It’s virtually impossible to watch an interview with Jeffrey Lord, one of CNN’s principal “Trump Whisperers,” when he doesn’t invoke the name of Ronald Reagan, in whose White House he reportedly worked as an Associate Political Director. In fact, each time CNN comes to him in a remote from his office, there’s a smiling picture of “Dutch” over his shoulder, as if to remind us of the parallels between the 40th President of the United States and the 45th.
A year ago on the eve of the first GOP primary debate, Lord celebrated Trump’s outsider status in an interview for The Telegraph: “The establishment critics said the exact-same things about Reagan, down to the very words sometimes” Lord said, comparing him to Trump. “Reagan was ridiculed as ‘not serious’, and a ‘B-movie actor’, and they said over and over he could never win – until he did. It’s happening again, I really feel it.”
Now it has happened and Tuesday night we were treated to an uncharacteristically Reagan-like moment in the East Room when Donald Trump introduced Neil Gorsuch, his pick to fill the seat Antonin Scalia left vacant two weeks shy of a year ago. It was the Ninth Justice position the GOP-controlled Senate steadfastly refused to fill despite President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland on March 16th.
Trump’s nod to Gorsuch was a break from the chaos-presidency of the last thirteen days, driven by crises of the President’s own making, from his obsession with crowd sizes to his baseless assertion of three to five million fraudulent votes and the bungled rollout of Friday night’s executive order — alternately described as a Muslim ban and not a ban — to the Monday Night Massacre in which he took the heads of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and Acting ICE Director Daniel Ragsdale.
And who needs Jeffrey Lord to make the Reagan comparisons when the website of The President’s own self-styled Darth Vader, Steve Bannon ran a piece Monday under the bold-faced headline: TRUMP’S PATCO MOMENT: EMANATING (SIC) REAGAN, THE PRESIDENT TAKES CONTROL OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO ‘PROTECT THE COUNTRY AND ITS CITIZENS.’
Wait a second. Hold on. Time Out. Hit the Pause Button.
As one who covered Reagan’s presidency for ABC News, I’m here to argue that before The Gipper is further lionized we need to flashback to The Eighties with chilling hindsight and remember the kind of damage many of his decisions and appointments did to “this country and its citizens.”
Consider three of the stories I covered for “Nightline” and “World News Tonight.’ Each one had life and death consequences: from close calls in the sky to nuclear weapons deployed without adequate testing to the toxic waste scandal that erupted after Mr. Reagan’s appointment of Neil’s mother to run the EPA.
THE FAA AND A SPIKE IN “NEAR MISSES”
In 1981 all 11,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization or PATCO went on strike, largely to improve working conditions and pay. In a historic effort to crush the union, Reagan fired them all. The impact was dangerous and immediate.
We began getting reports from airline pilots all over the country that the number of Near Mid-Air Collisions (NMACs) or “near misses,” was jumping dramatically. The Federal Aviation Administration defined a NMAC as any time two planes came within 500 feet or a pilot reported a collision danger.
In the course of reporting the piece, I interviewed Admiral Donald Engen, Reagan’s appointee as FAA Administrator. He assured our viewers, despite the skeleton crews of novice ATC’s in those towers, that the skies were safer than ever. Proof of that was his insistence that the number of near misses had been “reduced by 50% — cut in half in the last four years.” The 568 NMACs in 1980 when Reagan took office, he claimed, had been reduced, post-strike, to 297.
Since that didn’t sync with the reports we were getting from ALPA, The Airline Pilots Association, I filed a FOIA and with my associate producer Randy Prior sifted through hundreds of reports of NMACs and “runway incursions” from each of the FAA’s regional offices.
As it turned out, Admiral Engen had hit us with what Kellyanne Conway would now call “alternative facts.”
Not only had the number not gone down, but it had actually reached an all-time high of 583, more than twice the number Engen had bragged about. And nearly 100 of those close calls in the sky involved commercial airliners with hundreds of people on board.
The FAA explained the dramatically different stats by falsely claiming that “Not all of the earlier (Near Miss) reports had been sent to Washington from the (FAA) regions.” But we zoomed on a typical report to show the designation “NWC.” That meant that the report had, in fact, been sent to D.C. It was proof of another misstatement of fact or what bolder reporters today would call a “lie.”
At the end of my piece the late great Peter Jennings, read this tag: “After we told the FAA that Peter Lance’s report was going to be broadcast tonight the agency readjusted its Near Miss figures for 1984 from the 297 cited in December to 592 and that is the highest ever.”
RIGGING THE TESTS ON THE PERSHING II
Given President Trump’s statement on December 23rd threatening to upend the longstanding U.S. nonproliferation policy by expanding our “nuclear capability,” the story of how the U.S. Army rushed the development and deployment of The Pershing II missile on Reagan’s watch is another cautionary tale.
