'A Kind Of Vague Hostility': Michael Lewis On How Trump Loyalists Run Agencies

Oct 1, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 12:55 pm

There have been a lot of books written about chaos and dysfunction in the Trump White House. The latest book by Michael Lewis looks at parts of the federal government that don't get as much attention, like the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy.

The stories begin during the transition between administrations — and read nearly the same across each government agency.

"Before the election, the Obama administration had spent the better part of a year and a thousand people's time creating essentially the best course ever created on how the federal government works, and what the problems are in each of these departments," Lewis tells All Things Considered, "with the idea that the day after the election, hundreds of people from the new administration would roll in, and get the briefings, and learn what the problems were and how they dealt with them.

"And the Trump administration just didn't show. I mean, across the government, parking spaces were empty, and nice little finger sandwiches that had been laid out went uneaten, and briefing books went unopened — to the point where, when I roll in a few months later, I'm the first person who's heard the briefing that the Trump administration was supposed to get."

When the administration eventually sent people, there was a pattern in who was appointed.

"Everybody who showed up was a Trump loyalist," Lewis says. "And very few of them had any kind of qualifications for the jobs they were being sent into. And the spirit with which they approach was a kind of vague hostility to the enterprise."

Michael Lewis' book is called The Fifth Risk.


Interview Highlights

On what happened at the Department of Energy

The Department of Energy could just as easily be called the Department of Nuclear Weapons — I mean, that's where the nuclear weapons are tested, it's where they're assembled; I mean, the stockpile is overseen in the Department of Energy.

So they're shocked there when, the day after the election, no one shows up. And they're shocked when the guy who's in charge of the nuclear weapons packs up his boxes and goes home and nobody says anything, and there's nobody to replace him.

Eventually, kind of a month after the election, the Trump people send in one guy, who was a fossil-fuels-industry kind of lobbyist — who was there mainly to root out any interest in the Department of Energy in climate change and in developing alternative energies.

But he comes for an hour, listens politely and leaves. And so the whole conversation that might have happened about how we manage the nuclear stockpile, didn't really happen.

And then a little while later an odd assortment of young people who were kind of personally connected to the Trumps — friends of the Trumps' sons, for example — start to turn up inside the department....

The outgoing people generally had the impression that a) the Trump administration didn't have any idea what they did and b) weren't terribly curious to know.

On why most Americans should care

Let's take an example: Inside the Department of Commerce, there is the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service has, over the past few decades, gotten extraordinarily good at predicting the weather. ... And it saves lives — lots of lives — every year with hurricane and tornado forecasts.

The person that the Trump administration has appointed to run this operation [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service] is the CEO of AccuWeather — who's campaigned for the last couple of decades to prevent the National Weather Service from communicating with the American public so that AccuWeather can make more money doing it.

This is a catastrophe for anybody who is in the path of dangerous weather.

So it matters — it matters a lot — who's in these places. And it's a problem when the person knows nothing; it's an even bigger problem when the person has an incentive to screw it up.

On the "upside to ignorance"

If you want to do things like eliminate investment in alternative energy to generate short-term benefits for the fossil-fuel industry; if you want to eliminate the National Weather Service ability to communicate with the people to make profits for AccuWeather — it really helps not to think too much or know too much about the long-term costs of what you're doing. Because you can just focus on the short-term gains.

And I think that's like a big theme in this administration in the way it's running the government — that it's looking for lots of short-term wins at the expense of the long term, and assuming we all will just not pay very much attention to the long term. And I think the deal they do with their conscience is easier to do, because they just don't understand about the long term.

On how easily a new administration would be able to fix these issues

We have an interesting problem right now, because in the first year of the Trump administration, 20 percent of the senior civil service quit. ... Those are people who really know, really know the jobs and the importance of the jobs. And on top of that, Trump still hasn't filled half of the top 700 jobs in his own government. So there's been a draining of expertise out of the federal government.

The question is how hard would it be to put back together. I don't really know the answer — harder every day.

On the story which concludes the book, about a woman in Oklahoma who prayed for a tornado to destroy her barn

First let's explain why Miss Finley wanted her barn gone: Her husband had killed himself in the barn, and she imagined this act of destruction would come and kind of ease her pain — she wouldn't have to stare at the barn any longer. And what she doesn't imagine is that the same tornado that's going to come take her barn is going to destroy her house, and she didn't want that.

And I thought it was a kind of a lovely metaphor for what Trump voters imagine — or how their imaginations work, or how the human imagination works. It imagines the destruction it wants; it imagines the destruction it wants Trump to inflict on the things it doesn't like about the government.

It doesn't imagine all the collateral damage — it doesn't imagine the damage it will actually do. And I think this failure of the imagination is somewhere near the center of what we're going through right now.

Sam Gringlas and Jessica Smith produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There have been a lot of books written about chaos and dysfunction in the Trump White House. The latest book by Michael Lewis looks lower down the food chain at parts of the government that don't get as much attention, like the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy. The book is called "The Fifth Risk." Michael Lewis, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: In each part of the government that you look at, you tell the story of what happened during the transition between Election Day and the inauguration. And in each case, the story is pretty much the same. What happened?

