Donald Trump runs the government like a business — specifically, like a private company owned by his family, along with a consortium of junior investors.
After spending the bulk of his first 70 years on Earth lording over enterprises that answered to his whims, the billionaire has proved unable or unwilling to accept that the U.S. president is not the owner and sole proprietor of the federal government. Thus, shortly after taking office, Trump flew into an indignant rage when his first attorney general declined to comport himself as though he were the president’s personal attorney. Trump publicly touted his “great respect” for the way former AG Eric Holder supposedly “protected” Obama from legal accountability and insisted that he expected nothing less from whomever he hired to run the Justice Department division of White House by Trump™.
In the years since, the president has relentlessly sought to coerce federal entities into carrying out his orders, rather than the functions mandated by the democratically enacted laws that brought those agencies into being. Thus, Trump’s Health Department used taxpayer money to air anti-Obamacare propaganda, his DOJ helped get an ally out of legal trouble, U.S. diplomats worked to coerce a foreign government into investigating the president’s domestic political rivals, and National Guard troops assisted the Republicans’ midterm campaign, traveling to the border so as to lend credence to Trump’s warnings of an illegal migration crisis, which was not visible in the border-crossing data and curiously disappeared from the White House’s radar right after the 2018 elections had passed.
Now, in the past 24 hours, we’ve learned that the Trump administration has drafted the Agriculture Department into its 2020 campaign — and the Department of Homeland Security onto Kyle Rittenhouse’s defense team.
Since May, the USDA has been redirecting meat and produce from farms that normally serve restaurants — and thus have seen a steep drop-off in demand — to those in need of nutritional aid. Last week, the White House ordered the Families to Farmers Food Box Program to include a letter from President Donald Trump inside every package delivered to a hungry household. “As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities,” the letter reads. “As part of our response to coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”
The fact that Trump is using the powers of his office to disseminate a politically advantageous message during the home stretch of his reelection campaign would be outrageous (and arguably unlawful) even if that message were accurate. But the obscenity of Trump’s order is compounded by the fact that the letter is misleading: Throughout negotiations over COVID-19 relief, the president’s political opposition has fought to deliver more nutritional aid to needy families than Trump’s party has been willing to support.
The administration’s ploy is all the more egregious for the Agriculture Department’s Orwellian approach to defending it. “Politics has played zero role in the Farmers to Families food box program,” the agency said in a statement to Politico. “It is purely about helping farmers and distributors get food to Americans in need during this unprecedented time.”
Presumably, if a program is purely about getting food to Americans, there would be no reason to require it to also deliver presidential letters to Americans — especially when those letters have caused some local charities to leave the food undelivered for fear of jeopardizing their nonprofit status by aiding a political campaign.
Meanwhile, at the Department of Homeland Security, federal law-enforcement officials were instructed last month to express sympathy for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Illinois resident who traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an (illegally possessed) AR-15 to defend law and order in that city — and ended up shooting two people dead. Specifically, in internal documents obtained by NBC News, DHS officials were advised to respond to any questions about Rittenhouse’s case by noting that Rittenhouse “took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners” (curiously, the document simultaneously advises the officials to say that they could not comment on an ongoing investigation, before offering comments sympathetic to the subject of an ongoing investigation).
Officials were further counseled to describe Rittenhouse’s alleged actions as an object lesson in the importance of suppressing urban chaos. “This is also why we need to stop the violence in our cities,” the talking points read. “Chaotic and violent situations lead to chaotic, violent and tragic outcomes. Everyone needs law and order.”
To this point, DHS officials have largely ignored these messaging cues. But the department may provide Trump’s campaign with a more brutal form of aid later this month. As the Washington Post reported Tuesday:
The Trump administration is preparing an immigration enforcement blitz next month that would target arrests in U.S. cities and jurisdictions that have adopted “sanctuary” policies, according to three U.S. officials who described a plan with public messaging that echoes the president’s law-and-order campaign rhetoric.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation, known informally as the “sanctuary op,” could begin in California as soon as later this week. It would then expand to cities including Denver and Philadelphia, according to two of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive government law enforcement plans … Two officials with knowledge of plans for the sanctuary op described it as more of a political messaging campaign than a major ICE operation, noting that the agency already concentrates on immigration violators with criminal records and routinely arrests them without much fanfare.
All of this clarifies the stakes of November’s election. The Biden-Trump race will not merely decide whether Democrats regain control of the White House — but also whether the American public regains control of the federal institutions that are meant to work them or whether those agencies will remain so many divisions of the Trump Organization D.C.