principal officers of the executive departments,” a term which has been interpreted to mean the cabinet, one critical authority that has never been used: Together with the vice president they can declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and thus transfer his powers to the VP. If the president then insists that he’s fine, the cabinet can once again declare him incompetent, and then Congress has 21 days to decide whom to believe. After Donald Trump’s opponents give up on trying to persuade delegates to the electoral college to ignore their mandate and elect someone else as president when they meet on December 19, they can start daydreaming about the first-ever implementation of Amendment 25.

Of course, contrary to the Israeli system, in which individual ministers, especially if they don’t belong to the prime minister’s party, can often seem like independent warlords, American cabinet secretaries serve at the whim of the president and are expected to be fiercely loyal to him. For the cabinet to take such an extreme step as declaring Trump incompetent, he would have to be in a coma or walking around the White House in a funny hat claiming to be Napoleon or announce that he is giving Alaska back to Vladimir Putin in exchange for the $7.2 million that Russia paid in 1867, but taking a cut for himself. You can decide whether all of these scenarios are impossible, or only some.

Like with any president, Trump’s cabinet choices are a reflection of his plans and wishes. Because we are dealing with a chief executive whose true beliefs, insofar as these exist, aren’t quite clear, his choices of cabinet secretaries and White House aides provide clues as to where he’s heading. And so far, Trump’s picks are giving a much starker view of his presidency than might have been expected. On national security and foreign affairs, Trump’s team is hawkish if not belligerent, extremely anti-Muslim and moderately pro-Putin, although Thursday night’s report that Trump had chosen General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense will temper that impression; in the social arena and in the so-called “culture wars,” Trump’s picks are right wing radicals with Tea Party inclinations who want to change the face of America; and in economics and finance, Trump’s choices are about as far away as one can get from the populist anti-Beltway and anti-Wall Street slogans that got him elected in the first place.

Trump’s appointment of insider financial finaglers, who made much of their money off other people’s misery, to the Treasury and Commerce Departments, must have broken some Guinness World Record for speed in reneging on campaign pledges. Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary designate, became a billionaire during his 25 years at Rothschild Inc., immediately sparking allegations by neo-Nazis that Trump has already been bought by the Jews. Ross is known as “Mr. Bankruptcy,” having specialized in buying out companies going bust and then either dismantling them or turning them around, usually at the cost of dismissing most if not all of their employees, along the lines of the anti-hero Michael Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street. He earned Trump’s gratitude while representing bondholders of Taj Mahal Casino after it entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in 1991, working out a deal that allowed Trump to stay on as chairman.

The more prominent appointment is that of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary. Were it not for the fact that Barack Obama chose the Jewish Jack Lew for the Treasury as well, one could quip that Trump was staying true to his desire to put “little men with yarmulkes” in charge of his money, though Mnuchin is neither. The fact that Mnuchin is an alumni of Goldman Sachs, as was his father Robert, as is Trump’s Strategic Adviser Steve Bannon - and that the firm’s current president, Gary Cohn, is said to be Trump’s choice to run the Office of Management and Budget - adds up to what Hebrew speakers describe as the height of chutzpah: throughout the election campaign Goldman Sachs was Trump’s favorite bogeyman, a nest of vultures responsible for all the woes of hard working Americans. He portrayed both Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton as mere tools of the New York investment bankers, the former because of his wife’s senior position in the firm and the latter because of the high speaker’s fees she received. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, you will recall, starred alongside fellow Jews George Soros and Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen as the arch-manipulators of the American economy in what was viewed as Trump’s barely disguised anti-Semitic “closing argument.”

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, New Jersey, November 19, 2016.Credit: Carolyn Kaster, AP

Mnuchin, the 54-year-old Manhattanite who fell in love for a while with Hollywood and the West Coast, made a fortune from 36,000 foreclosures that his bank OneWest handled following the 2008/9 housing crash. He also financed or-co produced Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar, X-Men and Mad Max. Mnuchin is now promising sweeping tax reform that will probably make the very rich even richer while repeating the hollow promises made during the Reagan era that the money will eventually create new jobs and trickle down to the working classes. It won’t.

Together with other fabulously rich cabinet appointees, this is not the kind of team that is going to drain the swamp, as Trump promised, but on the contrary: They will make the swamp bigger and easier for the super rich to cruise in. They will maintain the status quo but enhance their own status in the process. The same can’t be said, however, of some of Trump’s other appointments, who seem hell bent on carrying out a reactionary revolution which would be a nightmare for liberals in general, and liberal Jews in particular, and which seems to deviate significantly from what had been perceived as Trump’s moderate, middle of the road views on social issues.

Trump’s designated Attorney General Senator Jeff Sessions is a critic of civil and voting rights legislation, has criticized laws aimed at outlawing discrimination against the gay community and is a fierce opponent of the legalization of marijuana, which is picking up steam across America. In education, Trump has picked Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, who plans to expand charter schools and federal vouchers for private and religious schools, much to the delight of Orthodox Jews, who would profit for her stance, and to the chagrin of liberal Jews, who fear an erosion of public education and of the line separating church and state.

Tea Party Congressman Tom Price, who will be charged with the Health Department, is an enemy of Obamacare in particular and of the national health system in general. He is also a fierce opponent of abortions, of efforts to combat global warming and even of government regulation of the tobacco industry. The next Transportation Secretary will be veteran Asian-American politician Elaine Chao, who served for eight years as Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, Chao, who just happens to be married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was criticized at the time for lax enforcement of mining regulations, especially after the 2006 disaster at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia, in which 12 miners were killed. Lo and behold, the owner of Sago, who was also criticized at the time for being negligent, was the same Wilbur Ross mentioned above.

Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao arrives at Trump Tower in New York, November 21, 2016.Credit: Carolyn Kaster, AP

Finally, the military-diplomatic complex, which is awaiting Trump’s decisions about his picks for the State and Defense Departments. Appointing someone like Mitt Romney would immediately calm fears about Trump that are widespread in Washington and around the world. It’s not clear yet, however, whether Trump is really considering Romney for the post or simply toying with him to make him worthy of the title “most pathetic man in America” that was bestowed on him in the Twittersphere this week. Romney, as well as potential candidates such as Senator Bob Corker or General John Kelly or even General David Petraeus - who carries his own baggage because of his criminal conviction for leaking secrets - could balance out the rather unbalanced national security team of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his designated deputy, KT McFarland, who, together with Bannon and incoming CIA chief Mike Pompeo, cast the White House as a hotbed of rabid Islamophobics spoiling for a fight with the entire Muslim world.

Flynn was a highly respected army intelligence officer who seems to have gone a bit off the rails in the twilight of his professional career, earning him the title “right wing nutty” from Colin Powell when he served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a post from which was sacked. Flynn makes no effort to differentiate between radical jihadist movements and Islam itself, describing the religion as “a malignant cancer” and “a political ideology using religion as camouflage.” His deputy, KT McFarland, who worked in Caspar Weinberger’s Pentagon in the 1980’s and is a Fox News contributor, is a major critic of political correctness and has openly called for discrimination against Muslim. She’s also a bit of a kook: when running for the Senate in 2006 in the GOP primaries in New York, she accused then-Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of sending helicopters to spy on her bedroom. More recently, she told Fox News that the Chinese were seeking financial leverage over the U.S. in order to force it to cancel the Fourth of July.

Flynn and his intended deputy apparently share Trump’s curious regard for Vladimir Putin. Flynn famously accepted payment from the pro-Kremlin RT television network and then sat at Putin’s table at a gala in Moscow at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow were at their worst. McFarland wrote three years ago that Putin deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defusing the 2012 crisis that led to the removal of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile, though she later said it was in jest.

Trump’s wish for an accommodation with Putin could undermine the ambitions of Flynn, McFarland and the intended new head of the CIA, Congressman Mike Pompeo, to “dismantle” the Iran nuclear deal, as Pompeo tweeted ten days after the elections. If they won’t be swayed by the stark warning issued this week by current CIA Director John Brennan, that reneging on the deal would be “the height of folly” and “disastrous” for the U.S., they will certainly have to weigh the fact that Trump’s BFF Putin is the beneficiary of billions of dollars worth of Russian sales of military equipment and civilian nuclear facilities to Tehran and that Iran is his ally in the efforts to keep Syria’s Bashar Assad in power.

Pompeo does not share the Russophilia of Trump, Flynn and McFarland but he certainly is party to their Islamophobia. In a refrain that will sound familiar to anyone who has heard Israeli politicians in recent years, he has repeatedly equated lack of condemnation by Muslims with active support for terrorist acts. In 2013 he took part in a “Defeat Jihad Summit” hosted by Frank Gaffney, who the Anti-Defamation League describes as a pervasive purveyor of baseless anti-Islamic conspiracy theories. Gaffney has claimed that Obama is a Muslim, that Clinton aide Huma Aberdeen is a terrorist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that a sinister plot is afoot to impose Sharia law on America. Mass killer Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 Norwegians in an island near Oslo in 2011 quoted Gaffney’s books and articles extensively.

Gaffney, who also served in Weinberger’s Defense Department, was Senator Ted Cruz’s foreign affairs adviser during the elections campaign but was in touch with Trump’s people at the same time. He is thought to have concocted the controversial proposal to ban the entry of all Muslims to America, which has since been amended to including only those coming from “terror stricken countries.” Liberal watchdogs such as the Southern Poverty Law Center portray Gaffney as the most dangerous Islamophobe in America: he has spread his message of hate, among other avenues, through Bannon’s On December 13, Gaffney’s organization “Center for Security Policy” will bestow a “Flame of Freedom” Award on Morton Klein, the feisty President of the ultra-right Zionist Organization of America and on Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. Dermer, who has refrained from meeting with liberal lobby J-Street, has rejected pleas by liberal organizations not to accept the prize and to refrain from legitimizing
Gaffney. An embassy spokesman said last month that Dermer views the prize as “an honor” and appreciates the Gaffney group’s support for a strong and secure Israel.

KT McFarland at her home in New York, March 6, 2006.Credit: Jason DeCrow, AP

The increasing prominence of Gaffney, who rejected claims this week that he would work for the Trump administration, is viewed by many as a symptom of the radical if not racist Islamophobia that will apparently inhabit Trump’s inner circle. Dermer’s insistence on accepting the prize and giving Gaffney what amounts to a kosher certificate on behalf of the Israeli government actually seems appropriate given the Israeli Prime Minister’s election day harangues against hordes of Arab voters flocking to the polls, his efforts this week to accuse Arabs for engaging in “arson terrorism” in the wild forest fires that broke out and his coalition’s wish to outlaw the use of loudspeakers for the calls of Muslim muezzins to the mosque. Birds of a feather flock together, as they say, though for some reason it sounds harsher in the Talmud, in Baba Kama tractate, where Rabbi Eliezer says “It’s not for nothing that the starling comes to the crow, because they are two of a kind.”

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