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Friday, 17 November 2017 07:27

Trump's USDA: Industry Insiders, Swamp Dwellers and Know-Nothings


Cow 1117wrp opt(Photo: Jelle / Flickr)To be perfectly honest, most of us would be hard-pressed to have a handle on the range of the myriad of functions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We would likely get the part about meat and poultry inspections, and maybe the fact that the agency oversees the food stamp program, but otherwise we would be pretty unclear about the scope of the agency's work. As Michael Lewis reports in the December issue of Vanity Fair, most of what the USDA does "has little to do with agriculture," as it spends only a "small fraction" of its $164 billion budget (2016) on farmers.

Among other things, the USDA "runs 193 million acres of natural forest and grasslands [and] It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals people eat." The agency runs a "massive science program; a bank with $220 billion in assets; plus a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting," There's more; it finances and manages numerous programs in rural America, "including the free school lunch for kids living near the poverty line."

A Vanity Fair USDA Organizational Chart has the Secretary and Deputy Secretary up top, and seven Undersecretaries: National Resources and Environment; Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services; Rural Development; Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; Food Safety; Research, Education and Economics (Science); and, Marketing and Regulatory Programs.

Kevin Concannon spent "most of his career running health and nutrition services for several different states," before retiring in 2008," Lewis pointed out. At close to 70, he happily came out of retirement after the then-secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack asked him to take charge of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

Concannon told Lewis: "We used to say if we stopped the tourists outside the building and told them what we were doing inside, most of them would have no idea we were doing it." This despite the fact that the work at Concannon's agency – the nation's school lunch program; the food-stamp program, which provided pregnant women, new mothers, and young children with proper nutrition, and other programs – "accounted for approximatelyn70 percent of the USDA's budget," Lewis reported.

It is not surprising that Trump's transition team would need to be schooled on the agency's activities. To that end, "the USDA's staff had created elaborate briefings for the incoming Trump administration." They pulled together scads of written materials; they "set aside the nicest rooms" for briefings. "They had brought in computers and office supplies, and organized a bunch of new workstations," according to Lewis.

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What was surprising is that unlike the Obama and Bush administrations that had sent transition people the day after their elections, no one showed up until late November. More than a month after the election, "one guy, named Brian Klippenstein," finally showed up.

According to Lewis, Klippenstein was running an organization called Protect the Harvest." The organization "was founded by a Trump supporter, an Indiana oilman and rancher named Forrest Lucas." PTH's stated purpose was "to protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat, and own animals."

Lewis pointed out that Protect the Harvest basically spent much its time demonizing organization like the Humane Society. One of the lesser-known charges of the USDA is to "police conflicts between people and animals." In that regard, the agency has "brought legal action against people who abused animals."

Kilppenstein, just as some members of Trump's transition team were doing at the Department of Energy, focused on climate change, "want[ing] names of the people doing the work," a former USDA employee told Lewis.    

Eventually, there were a few short briefings at the USDA According to a former White official, "At most of the federal agencies, there were no real briefings." The official added: "They were basically for show. The Trump transition sent in these teams in the end just to say they were doing it."  

Concannon had also prepared for extensive briefing sessions, none of which happened. Instead, early readings of Trump's budget placed the food stamp program directly in the crosshairs.      

Several months later, according to Lewis, Politico reported that the Trump's appointees to the USDA's reasonably high-paying positions included a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company. "In many cases," Politico's Jenny Hopkinson reported, they "demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture."

The Clovis Case

Then there's the case of Sam Clovis, Trump's controversial pick for Chief Scientist. In early November, Clovis, who is not a scientist and has no scientific background, withdrew his nomination.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, Clovis, a former Iowa talk radio host and political science professor, blamed the toxic atmosphere in Washington for his decision to withdraw his nomination. "The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position," he wrote in the letter. "The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day. As I am focused on your success and the success of this Administration, I do not want to be a distraction or negative influence, particularly with so much important work left to do for the American people." 

Clovis, did not mention reports that he "was named in court documents as one of the Trump campaign officials in contact with George Papadopoulos, the campaign foreign policy adviser who admitted to making false statements to the FBI about his ties to Russian officials," The Huffington Post's Alexander C. Kaufman pointed out.  

Clovis may have blamed the toxic atmosphere in Washington, but in hearings, he might have had a difficult time explaining some of his previously off-the-wall comments, and why was qualified to be U.S.D.A.'s chief scientist. As Kaufman reported, "Clovis, an early Trump supporter, is a birther conspiracy theorist who described former President Barack Obama and his black and Latino Cabinet members as 'racists.' He once accused progressives in a since-deleted blog post of 'enslaving' minorities, called black leaders 'race traders' and said Obama was a 'Maoist' with 'communist' roots." 

One of the things we do know, thanks to an investigation by The New York Times and Pro Publica, is that Rebeckah Adcock, a former pesticide lobbyist appointed to the Department of Agriculture, "had met with her former industry allies despite a signed ethics agreement that limited such interactions."

How many of these folks are still employed is anybody's guess. At the National Association of Farm Broadcasters Trade Talk in Kansas City, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue – the final cabinet member named -- tried to explain why the U.S.D.A. was not yet fully staffed. In October, Civil Eats' Leah Douglas pointed out that, "Almost from the start, the USDA has been hobbled by the inexperience and inefficiency of the administration."

According to Douglas, "Among the political appointee roles that have been filled, two trends have emerged: prior work experience on the Trump campaign, and prior employment in the agribusiness sector."