White House chief of staff may be “the second most powerful job in government,” according to James A. Baker III, who had the job under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
So it matters that the man Trump named his chief of staff, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, embraces Trump’s hard-core climate denial.
Priebus appeared on the latest Fox News Sunday to explain Trump’s apparent “major flips on policy this week in an interview with the New York Times,” as host Chris Wallace put it — including the apostasy of possibly having “an open mind” about “pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.”
Trump is appointing countless climate science deniers to key positions, which tells you vastly more about what he believes and what he’ll do than his latest semi-coherent ramblings. As I wrote last week, Trump’s repetition of the phrase “open mind” during his Times interview was meant to distract from his constant repetition of long-debunked denier talking points (and it worked).
Priebus confirmed Trump wasn’t being forthright with the Times, telling Wallace, “As far as this issue on climate change — the only thing he [Trump] was saying after being asked a few questions about it is, look, he’ll have an open mind about it but he has his default position, which most of it is a bunch of bunk, but he’ll have an open mind and listen to people.”
You can’t you have an “open mind” on climate if your default position is “most of it is a bunch of bunk.” What is there to “listen to” if you believe the decades of research by thousands of scientists embraced by every nation in the world is mostly bunk? That’s the definition of epistemic closure of the mind. No surprise, then, that FoxNews — a major promoter of denial — didn’t call Priebus out on this absurd statement.
Would Priebus and Trump say their default position on research into the dangers of smoking is “most of it is a bunch of bunk”? Of course not. Yet scientists are as confident humans are the primary cause of climate change as they are that smoking is unhealthy.
What kind of impact can the chief of staff have? Well, as chief of staff, “Rahm Emanuel persuaded Obama to play it cool on [a] climate bill,” as Eric Pooley wrote in an excerpt of his definitive history The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth. The House bill to slash carbon pollution while jump-starting clean energy died in the Senate. Emanuel helped stop the kind of aggressive effort needed to get some bill passed.
But Obama filled his Cabinet with experts like Energy Secretary Steven Chu and EPA Chief Lisa Jackson. One of those experts told Pooley, “You had this incredible green cabinet of really committed people, but the only thing that really matters is what the president says — so everyone was trying to get words into his mouth. And Emanuel was trying to keep the words out of his mouth. It was just a chronic pattern of infighting.”
If you’ve any doubt who won that fight, read the Washington Post’s 2010 piece, “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?” Or the Politico story on Chu’s 2009 trip to Trinidad and Tobago where he insisted on talking about sea level rise, which led Emanuel to yell at deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”
So the chief of staff can help stop climate action and the public discussion of climate in a Cabinet filled with climate experts. In the Trump White House, Priebus will just be one of many making sure his boss doesn’t stray from his default denial of reality. Open mind.