Whistleblowers Can Pose Real Challenge to Trump
Bill Black and Norman Soloman join TRNN’s live inauguration coverage to discuss the criminogenic environment that will thrive under the Trump administration as well as its unprecedented conflicts of interest
KIM BROWN: We want to bring Bill Black into this conversation. He’s joining us today from Kansas City, Missouri. He is Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He’s also a white-collar criminologist. We’re going to need that expertise in this next administration. He’s also a former financial regulator, author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One”. Bill Black, welcome back to The Real News.
BILL BLACK: It’s good to be here. Thanks.
KIM BROWN: So Bill, Donald Trump is the President of the United States. It’s sort of difficult to still get those words out of my mouth. Your initial take on President Trump and his inaugural speech and what he has tentatively laid out as his agenda for the country.
BILL BLACK: Okay. He hasn’t laid out really much of an agenda; he’s laid out his dystopian view and this is from someone that a) evinces virtually no empathy for anybody. And b) is colossally misinformed, including about criminology and such, and is utterly convinced that if you are black in America that you live a life something akin to the movies, “The Purge,” in which every minute of your life you are in constant danger of being murdered and, you know, the communities have fallen apart, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And the answer to all of this is America First and self-interest and getting rid of trade, none of which is going to do any of the things that Trump doesn’t actually even say, but implies, that this is somehow going to bring back the factories, you know, rusting in the Midwest.
And I, by the way, grew up… born in Detroit and grew up in Dearborn, Michigan. So I know a lot about the rusted factories.
I think what’s actually most likely to bring down Trump is yet another thing and that is I’m a co-founder of Bank Whistleblowers United. And I think that it’s actually whistleblowers that pose the gravest danger to Trump. Because he’s going to be creating the most criminogenic environment in U.S. history — not just himself, but the cronies that he picked. These are people that fundamentally don’t believe in public service. They will be doing immense sleazy things. They are going to keep, in the case of the Education Secretary, if she’s confirmed, over a hundred investments that conflict.
There are going to be hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are going to be in the trenches and see the sleaze. And, of them, there may be thousands who are willing to blow the whistle. We need to think very hard of how to encourage and protect those people and get the word out when they do risk everything, by blowing the whistle, so that it isn’t buried on page 16B of some business section. And I think that’s actually… things we’ve never even heard of yet are actually the most likely things to produce the scandals that’ll bring down Trump.
KIM BROWN: Well, Bill Black, while we have you on, obviously, you are a Professor of Economics and Law and there’s already a lot of not only controversy but scandal and potential conflicts of interest associated with some of Donald Trump’s cabinet picks. But his pick for Secretary of Treasury is especially interesting, Mr. Mnuchin here. But the Treasury Department, if I understand this correctly, had to appoint someone sort of to hold the place of the Secretary because Trump’s pick for this position has not yet been confirmed. But part of the issue is that he has failed to reveal $100 million in assets and a link to a tax haven company. This, according to ABC News.
So, Bill, I know you follow these stories — can you give us a little bit more insight as to what the issue is with Mnuchin on this issue and others?
BILL BLACK: Well, it’s symptomatic of his top picks that they not only have unprecedented conflicts of interest, but that they don’t care about them — and that the Republicans in Congress have not cared. So the Republicans, of course, under Obama demanded this super vetting, super due diligence, you know, getting full statements of assets and tax returns well in advance of any hearings so that they would have literally months to peruse them. And, as you know, they were quite willing to go ahead without any disclosures. Now you get these grotesquely incomplete disclosures that are tactically incomplete. In other words, he knew that this was likely to be super controversial because, let us remind ourselves, the Treasury Secretary runs the IRS.
KIM BROWN: That’s pretty convenient.
BILL BLACK: This, of course, follows a tradition. Tim Geithner. What was famous about Tim Geithner? He didn’t pay his taxes.
PAUL JAY: There’s another thing in his speech I think we should talk about that I think we mentioned — this infrastructure program that he’s talking about. You know, we’re going to build highways, we’re going to build airports, we’re going to build bridges across the country — if he’s serious about that, it sounds like he is, it’s clearly going to be, given his philosophical bent, some kind of public/private partnership where the public either puts up directly the money, but I think they’re talking about massive tax deferrals. I’m curious to what Bill thinks of what we’re likely to see here.
