And then they came for the veterans

Op-ed: Under Trump, we are looking toward a new era of vindictiveness, spawned from the top down.

Three days after the election, Ernest Walker, a 47-year-old black U.S. Army veteran, said a Chili's restaurant manager in Texas took away the free meal he had been given in honor of Veterans Day because an elderly white man in a Donald Trump T-shirt questioned Mr. Walker's service based on his race.

Sounds vindictive, doesn't it? But if the past is any prologue, we are looking toward a new era of vindictiveness, spawned from the top down.

In terms of sheer spite, we don't have to look any further than president-elect Donald Trump's Twitter feed. And his people aren't much better, according to Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins professor and former top State Department official under George W. Bush; he posted a warning to other Republicans on his own Twitter account Tuesday.

"Stay away. They're angry, arrogant, screaming 'you LOST!' Will be ugly," Mr. Cohen wrote of the Trump transition team. And they don't even run things yet.

Still, most presidents have little choice but to employ people who made up the most recent administrations of their party. The sheer numbers required to run the Executive Branch of the federal government — from cabinet and sub-cabinet level posts all the way down to the lowest level political appointees (known as "Schedule C" appointments) — mean that in order to have any kind of working knowledge base, you've got to largely go with who you've got.

So, who has Mr. Trump got?

Let's go back to the history of the George W. Bush administration to see what kind of behavior his staff was willing to undertake. In 2003, the Bush Bureau of Labor Statistics canceled a Department of Labor annual report that detailed mass layoffs — making the announcement on Christmas Eve. That same year, they axed a Treasury report that pointed out a future of annual federal budget deficits as they pushed for more and deeper tax cuts. They also killed the 2003 annual report from the Office of Management and Budget, which detailed how much money each state gets under individual federal programs, so when those programs were cut, their governors wouldn't know by how much their budgets were affected.

In 2005 the Bush State Department canceled a long-running annual report on terrorism that former agency officials claimed embarrassed the administration regarding their claims of progress in the war on terrorism.

How about surveillance? In 2005, records from a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the Bush-era FBI conducted secret surveillance on U.S. residents for as long as a year and a half without paperwork or oversight. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft also ignored threats of contempt citations from Congress when members requested memos regarding reports of the possible torture of terrorism suspects (which we later found were true).

And of course, who can forget the petty placement of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's name on the federal no-fly list, which got him stopped and questioned five times in one month back in 2004? At the time, a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union was quoted in the Washington Post saying, "Someone of Senator Kennedy's stature can simply call a friend to have his name removed, but a regular American citizen does not have that ability. He had to call three times himself." (The TSA later said his name was never on the list, but that he had been "misidentified" as someone in need of further screening.)

Imagine the sheer breadth of vengeful power a Trump administration could wield with its extraordinary sensitivity toward slights and bad press, and the reach of 15 cabinet agencies. The choice Mr. Trump makes for attorney general alone will affect the lives of anyone who plans on marching, speaking out or protesting in an era of facial recognition software and digital surveillance. (Under the Bush/Cheney administration, protesters were arrested and ejected from public property simply for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.)

There is a lot of post-election residual anger in America, and it is unlikely to dissipate between now and January 20th. But after that, the consequences in a technologically-wired world will be a lot different than when Martin Luther King got to write letters in the margins of a smuggled-in newspaper in an Alabama jail. If being a veteran with full ID and discharge papers won't save your dinner now, how will it be in a year?

Brian Morton (brianmortonbsun@yahoo.com) is a former Baltimore City Paper political columnist and the author of "Political Animal: I'd Rather Have A Better Country." His quarterly guest column will appear every other Sunday through January.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°