These are topsy-turvy times in American politics, with florid, conflicting pronouncements emanating from the White House, familiar verities upended, and commentators at a loss to find new superlatives for unprecedented this and first-time-ever that. So maybe it’s no surprise that three of our culture’s most maligned professions are now poised to be saviors of the republic. I’m talking about lawyers, journalists, and bureaucrats — favorite targets of scorn even before the rising wave of anti-establishment sentiment lobbed Donald Trump into the presidency.
Whether it is health care coverage, the rights of immigrants and religious minorities, or the fate of the planet, the radical reordering of American values advanced by President Trump is meeting its match in the courts, the press, and among the 2.1 million “unelected” federal employees. Lawsuits have slowed or derailed Trump’s proposed travel ban, his US-Mexico border wall, his oil drilling in protected Arctic waters, and more recently, his data sweep of state voting records. Newspapers are documenting the conflicts among Trump’s appointees as they seek to dismantle protective health and safety regulations at the bidding of their former paymasters. Anonymous whistle-blowers are thwarting corporate interests enabled or emboldened by Trump’s agenda.
Consider just these three recent examples in the environmental arena, nearly lost in the daily news clutter:
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to suspend a rule imposing limits on leaks of methane from oil and natural gas wells. Methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. As with several other Obama-era protections, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt wanted to roll back the rule unilaterally, without public notice or comment period, and claimed that his action was not subject to court review. The federal judges begged to differ, calling Pruitt’s efforts “unreasonable” and “capricious.”
In April, after a crusading bi-weekly newspaper exposed its hazards, a waste-hauling company withdrew a plan to dump 10,000 tons of coal ash per day in a private landfill in Wayne County, Georgia. With a tiny staff, the Press-Sentinel of Jesup, Ga., (circulation 6,000) published more than 75 stories and scores of editorials, and the paper’s owner even hired environmental lawyers at his own expense. Although the dumping plan was contractually legal, area residents had mostly been unaware of its magnitude and risks, and the waste hauler wasn’t sharing. “They thought we were just a little podunk community newspaper and they could just roll over us,” Press-Sentinel reporter Derby Waters told the National Newspaper Association.
In June, after EPA staffers warned that Trump appointees might manipulate or delete years of scientific data on climate change — and indeed, after the administration purged certain pages from the EPA’s website — at least 14 cities, including Boston, re-posted the information. The deleted documents included data sets on rising global temperatures and fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions. EPA employees have reason to be concerned: Trump’s proposed budget would cut the agency’s funding by 30 percent, more than any other agency, and Pruitt has been openly hostile to the agency he’s now appointed to oversee. Still, leaked memos about programs targeted for elimination (like water quality testing at public beaches) probably are just the start.
And does anyone doubt the daily drip-drip of revelations about the Trump campaign’s flirtation with Russian operatives is coming from people inside government appalled by what they see?
It’s easy to despair about the future of the country with a rampaging bull in the nation’s china shop. So it’s good to remember that American institutions of justice, accountability, and professionalism are carrying on. Despite the imprecations of the Trump administration, most Americans know that the courts, the press, and career civil servants are not “enemies of the people.” In due time, I predict they will be hailed as heroes.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.