LEWIS: Well, what happened was before the election, the Obama administration had spent the better part of a year and a thousand people's time creating, essentially, the best course ever created on how the federal government works and what the problems are in each of these departments with the idea that the day after the election, hundreds of people from the new administration would roll in and get the briefings and learn what the problems were and how they dealt with them.

And the Trump administration just didn't show. I mean, across the government, parking spaces were empty, and nice little finger sandwiches that had been laid out went uneaten and briefing books went unopened to the point where, when I roll in a few months later, I'm the first person who's heard the briefing that the Trump administration was supposed to get.

SHAPIRO: And when the Trump administration ultimately did send some people, or one person, there was a pattern in the kinds of people who showed up.

LEWIS: Well, the real pattern was everybody who showed up was a Trump loyalist, and very few of them had any kind of qualifications for the jobs they were being sent into. And the spirit with which they approached was a kind of vague hostility to the enterprise.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example. What happened when people eventually showed up at a place like the Department of Energy, which you write about?

LEWIS: So the Department of Energy could just as easily be called the Department of Nuclear Weapons. I mean, that's where the nuclear weapons are tested. It's where they're assembled. I mean, the stockpile is overseen in the Department of Energy.

So they're shocked there when, the day after the election, no one shows up. And they're shocked when the guy who's in charge of the nuclear weapons packs up his boxes and goes home, and nobody says anything and there's nobody to replace him.

Eventually, kind of a month after the election, the Trump people sent in one guy, who was a fossil fuels industry kind of lobbyist, who was there mainly to root out any interest in the Department of Energy in climate change and in developing alternative energies. But he comes for an hour, listens politely and leaves. And so the whole conversation that might've happened about how we manage the nuclear stockpile didn't really happen.

And then, a little while later, an odd assortment of young people who were kind of personally connected to the Trumps - friends of the Trumps' sons, for example, start to turn up inside the department. But the people - the outgoing people generally had the impression that, A, the Trump administration didn't have any idea what they did, and B, weren't terribly curious to know.

SHAPIRO: Why should it matter to most Americans if an agency that they rarely think about is run by people who either have a benign disinterest in the agency or an active opposition to what the agency is supposed to be doing?

LEWIS: I mean, let's take an example. Inside the Department of Commerce, there is the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service has, over the past few decades, gotten extraordinarily good at predicting the weather. I mean, it's just gotten - it's gotten better and better. And it saves lives - lots of lives - every year with hurricane and tornado forecasts.

The person that the Trump administration has appointed to run this operation is the CEO of AccuWeather, who's campaigned for the last couple of decades to prevent the National Weather Service from communicating with the American public so that AccuWeather can make more money doing it.

This is a catastrophe for anybody who is in the path of dangerous weather, so it matters. It matters a lot who's in these places. And it's a problem when the person knows nothing. It's an even bigger problem when the person has an incentive to screw it up.

SHAPIRO: At one point in this book, you write, there is an upside to ignorance and a downside to knowledge. What is that upside to ignorance?

LEWIS: So if you want to do things like eliminate investment in alternative energy to generate short-term benefits for the fossil fuel industry, if you want to eliminate the National Weather Service's ability to communicate with the people to make profits for AccuWeather, it really helps not to think too much or know too much about the long-term costs of what you're doing because you can just focus on the short-term gains.

And I think that's, like, a big theme in this administration and the way it's running the government - that it's looking for lots of short-term wins at the expense of the long term, and assuming we all will just not pay very much attention to the long term. And I think the deal they do with their conscience is easier to do because they just don't understand about the long term.

SHAPIRO: Are these problems that a new administration would be able to easily fix after four or eight years by putting experienced professionals in these jobs?

LEWIS: You know, we have an interesting problem right now because in the first year of the Trump administration, 20 percent of the senior civil service quit.

SHAPIRO: And those are people who have made a career out of working for the government.

LEWIS: Those are people who really know - really know the jobs and the importance of the jobs. And on top of that, Trump still hasn't filled half of the top 700 jobs in his own government. So there's been a draining of expertise out of the federal government. And the question is, how hard would it be to put back together? I don't really know the answer. Harder every day.

SHAPIRO: You end this book in Elk City, Okla., with a woman named Miss Finley. And she says, for the last 10 years, I prayed for a tornado to come and take that barn. I didn't think it would take the house, too. Explain why you ended on that note.

LEWIS: Well, first, let's explain why Miss Finley wanted her barn gone. Her husband had killed himself in the barn. And she imagined this act of destruction would come and kind of ease her pain. She wouldn't have to stare at the barn any longer. And what she doesn't imagine is that with the same tornado that's going to come take her barn is going to destroy her house, and she didn't want that.

And I thought it was kind of a lovely metaphor for what Trump voters imagine, or how their imaginations work, or how the human imagination works. It imagines the destruction it wants. It imagines the destruction it wants Trump to inflict on the things it doesn't like about the government. It doesn't imagine all the collateral damage. It doesn't imagine the damage it will actually do. And I think this failure of the imagination is somewhere near the center of what we're going through right now.

SHAPIRO: Michael Lewis' new book is "The Fifth Risk." Thanks for joining us today.

LEWIS: Thanks for having me.

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