Just before his inauguration six months ago, Donald Trump said in a news conference that pharmaceutical companies are "getting away with murder."
Trump correctly noted that "we're the largest buyer of drugs in the world, and yet we don't bid properly" because of a law that bars the government from negotiating with drug companies and lowering prices for Medicare beneficiaries.
But President Trump quickly changed his tune. After a meeting with Big Pharma executives in February, he backed down on his tough talk. This summer, this shameful retreat accelerated as evidenced by leaked White House documents detailing potential regulatory rollbacks sought by the industry but omitting any steps to lower drug prices.
Why the turnaround? White House aide Joe Grogan, a former lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Gilead, played a key role in this move, according to Kaiser Health News, which reported that the documents contained text "cribbed directly from policy papers" published by the main pharmaceutical industry lobbying group.
Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt met with Dow Chemical's CEO just before deciding not to ban a Dow pesticide from being sprayed on food. Nancy Beck, a new official who formerly worked at a chemical industry lobbying group, played a key role in watering down the implementation of a crucial toxic chemicals rule, clashing with career experts in the process. And a coal industry lawyer appears likely to take the No. 2 job at EPA, beating out a coal industry lobbyist also considered for the job.
These examples are representative rather than exceptional. Corporate America has captured the Trump administration. Public Citizen's research has found that more than 70% of Trump's picks for top sub-Cabinet jobs have clear corporate ties.
In Trump's Washington, the populism of the campaign has been overtaken by conventional corporate cronyism on a grand scale. After his famous pledge to "drain the swamp," Trump issued a weak executive order allowing former lobbyists to immediately join the administration and then granted waivers to top White House staffers that render the ethics rules largely meaningless.
For example, the White House concluded that it is "in the public interest" for Andrew Olmem, a White House aide who formerly lobbied MetLife, American Express and a major insurance trade group, to work on banking and insurance issues. It made the same conclusion about Michael Catanzaro, a former energy lobbyist who now works on energy policy at the White House.
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Outside the White House, it's not even clear if the administration is even bothering with ethics waivers. More than 30 former lobbyists in the Trump administration work on the same issues they lobbied on over the past two years and have not received a waiver.
Conflicts are appearing all over government: Auto industry lobbyists are setting transportation policy. Boeing has a top perch at the Department of Defense. Wall Street bankers and their lawyers are in control of economic policy and financial regulations.
At the Department of Justice, the administration nominated Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who represented BP in the Gulf disaster, to run the environmental division. Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce attacking environmental, consumer and labor regulations. Noel Francisco, nominated to be solicitor general, represented the tobacco industry.
Corporate influence extends to the President's daily schedule. Trump clearly enjoys the company of the corporate class. Since his inauguration, he has had 319 meetings with at least 260 corporate executives, including some repeat meetings, according to Public Citizen's tally.
These totals do not even include his reported frequent telephone conversations with Blackstone's Steve Schwarzman and other CEOs or his more casual interactions with corporate leaders at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where the membership fee is now $200,000.
During the presidential campaign, Trump proclaimed, "Our campaign is about breaking up the special interest monopoly in Washington, D.C."
This claim should have seemed improbable coming from a flamboyant New York real-estate developer who once hawked Angus steaks, but tens of millions of Americans bought into Trump's promise. They were justifiably upset at a government that works for the powerful rather than the people.
But Trump has made a mockery of his pledge, bringing the same corporate lobbyists he denounced into the government. Now, working through their former employees and representatives, giant corporations are designing and carrying out policy to an extent unequaled in American history.