BILL BLACK: Yeah, that will be among the areas of scandals that we’re going to need the whistleblowers on. First, these things are absolutely notorious. So Reagan’s line was absolutely wrong about the scariest nine words in the English language, you know, “I’m from government and I’m here to help you.” They are, “I’m from Goldman Sachs and I’m here to help your city.” Those are the scariest words. These are always — I mean 100% of the time — terrible business deals from the public standpoint. And so, there will probably be lots of sale and lease-back deals under which the private sector gets usage for some very long time. And then once it doesn’t work anymore, it reverts to the public sector — as you say, almost certainly complex tax. Because it looks free and you underprice it when you budget it, so it sounds free. And that allows you to escape various pay-as-you-go rules in the House and the Senate, as well.
So yes, a) there’ll be scandal after scandal in truth. Question’s whether we’re going to learn about them. And, again, whistleblowers are the best thing because, what people need to understand is that Democrats cannot call any oversight hearing, period, in the House or the Senate. Only the Republican Chairs can call those oversight hearings. And the Republicans, as we’ve just seen, between this and trying to get rid of the Ethics Panel, are going to go into a war against effective oversight.
NORMAN SOLOMON: And on that point, I’d like to add, you know, picking up on Bill’s very important emphasis on whistleblowers, Bill Black is on the advisor board of exposefacts.org, which is part of the Institute for Public Accuracy where I work. And anybody who’s listening and watching right now our discussion, or if you know anybody who has documents or obtains documents or other information, we have a secure drop, so it can be provided to us without us even knowing the source of the documents you send. And it’s very easy, just go to our website exposefacts.org.
KIM BROWN: Gentlemen, I wanted to ask you both about Trump’s pick to be Secretary of State, former CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson. As you both know, the Attorney Generals of both New York State and the State of Massachusetts have subpoenaed Exxon for 40 years’ worth of documents and I believe Maura Healey in Massachusetts actually just won the right to obtain these documents that expose what Exxon knew about climate change, about what they knew about what their product was doing that was detrimental to the environment. And both of these Attorney Generals, both Schneiderman in New York State and Healey in Massachusetts, have said, “Well, this is just an inquiry. We’re just trying to gain the facts.” But it would appear as if they’re setting it up for something larger, perhaps a law suit against Exxon because, as the AGs say, that you’re not allowed to defraud the public and your shareholders and the investors about your product if it is indeed harmful.
So how could Rex Tillerson be implicated possibly in this? Should he become Secretary of State, should he get confirmation from the Senate, what kind of impact would that have if he is, indeed, part of a type of litigation brought by these States against ExxonMobil? Let’s go with Norman, first, Bill, and you pick it up at the end.
NORMAN SOLOMON: I think what you’re referring to is potentially extremely important. As well as politically, it would be crucial for the fate of the Earth, in terms of climate. And the Democratic Party, including the most visible members of the House and Senate, I think have taken, on the whole with some exceptions, the wrong approach to Tillerson. Because the emphasis should be, I think, twofold: that he has been running a corporation that has been, as much as any other entity on the planet, responsible for lying about climate change, deceiving the public, and proceeding with destruction of our ecosystem. And that should be a big focus, as well as how he epitomizes, if he’s going to be Secretary of State, the merger of corporate power, which is fundamentally undemocratic, and those who are running the U.S. government.
So on both counts the Democrats in Congress and elsewhere and all of us should be pushing on both of those crucial aspects. This is a corporatocracy, kleptocracy, approach to make him Secretary of State and it’s also an approach to destroy the planet. But instead, it’s been about bashing Russia. And he gets along with Putin. And as though it’s bad for countries that have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other to not be in a conflict. So I think, on the whole, with some exceptions, Democrats have been attacking Tillerson for exactly the wrong reasons.
KIM BROWN: Bill, your thoughts about Rex Tillerson and also, let’s not forget, while he was CEO of ExxonMobil he continued to do business with countries that were under U.S.-imposed sanctions. So, Bill, what’s Rex Tillerson’s tenure as Secretary of State, should he be confirmed, what could this look like?
BILL BLACK: And, by the way, lied about it in his confirmation hearings. That is actually the useful stuff that’s come out on Russia — Tillerson taking the position that Exxon never opposed the sanctions and never did anything, even if it did oppose the sanctions, both of which are bald-faced lies and should simply, on those grounds, disqualify him.
