Nonfiction: Eating Away at Government From the Inside



Credit Linda Huang

What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America
By David Cay Johnston
306 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.

It takes a brave writer, in 2018, to attempt a book about Donald Trump’s presidency. During his one year in the White House, Trump has so thoroughly warped the space-time continuum of our news cycle that it seems preposterous that any words about his presidency, slapped between covers, won’t have been overtaken by events by the time they appear in print.

Yet there are routes to staying power. One comes from Michael Wolff, whose jaw-dropping (and thinly sourced) tales of White House dysfunction in “Fire and Fury” cost Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime Svengali, both his media platform and his billionaire patron. Another successful approach is provided by David Frum, whose elegantly written jeremiad “Trumpocracy” will give future historians ample evidence that not all Republicans fell in line behind their party’s president.

With “It’s Even Worse Than You Think,” David Cay Johnston has chosen a third, more difficult path. A former New York Times reporter who in 2001 won a Pulitzer Prize for his exposés on tax loopholes, Johnston practices a brand of journalism that’s an amalgam of advocacy and forensic accounting. “It is not enough just to cover politics and controversies,” he writes. “Often the most important news goes unannounced, lying right out in the open in the government documents most journalists are loath to uncover and read.” It’s Johnston’s contention that much of the media’s coverage of Trump — fixated as it is on the president’s tweets and feuds — misses the real damage he’s doing to the country. “The Trump administration deposited political termites throughout the structure of our government,” Johnston argues. “The endgame is not just a smaller government, which Republicans always say they want, but a weak government.”

Johnston sets out to shine a bright light on these termites. He finds an obvious one in Scott Pruitt, Trump’s man at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose “one-sided approach to E.P.A.’s mandate,” Johnston writes, favors the concerns of the industries it regulates at the expense of the public’s health. Of course, Pruitt has already received considerable media attention. But Johnston uncovers some less well-known termites as well.


His chapter on the goings-on at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is a textbook example of the sort of green-eyeshade reportage on which he built his formidable reputation. First, Johnston explains how Trump’s decision to force out the chairman left the commission with only two members, short of the three required for a quorum, which meant it was unable to approve “$50 billion worth of energy projects” that would have benefited American workers and consumers. Next, Johnston reports that when Trump finally got around to filling out the agency, he didn’t pick anyone with a consumer-protection background, like the chairman he’d just sacked, instead nominating three new commissioners who all favored the utilities. “Congress created FERC … to protect families, small-business owners and industry from monopolists and pricing schemes that jack up prices while at the same time ensuring an abundant supply of electricity,” Johnston writes. Under Trump, that mission is being eaten away at.

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