Michael Lewis writes: To prepare for the transition after the 2016 election the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s staff had created elaborate briefings for the incoming Trump administration. Their written material alone came to 2,300 pages, in 13 volumes. A lot of people who work in the Department of Agriculture grew up on or around farms. They like to think of the Department of Agriculture as a nice, down-to-earth bureaucracy. They consider themselves more bipartisan, and less ideological, than people at the other federal agencies. “Our plan was to be as hospitable as possible,” said one of the transition planners. “We made sure the office space was gorgeous.”
To make the Trump people feel at home the U.S.D.A. people had set aside the nicest rooms on the top floor of the nicest building, with the nicest view of the National Mall. They had fished out of storage the most beautiful photographs from the U.S.D.A.’s impressive collection and hung them on the walls. They had brought in computers and office supplies, and organized a bunch of new workstations. When they heard that Joel Leftwich, the guy Trump wanted to lead his U.S.D.A. transition team, had been a lobbyist for PepsiCo, they brought in a mini-fridge stocked with Pepsis. That was just the way they were at the U.S.D.A. They didn’t think: How the fuck can people paid to push sugary drinks on American kids be let anywhere near the federal department with the most influence on what American kids eat? Instead they thought: I hear he’s a nice guy!
No one showed up that first day after the election, or the next. This was strange: the day after he was elected, Obama had sent his people into the U.S.D.A., as had Bush. At the end of the second day the folks at the Department of Agriculture called the White House to ask what was going on. “The White House said they’d be here Monday,” recalled one. On Monday morning they worked themselves up all over again into a welcoming spirit. Again, no one showed. Not that entire week. On November 22, Leftwich made a cameo appearance for about an hour. “We had thought, Rural America is who got Trump elected, so he’ll have to make us a priority,” said the transition planner, “but then nothing happened.” (The U.S.D.A. did not respond to questions from Vanity Fair.)
More than a month after the election, the Trump transition team finally appeared. But it wasn’t a team: it was just one guy, named Brian Klippenstein. He came from his job running an organization called Protect the Harvest. Protect the Harvest was founded by a Trump supporter, an Indiana oilman and rancher named Forrest Lucas. Its stated purpose was “to protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat, and own animals.” In practice it mainly demonized organizations, like the Humane Society, that sought to prevent people who owned animals from doing terrible things to them. They worried, apparently, that if people were forced to be kind to animals they might one day cease to eat them. “This is a weird group,” says Rachael Bale, who writes often about animal welfare for National Geographic.
One of the U.S.D.A.’s many duties was to police conflicts between people and animals. It brought legal action against people who abused animals, and so maybe it wasn’t the ideal place to insert a man who was preternaturally unconcerned with their welfare. The department maintained its composure—no nasty leaks to the press, no resignations in protest—even as Klippenstein focused, bizarrely, on a single issue. Not animal abuse but climate change. “He came in and wanted to know all about the office on climate change,” says a former U.S.D.A. employee. “That’s what he wanted to focus on. He wanted the names of the people doing the work.” The career staffer running the transition politely declined to give Klippenstein the names, but he said he bore no ill will toward him for asking. Klip—as he became known affectionately—had reassured everyone by saying, to anyone who would listen, that just as soon as this transition was over he was going straight back to his small livestock farm in Missouri. Bless his heart! Everything on the farm was still normal! (And just you never mind why Uncle Joe likes to be alone with his favorite sheep.)
It was obvious to everyone inside the U.S.D.A. that Klip was in an impossible position; no one person could get his mind around all the things the department did. Just a couple of weeks before the inauguration, Klip was joined by three other Trump people. The four-person team made a show of sitting down with some of the roughly 100,000-person U.S.D.A. staff to hear what they had to say. These briefings lived up to their name: the entire introduction to the U.S.D.A.’s vast scientific-research unit lasted an hour. “At most of the federal agencies, there were no real briefings,” says a former senior White House official who watched the process closely. “They were basically for show. The Trump transition sent in these teams in the end just to say they were doing it.” [Continue reading…]