Imagine being stopped at a police checkpoint with no explanation, and then watching a limousine roll up and get waved directly through by the same cop who’s had you pulled onto the shoulder for an hour. Later, fuming, you turn on the radio and find out the guy got rich enough to buy that limo by breaking the rules you’re expected to live by every day at work.
That’s the kind of ire Republicans are inviting this week by subverting Senate rules to ensure three of President Donald Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks can move ahead despite ongoing scandals. All three are benefiting from the rigged system which Trump promised his voters would end if they picked a japing reality TV mogul to lead the free world.
Democrats had boycotted Senate Finance Committee confirmation votes for Treasury pick Steve Mnuchin and Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price, demanding that chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) delay the votes so they would have time to fully scrutinize the two men’s sketchy business dealings. In the Committee on Environment and Public Works, Dems refused to allow a vote until chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) forced Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt to give full and honest answers to the written questions they had put to him.
Instead, Hatch and Barrasso changed their committees’ rules so that Republicans could vote without a single Democrat in the room. It’s an extraordinary move under any circumstances. The specific nature of the three people who benefit gives it a special potential to backfire — and puts Republicans on the record rigging the system to help their pals and their president.
Trump voters won’t feel betrayed by the policy views of Pruitt, Mnuchin, or Price. He’s picked three men who fit the increasingly rightward tilt of the Republican Party platform.
But all three are avatars of the skewed system Trump ran against. All three are benefiting here from America’s tilted playing field that advantages insiders and economic elites. Many Trump voters will likely always support him, because he represents a vengeful promise on behalf of aggrieved white people: He hates what they hate. But on the separate expectation that Trump will loosen the elite’s grasp on power and make sure everyone gets a fair shake, these three men are kryptonite.
Steve Mnuchin exploited a despairing, destitute group of American homeowners to add millions of dollars to his already-large fortune. His company used illegal “robosigning” techniques — widespread in the industry that preyed upon the housing market collapse and raided suburbia through sketchy foreclosure practices — to backfill legal justifications for kicking people out of their homes. Then he lied about it to the Senate in his confirmation paperwork, as confirmed just this past weekend by the Columbus Post-Dispatch.
Republicans would have waved this swindler through the Senate anyway. But by changing the rules to keep his predatory nature in the shadows, they reinforce the idea that if you’re rich and connected, you get to play by different rules from ordinary folks.
Rooted as it is in the jargon-minefield of housing finance, Mnuchin’s scandal is complicated to explain. Pruitt’s stains are wonky too. But with HHS pick Price, the scandal Republicans are sweeping under the rug is something a poodle could understand.
Price bought dirt-cheap stock in a company just days before he pushed a bill through Congress that tripled the company’s share price. He got looped in by a House Republican colleague to the company’s special, discounted stock offering for insiders, then used his role as the people’s representative to ensure the investment would pay off big.
It’s the definition of special access, a perfect distillation of the idea that Americans who punch a clock to feed their families are ruled by powerful, wealthy people who have everything handed to them under a set of special, secret rules. It might even be illegal. But Hatch is making sure we’ll never find out for sure by ignoring Democrats’ calls for further investigation into Price’s apparent use of public office for private gain.
Pruitt’s whiff of scandal is cotton-candy in comparison to Mnuchin’s foreclosure mill dishonesty and Price’s self-dealing. He will have vast conflicts of interest at EPA from day one and he has a history of stonewalling public records requests to avoid accountability to taxpayers — which he did again this month in ducking Senate Democrats’ questions.
It’s the kind of behavior that would get a normal person tossed out of a job interview. Yet on Thursday, Barrasso chose to bypass the issue entirely and write special new rules to push Pruitt through.
Republican insiders doubtless see Hatch and Barrasso’s move as a logical use of the laws of power, a simple pressing of the party’s majority advantage.
But they are outkicking their coverage.
Trump won the White House by selling voters the image of an angry outsider, but the vote count was very close in the states that keyed his Electoral College landslide. He is already breaking records for presidential unpopularity. His rule is fragile.
This reality-show presidency is built on the idea that appearance means more than truth. But a politician’s image tends to corrode fast when they betray their core branding. Trump’s party is rushing to confirm three men who perfectly exemplify the very same elite insider perversion of the rules that helped the president’s message catch on in the first place.