Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
Yet the president shows no signs of asking her to resign, reflecting in part his lack of interest in the issue of education and the department responsible for it. And DeVos has no interest in departing. Advisers say she is excited by the tasks ahead. After two years of mostly undoing the work of her predecessors, she has shifted to advancing her own agenda.
Topping her list is a proposal for a $5-billion-a-year tax credit that would reimburse taxpayers and corporations dollar for dollar for donations to scholarship programs. DeVos, 61, came to Washington after a lifetime of advocating for school vouchers and other programs that allow families to channel tax dollars away from traditional public schools. Passage of such a plan would represent a crowning achievement — though it is unlikely, given widespread Democratic opposition.
DeVos persuaded the Treasury Department to support the idea, even though the credit would complicate the tax code just two years after a bill passed to simplify it. She worked behind the scenes to negotiate details and unite most school choice proponents behind the plan. Now, she is traveling the country to promote the idea, with trips so far to three states and more planned.
At the White House, aides do not expect the measure to become law, and Trump hardly mentions it. But White House officials say DeVos gets credit for pushing the school choice agenda, which is popular with Trump’s core of conservative supporters.
And DeVos, who is deeply religious, scores points for the president with evangelical Christians, an important part of his base that has stuck by Trump even as unseemly details of his personal life have spilled out.
“He has staffed his administration and surrounded himself with people who have deep roots and street cred in the faith community. Betsy would be at or near the top of that list,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a longtime evangelical leader.
DeVos does not shy from talking about her faith. At an event in January hosted by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, she spoke of her Christian education and said her faith helps her deal with public criticism.
“There’s an audience I play to, and it’s just an audience of one,” she said. “That’s a true north star.”
.. DeVos has benefited from Trump’s lack of interest in education, officials say. And the president — despite his “Apprentice” reputation for dispatching with poor-performing employees — is actually loath to fire subordinates. In many cases, he’s let them dangle for months before cutting the rope or makes their lives so miserable they quit.
.. Also bolstering DeVos’s standing: She hasn’t had a single personal scandal. She’s a billionaire and travels by private plane, but she pays for it herself. She donates her salary to charity. Even detractors say that in person, DeVos is pleasant and easy to be around. And she has shown personal grit, appearing in public in a wheelchair after she broke her pelvis in a cycling accident.
In contrast, White House officials describe Trump as more hot and cold regarding DeVos and said he rarely sees her. He has been frustrated with her public mistakes, beginning with her disastrous confirmation hearing, they said, and expects perfection from his lieutenants.
But Trump appreciates that she’s tough, handles criticism and is a loyal soldier willing to defend even unpopular policies, officials said. For instance, she spent three days last month defending the administration’s plan to eliminate nearly $18 million in federal funding for a Special Olympics program in schools. She had fought to maintain the spending and was overruled by the White House budget office but still argued for the cut before hostile lawmakers at two congressional hearings.
Then, after the three-day mini-drama, Trump swooped in and announced he was overruling “my people” and favored the funding. It prompted a rare, albeit gentle, DeVos pushback.
“I am pleased and grateful the president and I see eye-to-eye on this issue, and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant,” she said. “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”
Before that, she had kept quiet about the internal dispute. Early in the administration, she attended a dinner for the Special Olympics, dining with athletes and then speaking about her support for the program. Two weeks later, Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, was shocked to see the president’s first budget plan, which proposed cutting all federal support for the group.
He called DeVos to ask about it. At first, she defended the cut but then backed down, implying it was never her idea. Six months later, she donated a quarter of her salary to the nonprofit. Congress ignored the president’s request and increased the funding.
.. DeVos kept quiet on other disagreements with the White House, too. She was against revoking documents meant to help schools work with transgender students but never publicly protested. She didn’t think that a school safety commission, formed after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., should consider the question of racial disparities in student discipline. Again, she said nothing.
Aides describe her as a loyal soldier, an approach that has helped keep her position with Trump secure. But DeVos has done little to win over critics who opposed her from the start. Detractors say she lacks basic knowledge about education, caring only about her pet issue of school choice. They charge that she wants to destroy, not bolster, public education. And they argue that someone who has never attended a public school has no business being education secretary.
“She is undeterred in her mission despite the forces against her,” department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said. “People see she is in it for the right reasons.”
Aides said DeVos has met with Democrats who might support her tax credit plan but declined to name them. She has never reached out to Charlie Barone, lobbyist for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that favors some of the same policies — such as more charter schools — and who might have been at least an occasional ally.
The new Democratic majority in Congress maps out its investigations of the Trump administration.
To avert an investigative free-for-all, Democrats decided early on that they needed to prioritize their inquiries within a basic narrative framework: How is misbehavior X endangering the health and safety of our democracy or of the American people?
Issues ranking high on Democrats’ inquiry list include the administration’s
- response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; its decisions
- not to defend the pre-existing conditions provision of Obamacare and to undermine the program by starving it of funds; its policy of
- separating migrant families at the southern border; and its
- rollback of environmental protections. Other prime lines of inquiry are
- whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stood to benefit personally from decisions he made in office,
- whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress about his efforts to add a question about citizenship to the new census — and
- pretty much every decision made so far by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Such potential maladministration may not be as buzzy as, say, exploring
- whether Mr. Trump paid hush money to former mistresses or
- underpaid his taxes by a few hundred million dollars. But it does concretely influence the health and well-being of the public.
This is not to say Mr. Trump will get a pass on his personal behavior, simply that Democrats will try to keep the focus on the bigger picture. For instance, Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns is part of his family’s sketchy financial dealings, which raise serious questions about everything from emoluments violations to inappropriate dealings with foreign interests. The crucial question isn’t whether the president has violated the law but whether he has been selling out the nation for personal gain.
The special investigative team was created in 2016 after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges, which catalyzed a flurry of complaints from students about predatory activities at for-profit schools. The institutions had been accused of widespread fraud that involved misrepresenting enrollment benefits, job placement rates and program offerings, which could leave students with huge debts and no degrees.
.. Under the Obama administration, the group was investigating not only DeVry, now known as Adtalem Global Education, but also Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation, which also operate large for-profit schools.
.. The investigation into DeVry ground to a halt early last year. Later, in the summer, Ms. DeVos named Julian Schmoke, a former dean at DeVry, as the team’s new supervisor. Former employees of Bridgepoint and Career Education also work for Ms. DeVos, including Robert S. Eitel, her senior counselor, who worked for both, and Diane Auer Jones, a senior adviser on postsecondary education, who was with Career Education.
.. Last month, Congress confirmed the appointment of a lawyer who provided consulting services to Career Education, Carlos G. Muñiz, as the department’s general counsel. And Bridgepoint is a former client of Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications at the White House.