Washington Faces Its Biggest Fear: The Unknown

Washington, DC at night – as seen from outer space.

Credit: Scott Kelly on the ISS

Washington Faces Its Biggest Fear: The Unknown

January 9, 2017

Official Washington is nervous. The day is coming soon, when Donald Trump takes the oath of office and takes over the massive executive branch of the federal government. Every change to a new administration, with its attendant new appointees and procedures, always causes consternation and angst inside the Beltway, where people rely heavily on established relationships and routines. But this feels like a different order of magnitude. This feels like a train entering a dark, unknown tunnel with no hint of what’s on the other side.

A symbol has emerged for it: 89-year-old Charlie Brotman. Brotman, a former announcer for the old Washington Senators baseball team, has served as parade announcer for every inauguration since Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1957. He was ready and willing to serve again, but Trump, unlike all those Presidents of the past 60 years, has asked someone else to do it.

Trump, simply put, can’t be counted on to do anything the way it was done before. He isn’t likely to even know how it was done, let alone care, based on his life experience, his campaign, and what we’ve seen of his transition. And, he doesn’t seem interested in listening to anyone who does know, or care. Trump’s cabinet appointments include many without Washington experience. More importantly, some of his top White House staff and advisors come from outside government, including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Katie Walsh, Kellyanne Conway, and Hope Hicks.

So, if you hold office or do business with the federal government, or work for those who do, come January 20th you’re no longer sure about much of anything. You’re not sure who to contact for things you need, or what procedures to follow.

Which is, to a large extent, as millions of Americans wanted it. Putting aside the popular vote deficit, the Russian meddling, the FBI publicizing its investigation, and the rest of it, and the fact remains that voters finally acted on the “shake up Washington” impulse they’ve talked about for years. People sent Trump to do things differently, to take a wrecking ball to business as usual in national politics, and hope for something better to emerge from the rubble.

In theory, there could be benefits from such a shake-up of norms. Bureaucracies, procedures, and personnel can often use re-thinking. There are often good reasons, discovered over the years, for the seemingly illogical or inefficient way things are done—but “Because that’s how it’s done” shouldn’t always be enough of a reason to use a parade announcer, or to maintain an F-15 contract.

Voters are also responsible for many of the partisan and ideological fears in Washington. They have paired a Republican President with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Yes, that means Democrats have few allies in positions of influence on Capitol Hill, and liberals will see little of their policy agendas advanced. Sure, lobbyists and staffers with strong Obama-world contacts will see demand for their services fade, while lines form to hire anyone linked to Trump’s inner circle. (Politico just reported on the D.C. paydays being enjoyed by Corey Lewandowski and other Trump alumnae.) That’s what happens; welcome to the world of Republicans in 2009, when Obama entered office with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Like conservatives then, liberals will have important policy battles to fight, both in Congress and throughout the executive branch. That will be critical to watch—as it always is in a politically divided country.

All that said, there are very good reasons for anyone, especially in the world of Washington politics and government, to genuinely worry about the unknown nature of the upcoming Trump administration. I would break those concerns into three categories; trying to keep an eye on all of them will keep all of us busy for the next four years.


Nobody in our memory has entered this nation’s most corruptible office with such a massive capacity for corruption. Trump has tentacled conflicts of interest—from ongoing business interests to outstanding debts—that span the globe and intersect with powerful people who hold interests with, and against, American interests.

Disturbingly, many of those conflicts remain undisclosed. Trump, unlike incoming Presidents before him, has not revealed his tax returns or placed his assets into a blind trust. We don’t know whether those particular rejections of Presidential norm are intended to facilitate corruption, but we also don’t know that they aren’t.

We also have reason to view warily the governmental involvement of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. The former will reportedly work out of the traditional First Lady’s office; the latter is poised to play a major inner-circle White House role. Neither has done much to assuage concerns about their conflicts of interests.

Nor do we have any comforting history of how Trump has handled the potential corruptions of public office before, or how he cracks down on corruption among those working for him. It’s not helping matters that his top cabinet appointees have failed to supply disclosures to the Office of Government—and that Trump’s spokespeople, in response, have dismissed such disclosures as unimportant.

Most disturbingly, though, is the sense that Trump has little if any appreciation for the accepted limits of Presidential power—crucial limits that restrict a President’s ability to abuse the federal government to commit and cover up misbehavior. Trump has seemed to believe, for instance, that the President can instruct the Attorney General on whom to prosecute, or not prosecute. That was a line that Richard Nixon tried to cross in protection of his misdeeds.


Trump’s lack of knowledge and experience about the federal government was understood by voters, who presumed that his strength as a business leader would lead to better people and practices. That hope may prove out. But, it’s not as if the bankruptcy-strewn history of his business practices provides much assurance.

Trump’s refusal to acknowledge any error or failure adds to the concern. He seems more likely to cover up or paper over incompetence than call it out and make changes.

Already, the selection of some questionable people to important offices raises doubts about Trump’s capacity to recognize and hire competent people. I would point to Ben Carson, Ryan Zinke, Betsy DeVos, and Monica Crowley as a few examples. Even many of those with experience running large organizations are newcomers to Washington, and may have trouble transferring their skills to this arena.

That’s just at the top; even greater problems may creep in as the new administration rushes to fill the rest of its political appointments. They will apparently be limiting their own hiring pool, according to reports that Trump wants to freeze out those who opposed his candidacy.

Adding to the potential problem, there is speculation that a significant number of non-political employees throughout the government agencies will resign rather than work for Trump.

The departure of experienced bureaucrats, combined with the influx of leadership unfamiliar with Washington’s ways, could lead to fresh, new thinking—or, agencies and departments lost and confused. That can lead to all manner of problems in how the government works.


The Trump campaign made a lot of people nervous about scapegoating those who are not white, Christian, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied—with legitimate reason. Those fears have, perhaps, faded a bit into the background during the hectic transition, but have certainly not gone away.

Those worries about discrimination might play out in some legislative debates. But, they could also bubble up in many ways and places, harder to track and protest than a bill in Congress.

Federal government departments and agencies foster equality—or fail to—in many ways, both in the industries they regulate and within their own walls. Federal agencies can place the equitable treatment, and protection of those discriminated against high on their priority list, or not. That trickles down into how traditionally discriminated-against groups are treated in employment, borrowing, housing, health care, education, and travel.

There are also more than 4 million federal employees (roughly a third in the military), whose protections against discrimination were strengthened under Obama, and many more working for federal contractors, who have also had some protections extended to them.

It’s also notable that blacks, Hispanics, and women are woefully underrepresented in the leadership of both the Trump administration and the Republicans controlling Congress—a lack of voices at the table with unknown effects.

But perhaps the most dangerous potential change could come throughout the country, from those who feel emboldened to discriminate after Trump takes office.

That is difficult to predict, and to monitor. But there are plenty of reasons for concern, based on Trump’s winking approval of the worst forms of hatred tucked away in the country. Perhaps his responses and public statements, and those of administration officials, will become more sympathetic of those facing discrimination, and more critical of those advocating or inflicting harm. For now, that remains at best another unknown. 

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