When spent nuclear fuel rods are removed from their reactor and cooled, they are typically surrounded in inert gas and sealed into thick steel and concrete casks that are intended to last for decades. We do this because we know that the material taken out of the reactor core is a dangerous by-product of the material used to power the reactor, and it retains a vast destructive potential. It doesn’t require a degree in nuclear physics to understand why such extreme measures are taken to safeguard this material: Everyone knows that you shouldn’t leave radioactive waste unattended, lest it make its way to where it doesn’t belong.
And the same can be said for the fuel that has powered the Trump administration’s greatest misdeeds: its annihilation of the administrative state, its rollback of protections for immigrants and the environment, and the systematic razing of social protections and guarantees. President Donald Trump may have been the figurehead behind all of this destruction, but we all know he wasn’t the person sitting at the Resolute Desk until the late hours, personally drawing up plans for deregulating industrial methane use or new asylum restrictions. No, this activity was powered by people like White House adviser Stephen Miller, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Now that the Trump administration is getting ejected from the White House, these flunkies will probably spend some time cooling in the fuel pools of consulting, big law, and academia; perhaps, in time, they will fade somewhat from the public eye and our memories. But you can be assured that their capacity for harm is far from spent. As America prepares to inaugurate a new president, it can be easy now to dismiss these bad actors with a lusty “Good Riddance!” or marvel at the depths of their debasement and sycophancy to an inane and temperamental leader. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that to some of Trump’s underlings, the president was always more of a means to an end. We can take satisfaction in the fact that they won’t be getting four more years to wreak havoc, but if we’re not careful, they’ll be back, running for office themselves or glomming onto the campaigns of perhaps more competent despots.
While Trumpworld has had its share of grifters and ideological mercenaries who will be content with a lifetime of cashing in on the roller coaster of the last four years, it’s the true believers we’ll see again. Some, like Barr and Pompeo, were longtime political insiders who waited for the chance to shed the need to even pay lip service to the ideals of a functioning democracy. Barr got a taste of what it was like to serve an executive who was more than happy to push the limits of unitary executive theory, while Pompeo has had the opportunity to twist the U.S. foreign policy apparatus into a pseudo-evangelist framework. Some, like Wheeler, were standard-issue industry swamp creatures looking for their turn in government to advance their paymasters’ interests and finding the Trump administration’s famed ethical laxity to be the perfect environment for their exploits. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin presided over one of the greatest transfers of wealth to the rich in U.S. history.
Then there’s Stephen Miller, part of a new breed of fanatics brought up in the post-9/11 culture war who have tied their identities entirely to its all-encompassing sociocultural combat. While many Trumpworld luminaries share the dubious distinction of being remarkably effective at their posts despite the broader chaos of the Trump years, Miller has succeeded in grand style, essentially shutting down humanitarian immigration into the country, a project he is still staunchly pursuing, even as the clock runs out on his grip on power.
Miller’s keen devotion to the Trumpian cause in these last few days of the administration demonstrates how dedicated he is to playing the long game. He knows that tossing a final Molotov cocktail into the system on his way out the door will serve to make it that much harder for Joe Biden to repair all the damage he helped to create. He further knows that there is a limited amount of decisive executive action that Biden will be willing to take and that immigration is one of those issues with a fickle constituency and a lot of annoying controversy. Most of all, he knows and expects that at least some of the mess he’ll leave behind will remain unresolved until he gets another chance to roam the halls of power and continue the work to which he’s dedicated his life. The thing to understand about Miller is that this was never merely a job; it was a vocation, and his extremist desires to reshape the immigration landscape is a white whale he’ll never stop chasing.
In a just world, all of this official malpractice, particularly on the immigration front, would be assiduously investigated and its perpetrators dragged before some tribunal. Unfortunately, Washington has made an art form out of transgression amnesia, as evidenced by the fact that war criminal par excellence Henry Kissinger continues to live his life unperturbed, his social calendar brimming with invitations to talks and social events. Not only have his horrendous crimes been whitewashed, his foreign policy ideas are still sought after at the highest levels, including by the prior Democratic nominee for president.
More recently, Miles Taylor, the former Homeland Security chief of staff who lately revealed himself to be the author of the infamous New York Times anonymous op-ed and a subsequent book in which he depicted himself as a member of the “resistance inside the White House,” has experienced a bit of a rehabilitation, despite the fact that his ostensibly principled stance within the administration doesn’t appear to have achieved anything at all. He was, however, a good soldier during the family separation crisis, and one of his concrete accomplishments was a thoroughgoing defense of Miller’s most heinous policies.
Reeling in the spotlight of his book’s publication, Taylor comes off as a bit of a hapless opportunist with a limited future potential, but his career trajectory (he served as a government affairs and public policy manager at Google between his departure from the Trump administration and the release of his book) suggests that higher-level officials of the Trump era might easily follow a similar path through the respectable professional class, perhaps making their own claims that they worked against the president from the inside all along, preventing Trump’s worst tendencies from coming to the fore, keeping a steady hand on the ship, doing what they could to keep the functions of government running and privately expressing dismay at his antics. There is a wide swath of the Washington intelligentsia that will buy it and treat the insinuation that these ex-Trumpers are bad people who want bad things and should be exiled from political power indefinitely as mere partisan bickering or unrealistic idealism.
There’s already been a good amount of hand-wringing about what professional opportunities will be available to this set of officials in the coming months, whether they’ll be given book deals or brought on as analysts on cable news. They absolutely should not be afforded these privileges—in a sane world, these people would never be allowed to be adjacent to the public trust ever again. In this world, however, it might be the best-case scenario for these former Trump functionaries to slide into a Beltway life of leisure, with the occasional hit on CNN.
Unfortunately, the free rein that the Millers and Pompeos got to experience with the Trump administration is not a taste they will soon forget. So it’s more plausible that in two or three years, we’ll see these familiar names reemerge, perhaps as a policy adviser to the presidential campaign of a more polished and politically palatable candidate like Josh Hawley, or a less-heralded down-ticket race. They will be presented as someone who “knows Washington” and who can help “get things done” or liaise with career officials at federal departments. The new electoral vehicle will obscure the fact that the broader political undertaking remains a continuation of the Trumpian ideals they’ve spent some portion of the last four years supporting.
If anything, the perception of having been in government, having been in the proverbial “room where it happens” and obtaining an intimate knowledge of the workings of government can give these operators a veneer of respectability and service. You can almost hear the rationalizations being spoken aloud wherever cable news panels are assembled: You may disagree with what they did back then, but it’s easy to play armchair quarterback on the sensitive business of governing; these ex-Trump celebrities experienced what it’s like inside the policymaking arena, and we should respect that.
The part about the importance of experience is true: That’s precisely what makes these people so dangerous. Their prior record in and around government is what allowed many of them to be effective in implementing their terrible policies once Trump gave them the chance. That they remain capable of deftly working the levers of power should be a warning to us all.
In the short term, watching these Trump administration toadies get turned out of power is going to be satisfying. It will feel good to promptly banish them from our memory and draw in a deep breath of fresh air after the never-ending emergency that was their government. We will want it to be quick and easy, like tossing radioactive waste overboard. The problem is that we’ll have no way of knowing where and when it will wash ashore.