Shortly before Donald Trump took office, the retired Air Force lieutenant general in charge of the country’s nuclear weapons program packed up his office. He’d submitted his resignation, as required, and no one from the incoming Trump team told him to stick around. Trump’s Day One drew closer, and only after Ernest Moniz, the outgoing Energy Secretary, personally called some senators to alert them to what was going on did the Trump team perk up. It was the day before the inauguration when the officer got the call: Please bring back your belongings, he was told. The job’s still yours. Crisis averted, for now.
This anecdote of Trump team incompetence is one genre of tale told by Michael Lewis — the author of a ton of books you’ve read — in his new offering, The Fifth Risk. Other stories in the book cover mismanagement, and others still look at a more targeted kind of destruction. Take, for example, the case of the weather. Over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, bureaucrats await the arrival of Barry Myers, Trump’s pick to lead the administration. Myers got the nod after years of lobbying to stop the National Weather Service from communicating with citizens in his private capacity as the head of AccuWeather — which, itself, relies on the government’s weather information. If you’re not concerned about the prospect of weather forecasts that are reserved for those who pay for them, Lewis suggests, you should be.
Stories like these may terrify in isolation, but when considered together, they overwhelm. And they exist, Lewis says, all over the government — far enough from the public eye that, the majority of the time, we have no idea they’re happening.
With almost everyone you talked to, you asked about their biggest concern, the biggest risk. After all this, what’s yours?
Sacrificing the long term for the short term. Trump’s such a myopic creature and so much of his behavior is driven by short-term rewards. If you look at the institution I was trying to describe, it’s a mess. I mean, the people are great, but they’re all old. Here’s an incredible one: there are five times more people working for the government over the age of 60 than under the age of 30. And you can find analogous situations with the technology. It feels like this old machine has been starved, neglected, shat upon for three decades, and it’s waiting for someone to come take a sledgehammer to the side of it, and he’s doing it.
Short-termism isn’t a new problem, though. You’re saying Trump’s just the one taking advantage of it?
Well, true. He’s much more of a short-termist. In the book you can see other presidents doing things that aren’t going to pay off for them. Think about it this way. An awful lot of what an administration does is invest for the distant future. All the basic science. None of that pays off for the current president. None of it. That pays off for like two generations on. Trump has no interest in any of it. Bush had a big interest in it. He created the [research funding agency] in the Energy Department: ARPA-E. So everywhere [Trump] can pull in resources to make his little moment seem good, and screw future generations, he will.
In the book you refer a few times to “willful ignorance” that created this moment, of which Trump is the ultimate manifestation.
It’s easier to behave the way he behaves if you don’t know anything. If you actually collide with some piece of information then you have a problem, and I think he moves through the world avoiding colliding with the information.
You describe some people in the administration similarly.
Perry. Think about this with Perry, obviously it’s a joke — and it’s one of the reasons I got interested in the project — that he was appointed head of the Energy Department. But it wasn’t just that he didn’t know the name of the department that he was going to cut when he said he was going to cut it, and not only was it that inside this place are nuclear weapons, but those weapons are assembled in the Texas Panhandle. He was the governor of Texas! How on earth do you go through a day as governor of Texas without knowing that you’ve got a nuclear risk in the Texas Panhandle? That’s just mystifying to me.
In your telling, he’s “the shell-shocked grandmother trying to preside over a pleasant family Thanksgiving dinner while pretending that her blind-drunk husband isn’t standing naked on the dining-room table waving the carving knife over his head.” The grandmother understands what she’s doing, though. Do you think Perry does?
I don’t know. I do know he’s not really engaged with the department, that he flies around a lot, he’s a public face. He tweets a bit. I know that he never got the briefings. But beyond that I don’t know. I don’t know how! Incuriosity seems to be a feature of the administration, an incuriosity you and I would find alien.
If the government workers who keep their heads down and do their jobs are heroes, the book’s opening basically positions Chris Christie as an almost-hero for his role setting up the Trump transition, before his work was trashed. Is that fair?
I do think it’s fair. It isn’t my judgment. The best referee of this process, Max Stier [of the Partnership for Public Service] — he sits in the middle of this process, the transition, and he’s seen it several times now so he can compare Trump to Romney to Obama, and he thought [Christie’s] operation was almost as good as it got. He thought they were ready to go in, having the right people, having a structure, all that — in spite of Donald Trump. Which is pretty impressive, like building a good football team with a moronic coach. Or a moronic GM.
In this analogy, there’s also a quarterback who refuses to take the field?Yes! I think he would have done the country a great service. Having said that, I think Trump’s a nightmare no matter what. He’s got all kinds of other problems in addition to his inability to run the government. And it is possible if you had given him more of an ability to run the government, it would have let him do more damage elsewhere. So it’s possible it’s a blessing in disguise that he’s so obviously inept.