Okay, so the historical context of this is what the tobacco companies did. The tobacco companies ginned up fake research and hid the results of real research and demanded, and successfully demanded, changes in research they funded to… when the results came back honestly and found that tobacco was causing major health problems. And this allowed them to stall the public response to the dangers of smoking by a quarter century. And it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and, of course, it isn’t just that it kills you, it causes great diminution in your life enjoyment with emphysema and heart attacks and all kinds of things like that.
And this is absolutely documented now that this was a systematic effort, even created a fake entity purportedly to do research that was designed, in fact, to prevent the truth from being known. Well, that’s the charge being laid against the major energy companies, most particularly Exxon, which has been funding all this climate denial research and then denying that it has done so and has tried to have cutouts.
So several attorney generals have gone after them, all Democrats, and several Republican attorney generals are actively trying to prevent that. And Congressional Republicans at the national level, federal government, are actively through subpoena trying to screw up the ability to bring these kinds of actions effectively. And the guy who’s going to be Attorney General of the United States, if he’s confirmed, was one of those people leading those kinds of efforts against the public when he was AG. And the guy’s who’s going to be Energy Secretary, if he gets confirmed… I’m sorry, not Energy Secretary but… Also, the Georgian was heavily involved in trying to prevent any — so the EPA — enforcement of the laws. So it’s poised, the Congressional Republicans are clearly going to try to stop these investigations. And I think you can expect the Attorney General of the United States, to claim preemption. And I actually bet that he’s going to seek an injunction against the State AGs pursuing those laws.
KIM BROWN: Wow. I mean, that would be an interesting fight between–
BILL BLACK: To answer your question about Tillerson. Tillerson, of course, would be the leading witness.
KIM BROWN: How about that? To defense of himself and, of course, the company that he spent his entire career working at–
BILL BLACK: No, he’d be the leading witness for the prosecution.
KIM BROWN: Oh, indeed, okay.
BILL BLACK: Because if he answered honestly he would absolutely indict the corporation. And if he fails to answer honestly, of course, that could lead to perjury charges.
KIM BROWN: Bill, stay on this for a moment because I read something recently — and there’s been so much floating around, my apologies, I’m not able reference it off my brain where I saw it — but did I read this correctly? That Rex Tillerson has agreed to step away from ExxonMobil operations for the duration of one year? Was that part of his separation agreement with the company and him signing on or, I guess, agreeing to be Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State. Is that accurate?
BILL BLACK: Well, really high-level government officials do have a one-year prohibition anyway, through the federal government of anything involving… You’re not even supposed to take a job with an entity that has got litigation or permits in front of the agency that you’ve run. Now, that’s less clear with the State Department than if you were running energy. But, these kind of folks, they want to take a vacation for a year anyway, when they leave what they euphemistically refer to as government service.
KIM BROWN: Yeah, but don’t you think that Rex Tillerson thinks that he might be Secretary of State longer than the period of just one year?
BILL BLACK: Oh, don’t worry about that. He can stay as long… I mean, Exxon would be delighted to have their guy running the State Department for a whole bunch of years. And, in this case, part of that reason is they stand to make an unbelievable amount of money if they can get sanctions against Russia lifted. So, I mean, this is going to literally be worth billions dollars, tens of billions probably, to Exxon if Tillerson can get those sanctions lifted on Russia.
KIM BROWN: Well, we’re getting the word here in the studio that the White House climate change website has already disappeared after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. So Donald Trump not wasting any time pushing his world view on climate change in the sense that he’s disappearing this website. So perhaps, he’s signaling to everyone that he does believe that climate change is a hoax and that it does not exist, and it’s not the cataclysmic event that it’s being made out to be. Your thoughts about this action less than an hour after being inaugurated?
BILL BLACK: Smog is the enemy of transparency.
KIM BROWN: Norman?
NORMAN SOLOMON: It’s reminiscent of what happened when Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, immediately taking the solar panels that Jimmy Carter put up, taking them down. And, you know, it underscores — and I’m sort of having very sad flashbacks to 1980-’81 when I supported Barry Commoner for President — there’s this mythology that, unfortunately becomes sometimes a bit popular among some segments of the left that it doesn’t matter whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House. And, as we learned through eight years of the Reagan regime, and as I think we are very sadly learning through the confirmation process of various cabinet members for the Trump administration, it’s really, as I think Noam Chomsky has pointed out, nonsense when people say it doesn’t matter whether you have the Democratic candidate for President or the Republican candidate for President winning and getting to the Oval Office. And, I mean, this is a mythology that is quite dangerous and we’re going to have to deal with it.
