Most of Donald Trump’s assaults on democratic norms have been well-chronicled: his attacks on Muslims and immigrants, interference in the justice system for his own benefit, refusal to cooperate with constitutionally mandated congressional oversight, encouragement of foreign interference with our elections, constant lying, and frequent attacks on the free press.
Less observed as a threat to a well-functioning democracy, but perhaps even more consequential to most Americans, has been the complete destruction of the public’s right to sound, well-informed, science-based decision-making by the federal agencies charged with protecting public health, public lands and waters, and the environment.
From his first days in office, President Trump effectively handed the power and authority of the federal government to coal, oil, and gas company executives, many of whom had been and remain the largest donors to his presidential campaigns. One of the big lies of the 2016 campaign was Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” A week after taking the oath of office, Trump signed an executive order which pledged to continue President Obama’s policy of not appointing lobbyists to serve in the agencies they had once lobbied. He then proceeded to ignore what he had just signed: His Administration appointed a veritable mafia of fossil fuel lobbyists—more than 25 in all—to run the Departments of Energy and Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The kingpins of Trump’s thoroughly conflicted system are Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Since taking office, Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for oil, gas, and Big Ag, tried to open the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments for logging, mining, and drilling, began the process of leasing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling, weakened protections for threatened species in the Endangered Species Act, and dismantled the Western states’ bipartisan plans to conserve habitat for the greater sage grouse and other wildlife, so that the oil industry can drill wherever it wants.
Wheeler, for his part, has been on a rampage to do away with clean air protections that are crucial to mitigating climate change and protecting public health. He began by getting to work on a wish list of environmental rollbacks handed to the White House by his former boss, coal baron Robert E. Murray, who donated $300,000 to the Trump campaign. Nearly all of Murray’s 16 requests were completed within Trump’s first year in office. Wheeler has quarterbacked the Administration’s rollback of 100 environmental and public health rules that were deemed too burdensome to the fossil fuel industry, including restrictions on mercury emissions from power plants, which has been linked to brain damage in children.
This raiding of public resources and jeopardization of public health was accomplished through strategies common to kleptocratic, authoritarian governments worldwide—shut out the public, prevent experts from meaningful participation, and rig the rules to help your friends.
Trump has done his best to stifle public participation in the democratic process by curtailing public review provisions of the nation’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. By limiting public input and refusing to consider the cumulative long-term impacts of federal projects, the changes are designed to ensure that the future costs of climate change to taxpayers are not taken into consideration.
Implementing a strategy similar to his disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump and his political appointees have repeatedly tried to defund, discredit, fire, or move career scientists leading federal programs that operate or fund energy data and research. Blinding the public to the severe reality of climate change compounds the crisis and shifts responsibility for dealing with it down the road—in other words, out of President Trump’s purview.
The Trump Administration has undermined the integrity of fair policy assessment and rigged the process in favor of the fossil fuel industry. The Administration has attempted to limit the perceived value of the benefits of regulation by narrowing which benefits can be considered in determining whether the benefits of a regulation justify its costs—a so-called cost benefit analysis (CBA). For example, the CBA issued by the Obama Administration estimated that the health benefits of the mercury rule would be between $37 and $90 billion per year. Under the Trump Administration’s new CBA criteria, the benefit estimate plummeted to just $4 to $6 million. These changes have resulted in preventing fair consideration of regulations whose benefits the Administration doesn’t value—like keeping the air we breathe clean.
Similarly, the Trump Administration revised down the social costs of carbon (SCC)—a dollar value calculated to reflect the cost of one ton of carbon pollution in the atmosphere (or conversely, the benefit of removing one ton of carbon pollution from the atmosphere). Called “the most important number in climate economics,” the SCC is critical to measuring the benefits of reducing carbon emission. It is used across the federal government and by 11 states. In the fall of 2016, 1,249 companies embedded a carbon price into their corporate strategy. In March of 2017, the Administration reduced the SCC from $45 per ton to $1-6 per ton (a decrease of 87-97 percent). This reduction means policymakers (and the companies that take their cues from the government) will not accurately calculate the benefit of reducing carbon pollution.
These trends have continued into the final year of Trump’s term. In mid-March, the American Petroleum Institute asked President Trump to lift regulatory requirements on the oil and gas industry to ease the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. A week later, the EPA released a memo claiming that it would “exercise enforcement discretion” going forward. This capitulation to fossil fuel moguls is a serious risk to the public, which relies on the EPA to protect their air and water. Jeopardizing clean air and clean water in the midst of a viral pandemic that causes respiratory failure goes beyond perversion of the public good—it presents a serious health risk to Americans. Trump has prioritized fossil fuel industry interests over the health of the American people.
During Trump’s first year in office, his Administration was sued more times than any other Administration in any year of their term. Since taking office, Trump has won only 12 of the 69 lawsuits filed against his Administration for unlawful environment, energy, and natural resource deregulation. The Administration’s lack of regard for precedent, fair process, and the rule of law is itself a clear violation of democratic norms. Laws, when properly enacted, do not expire at the whim of Caesar.
In its zeal to undo President Obama’s record of tackling the climate crisis, the Trump Administration has corrupted the policymaking process by preventing transparency, disregarding existing law, prioritizing fossil fuel industry interests over the American people, stifling public participation, and corrupting fair policy analysis. He has given free rein to special interest groups by appointing officials whose blatant conflicts of interest preclude them from serving the people. The result is a reversal of decades of environmental progress, which jeopardizes the future for all of us.