You seem to have had no interest in the usual coverage of this administration — Who was yelling at who—
No, no, no. I did care — the one thing I really did care about was exactly how the transition went down. To this day, there’s the question: Why? The unsatisfying answer, the answer that’s offered, is that Jared [Kushner] just had it in for Christie. But why did Trump say “We have to fire them”? Yeah, he’s ignorant, but I think there was probably a positive reason for what he did. And that is, he wanted the chaos, because among other things it let him put people in positions that the transition would never have. They vetted [Michael] Flynn out. They didn’t let him get into trouble that he wanted to get into. And I suspect Russia has something to do with it. If you had managed the government normally there would have been a lot more due diligence, a lot more windows into Trump’s relations with the Russians. So partly to cover it up, partly to muddy the water. And an instinct toward total commotion. Two weeks ago you were obsessing about the Mueller investigation. In the last four days you haven’t thought about it at all.
So you think that’s a strategy?
I think it’s been very interesting the last few days to see Trump let [Brett] Kavanaugh get all the attention. And I’m asking myself, “Why isn’t he throwing the spotlight back on himself?” Which is what he often does. In a way, it’s been a relief to not be thinking about Trump. Two thoughts: One is he’s fiddling around with the Mueller investigation in some way, and the other is Stormy Daniels’s book comes out [this week]. And nobody’s talking about it because they have a good proxy here that’s not her. And I wonder if that’s in the back of his mind: Let’s let this run, because I want this to dominate the news cycle.
This reminds me of the saga of Scott Pruitt at the EPA, how it dominated the headlines. But to you, Pruitt is something different from Perry, and from others?
There is a difference. Perry isn’t hostile to the Energy Department: he didn’t know what it was. Pruitt was commercially backed to go and take apart his agency. He rhymes with Mick Mulvaney at the CFPB, that’s the same sort of thing. But neither one of those guys knows much about the thing they’re trying to take apart, so they have some limits to what they can do. And then there’s a third species — Barry Myers, who actually knows how the place runs and can do all sorts of damage that, as one of my sources says to me, we’d just never know. I’m trying to think if there’s anybody who’s just full-throatedly enthusiastic about the enterprise he’s been charged to run. Rex Tillerson wasn’t. Defense. [Jim] Mattis. And maybe, strangely, [Steven] Mnuchin. We never hear about him. I keep getting asked what’s the source of the next financial crisis, and I don’t have an answer because I don’t know anything, but there’s one thing that’s been eating at me since this man was elected. It’s the thing that, if it happened, you’d rewind the tape like in The Usual Suspects and say, (gasps) “Why didn’t I see that coming?” If Trump makes noises about defaulting selectively on the debt, not paying the Chinese back their $4 trillion, it would be totally in character, right? “They screwed us!” He’s used to doing that all his life. The effects of that would be breathtaking. Now one thing that hasn’t happened and is really surprising, is the dollar has not really collapsed, right? That’s where we’re headed on this train, to a lack of faith in the currency.
One of the things we often heard during the transition was this assurance that things were going to be okay, that the adults in the room would contain Trump. Internally, do you see the faith in the adults having eroded?
Oh God, yes. The thing that has recurred in the writing of the story — and I did talk to people in his administration, and to people high up in his campaign — is no matter where I went in my mind, they said to me, “No, it’s worse.” No one ever came back at me saying, “No, you’re missing something, this is actually all under control because of this other thing you don’t see.” The exception is, Obama people would say, “This is not a little aircraft, it’s a giant cruise ship. It takes a while, and it’s a long game.” The longest game we’ve had in that office in a very long time is being replaced by the shortest game in that office, maybe ever.
But there is truth in [what Obama’s people say]. There are 700 top jobs Trump hasn’t filled in his administration, and there are people in the civil service who step into them and do them probably better than the political people would. You do not have the ability to take positive new action in any way, but you have the ability to keep the thing going where it was going. So it’s a very weird administration in that half of it is basically Obama’s administration, Obama’s government.
Have you thought about how much this will all change if Democrats take back some power, and investigative ability, in November?
Corruption is a huge political problem for them. One of the themes in the Trump administration is, a lot of times when you see strange, kooky behavior, like pulling off the animal abuse cases from the Ag Department website, or …
Or Eric Trump’s brother-in-law having an office?
In the Energy Department, right. Or the wacky assault on anybody who’s had anything to do with climate change meetings. Or removing the climate change data. It’s not ideology, it’s money. Someone has a specific financial interest in that matter, and someone else is doing their bidding. I mean, this is a Republican problem generally: If you think that government is a problem, generally, what are you doing running one? In this extreme case, they really have no positive purpose. What rushes in, is money. That becomes the dominant attractor, that becomes why people go to work for you. Either they want the specific $80,000 dollar a year job in the Department of Agriculture or they want to get the things done inside. So: the power to investigate who’s paid who what? I think the corruption’s gotta be spectacular, just watching the behavior. There’s so much distraction right now that what would be in any other administration a crippling scandal just would be ignored.
This interview has been edited and condensed.