KIM BROWN: Let’s talk about the level of petty that Donald Trump brings to the Office of the President. Because as we were listening to his speech — and this is how I interpreted what he said — but he had a line in there about politicians who were all just talk, talk, talk, and no action. And we know that earlier in the week and late last week, he found himself embroiled in a bit of a feud with Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, where he tweeted about Congressman Lewis that he was all talk and no action. And he tweeted this during Martin Luther King’s federal holiday weekend, which a lot of people saw a lot of irony in that, but also brought Martin Luther King’s son to Trump Tower to seemingly try to smooth this out — Martin Luther King, Jr., III — which again was a bit ironic considering that John Lewis has probably known Martin Luther King III his entire life.
So what are your thoughts about this President calling out enemies in public, on social media, also so-called picking winners and losers when the CEO of the outdoor outfitter company L.L. Bean came out in support of Donald Trump and he told people to go support L.L. Bean? So what do we take about Donald Trump having this bully pulpit to not only call out his enemies but try to elevate people, companies, that are seemingly in support of him and his agenda?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I would say that the line that you’ve just flagged from this speech, the Inaugural Address today by Trump, was one of the nastiest. Because it was a rather ill-cloaked attempt to jab back at John Lewis. And it’s just a sort of doubling down on what clearly is a contempt for one of the greatest movements in the history of our country, the civil rights movement. As for the other aspect of, you know, the carrots that Trump tweets out and uses, and apparently intends to continue to use, to promote certain businesses and tycoons who he likes, it’s both a bad process and a metaphor for the further merger of the federal government and wealthy individuals as well as corporations. And one doesn’t want to throw the ‘F’ word of fascism around lightly but the similarities with the historically fascist merger in some societies of the business, the wealthy classes, and the government, it’s a parallel that should really disturb us and we’ve got to push back on.
KIM BROWN: Bill Black, is Donald Trump going to be the pettiest President in the history of the United States of America?
BILL BLACK: Yes, because he’s fundamentally not serious and he’s fundamentally lazy. So he can’t be bothered to learn the facts and the issues which, if you were President, would tend to have you working 16 hours a day, and then dragging yourself asleep regretting the 20,000 things you didn’t get to that day. But that’s not The Donald and it’s not the bully pulpit, it’s simply the bully.
And you’re going to see dominance games because this is someone who fundamentally knows that there’s no there there, when it comes to Donald Trump. And the real dangers will be twofold: One is the resumption of the enemies list approach of Richard Nixon where Trump is pretty clearly going to use it to go after people, “it” being the Office(?).
But also the danger, of course, of the famous phrase, “Will no one rid me of this accursed priest?” So you can imagine Donald Trump ranting and raving about somebody and then to mid-level folks going, “Hey. What will make our boss happy and get us promoted?” So even if Trump isn’t directing in person the retaliation, he’s got precisely the folks around him who don’t believe in the rule of law, who don’t fundamentally believe in America or democracy, who believe that they are entitled to all this power, who believe that billionaires are populists — which is the most hilarious thing a cabinet of billionaires as a supposed populist regime. All of whom with massive conflicts of interest, who are dedicated to making themselves wealthy.
And, as we’ve seen throughout the campaign, Trump never loses an opportunity to try to publicize his personal business and make himself wealthier. And his refusal to disclose his taxes and his refusal to divest, instead keeping these obvious massive conflicts of interest, again, we are desperately going to need the whistleblowers. And let me absolutely add in, yes, use these services. Use the drop box. Use other folks. We need to create bigger, stronger networks to not only encourage the whistleblowers but to protect the whistleblowers and particularly to publicize and explain the importance of their disclosures. Because I think there’s going to be literally thousands of these abuses taking place, especially at the levels that are below public eye.
KIM BLACK: That’s Bill Black. He’s an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He’s also a white-collar criminologist. We’ve also been joined with Norman Solomon. He is the Founding Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and the Co-Founder of the national group rootsaction.org.
Gentlemen, we appreciate you both joining us on this ahem, historic day for the United States of America. We appreciate your expertise. Thank you.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you.
BILL BLACK: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network and our live coverage of Inauguration 2017, the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. We will have far more analysis of Trump, his cabinet picks, and how the country is going to adapt moving forward. I’m Kim Brown. On behalf of Sharmini Peries and Paul Jay, we appreciate you watching today. Thank you.