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Column: The rats fleeing Trump's sinking ship don't deserve to be praised

Michael Hiltzik
·9 min read
La secretaria de Educación, Betsy DeVos.
Trump's majestically incompetent Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned on Thursday, leaving her agency and the cause of education reform in smoking ruins. (Alex Brandon)

The line of rats deserting the sinking S.S. Trump is growing longer almost every day.

The Cabinet members submitting their resignations and current or ex-White House officials speaking out against President Trump, however, spent years enabling his behavior before emerging now to express their shock at how low he can plunge.

They claim that their eyes were opened by Trump's inciting a violent mob to storm the Capitol on Wednesday. Some of them appear to be engaged in an eleventh-hour effort to rid themselves of the stink of complicity.

What happened on Capitol Hill yesterday is a direct result of [Trump's] poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the frauds

Former White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly

The two Cabinet secretaries (thus far) who have resigned — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — may be trying to dodge responsibility for voting on a 25th Amendment effort to remove Trump from the presidency.

That process requires the support of a majority of the Cabinet or a body designated by Congress, along with the Vice President.

Whatever their motivations, none of them deserves credit for abandoning Trump now, when he's facing a tsunami of obloquy and the constitutional end of his term at noon on Jan. 20.

Rep. Elisa Slotkin, D-Mich., had the right take: "Resigning in protest in the last two weeks is really not resigning in protest," she told MSNBC. "It's a paid vacation on the taxpayer dime, after many, many years of enabling this man."

It's proper to examine their records, an effort that leads inexorably to the conclusion that none of them should be permitted anywhere near a job that involves public service or the public interest.

Let's start with a couple of appointees who left the White House some time ago, but only now have spoken out against Trump.

1. John F. Kelly. The retired four-star Marine general resigned as White House chief of staff in January 2019, a job he assumed after serving as Trump's secretary of Homeland Security.

In an interview Thursday on CNN, Kelly endorsed using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. "What happened on Capitol Hill yesterday is a direct result of his poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the frauds," he told Jake Tapper.

He said he was "horrified" by the insurrection at the Capitol, and added, "Frankly, the president's actions and words didn't surprise me at all."

Where has Kelly been the last two years? If he believes it's proper for him to speak out now, what accounts for his previous silence? (Kelly chided Trump mildly in November for delaying the Biden transition, but the expressions of disdain for Trump that have been reported in the past have all been made in private conversations.)

Kelly's appointment as chief of staff was greeted positively by insiders hoping that the stern military man would be able to keep Trump on a short leash.

Expectations that Kelly would be a moderating influence on Trump's cruelty were undeserved. As secretary of Homeland Security, he had endorsed and implemented some of Trump's most savage immigration policies.

Upon taking office at the agency, Kelly loosened guardrails for immigration agents' actions, expanded deportation guidelines and threatened to abandon DACA, the Obama-era program protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation.

He endorsed the idea of separating children from their mothers at the border to discourage immigration, a policy that was put fully into place after he moved on, to America's everlasting shame.

In short, Kelly's hands are filthy from his support of Trump through his actions and his silence.

2. Nikki Haley. Trump appointed this former South Carolina governor as U.N. ambassador a week after his inauguration. She accepted the role and effectively supported Trump through her silence virtually for the rest of his term, possibly because she thought this would give her an advantage in the race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

On Thursday, according to Politico, Haley told a closed-door meeting of Republican National Committee members that Trump’s actions since the election “will be judged harshly by history.” She added: "He was badly wrong with his words yesterday."

These words would have been more impressive had Haley made them in public, not behind closed doors. But that's been her habit. Referring to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., after which Trump said there were "very fine people" on both sides of the melee, she told the RNC meeting that “he was wrong with his words in Charlottesville, and I told him so at the time."

There's no record that Haley spoke out in public at the time of the rally, at which a counterdemonstrator was killed. Only in 2019, in connection with the publication of a book aimed at creating the foundation for her future political career, did Haley state publicly that she had chided Trump. Even then, she wrote that she "was certain he didn't understand how damaging his remarks were."

As for the latest election, Haley supported Trump's questioning of the results in a tweet the day after election day. Her backing away from Trump needs to be placed in that context.

3. Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney was one of Trump's go-to shock troops in the administration's war against consumers, the disabled and other vulnerable members of society.

As Trump's budget director, Mulvaney was a fount of cocksure lies. In 2017, for instance, he took direct aim at Social Security's disability program, calling it "very wasteful" when it's nothing of the kind.

A year later, Trump had installed Mulvaney as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Mulvaney's clear aim was to eviscerate the CFPB, a task he took on with enthusiasm.

He suspended a regulation, five years in the making, aimed at preventing payday lenders and other profiteers from low-income borrowers from lending to customers who can’t repay the loans, running up fees on customers and engaging in other abuses.

He closed an investigation into World Acceptance Corp., a consumer installment lender in his home state of South Carolina that had been accused of abusive practices, but had contributed at least $4,500 to Mulvaney’s congressional campaigns. He repealed a rule outlawing forced arbitration clauses in consumer finance contracts.

These actions raised the ire of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had helped create the CFPB. Mulvaney reveled in her anger. "I am the acting director of the CFPB,” he told a meeting of credit union executives, "something that’s apparently keeping Elizabeth Warren up late at night, which doesn’t bother me at all.” The bankers chortled in appreciation.

Now Mulvaney, who has been serving as Trump's envoy to Northern Ireland since stepping down as his acting chief of staff, is shocked — shocked! — at Trump's behavior.

"I can't do it," he says he told Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in tendering his resignation as ambassador. Trump is "not the same as he was eight months ago," he said.

That statement drew a rebuke from none other than John Kelly. "I don't think he's changed one little bit," Kelly said.

4. Elaine Chao. Following four almost entirely useless years as Trump's secretary of Transportation, Chao announced her resignation by Twitter on Thursday.

Chao wrote that the "traumatic and entirely avoidable" Capitol insurrection "has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside." To her credit, she came close to blaming Trump directly for the melee, as "supporters of the President stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed."

Along with Environmental Protection Agency director Andrew Wheeler, Chao has been one of the flag wavers for Trump's most egregious attack on the environment — the rollback of vehicle emission standards and repeal of California's waiver allowing the state to set its own more stringent rules.

The rollback, as we've reported, was supported by some of the most risibly incompetent technical research placed on the federal record in years. The rule making hasn't even been supported by some of the world's biggest car companies, which have aligned themselves with California in the state's fight to hold the line against Trump's vandalism.

Chao is married to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who experienced his own epiphany in recent days, calling for an end to GOP efforts to challenge the electoral college vote formalizing Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election. This after spending four years supporting Trump's policies and the years before that hamstringing the work of Barack Obama.

5. Betsy DeVos. A perennial contender in the category of worst Trump Cabinet member, the secretary of Education stands as a monument to Trump's habit of staffing federal agencies with people devoted to tearing down those agencies' work.

DeVos, who is related by marriage to the Amway multilevel marketing empire and is the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary military firm Blackwater, has condemned Biden’s proposal for tuition-free college as “a socialist takeover of higher education.” (As an aside, four Blackwater employees convicted and sentenced to prison terms for an unprovoked 2007 attack on Iraqi civilians that killed 14 received pardons from Trump just before Christmas.)

DeVos has shown no interest in the condition of America's public schools — perhaps unsurprising, for she and all her children were educated privately. She supports school vouchers, which give parents public funds to spend on private schools for their kids, despite clear evidence of academic declines among children in voucher programs.

She has systematically undercut loan relief programs for students defrauded by for-profit colleges such as Corinthian Colleges, despite warnings from federal judges that her actions were unlawful, and even a contempt citation and penalty from one federal judge. Her department kept trying to collect loan repayments from former students who were plainly entitled to relief.

In short, DeVos set the cause of education reform back by years. In her resignation letter to Trump, she cited the Capitol insurrection and stated, "There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me."

Huh. She also shed rhetorical tears over the lost opportunity for "highlighting and celebrating your Administration's many accomplishments on behalf of the American people," as she told Trump, conveniently not mentioning any accomplishments.

Reviled by educators, DeVos got a succinct send-off from Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Assn. "Her complicity, cowardice, and complete incompetence will be her legacy," Pringle tweeted.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.