The Pershing II was advertised as a highly mobile, two-stage ballistic missile aimed at countering the Soviet’s SS-20, another missile-on-wheels that could be quickly deployed in what became a mini nuclear arms race in the early 80’s between America-NATO and the U.S.S.R.
After the Soviets put the SS-20 into the European theater of ops in 1975 NATO pressured the U.S. to deploy 464 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM’s) in the U.K. along with 108 Pershing II’s in Germany. The target date for the P II’s arrival was 1983, a full year earlier than the missile’s initial deployment date.
Given the dense population of Eastern Europe it was crucial that these nukes, if fired, wouldn’t go awry. So the Pershing II was sold as a weapon that could fly 1,000 miles in 10 minutes and drop its nuclear payload on a target with “surgical precision” and “minimum collateral damage.”
But just as in the PATCO story, word began to leak out from sources that the testing process for this Weapon of Mass Destruction was highly flawed.
First I discovered that the Army and the designer Martin-Marietta, had begun producing the missile 16 months ahead of schedule. To meet their deadlines they’d not only compressed the original testing schedule from 28 to 18, but the Army itself admitted that 4 of those scaled-back tests were “failures.”
As I started to dig, I soon learned that the Pentagon’s spin on this testing process made the FAA’s cook-of-the-books on Near Mid Air Collisions look small time.
Not only did the once SECRET reports I found prove that 5 more of the tests were semi-failures, but I turned up a 19th test in which a “failure to ignite” caused an “automatic shutdown” on the launch pad. That test wasn’t even counted.
Worse, this WMD with a blast yield of 5 to 80 kilotons was never given a successful “all-up” test to include the two-stage solid-fuel rocket system and the radar-correlated payload.
When I interviewed Rep. Joseph Addabbo (D-NY) then chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, this is what he had to say:
“When you have less than a 50 per cent success rate in its tests and you have four complete failures and five semi-failures, to deploy a weapon as dangerous as a nuclear missile with that kind of record, is absolutely wrong.” In making that statement Addabbo underscored the importance of congressional oversight on a President. In those days the Democrats controlled the U.S. House while the GOP ruled the Senate.
That struggle between the Executive Branch and a divided Congress, brings us to our final story on the undoing of Anne Gorsuch Burford.
THE “ICE QUEEN” OF THE EPA
Starting out in government as a Deputy D.A. in Denver, Gorsuch served in the Colorado House for four years, where she was a member of a group of conservative lawmakers known as the “House Crazies. It was a clique that The Washington Post reported was “intent on permanently changing government.” Sound familiar?
After she worked on Reagan’s transition team he named Gorsuch to run The Environmental Protection Agency. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on May 5th 1981 and like Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s controversial nominee to head the agency now, she believed that the EPA was too big, too anti-business and in radical need of downsizing.
Dubbed “The Ice Queen,” Gorsuch was a year into her tenure when Congress demanded that she turn over records on the EPA’s administration of the $1.6 billion dollar Superfund, a program earmarked to clean up millions of gallons of toxic waste nationwide.
She refused and soon became the first agency director in U.S. history cited for contempt of Congress.
As it turned out, Gorsuch had a lot to hide. After cutting the EPA’s staff, hiring a lawyer from Exxon as her chief counsel and an attorney from GM as her chief enforcement officer she supported the appointment of Rita LaVelle to administer the SuperFund.
Lavelle’s hiring turned out to be one of the greatest “fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop” moves in decades, since a principal SuperFund site was the 32 million gallon Stringfellow Acids Pits in Glen Avon, California. Among the 224 polluters who’d dumped hazardous waste at the Pits was Aerojet General Corporation. Who do you suppose was Aerojet’s principal lobbyist from 1979 to 1982?
Drum roll… Rita Lavelle.
After legendary EPA analyst Hugh Kaufman blew the whistle, Lavelle was indicted for lying to Congress about just when she’d learned that her old employer Aerojet was dumping at the Stringfellow site. Ultimately fired by President Reagan she was later sentenced to 6 months in prison and fined $10,000.
But that wasn’t her only stretch. In 2005, decades after leaving the EPA, Lavelle was sentenced to 15 additional months for orchestrating a scheme to fraudulently obtain money from a client who’d hired her company to assist in a SuperFund cleanup.
Talk about a swamp that needed draining.
But at the time Lavelle was appointed, Anne Gorsuch praised her for bringing, “over 12 years of professional experience in state government and private industry to the agency.”
Gorsuch herself resigned 13 months later after that contempt citation. Following her departure, a regional EPA official was quoted as saying “the agency is in shambles.”
HOW FAR DOES THE APPLE FALL?
There’s little doubt that 49-year old Neil Gorsuch, an Ivy League and Oxford educated jurist and legal scholar, shares his mother’s pro-business/anti regulation sentiments. While a few Progressives have already weighed in with their support, Judge Gorsuch’s Hobby-Lobby opinion against contraception coverage under The Affordable Care Act signals that Roe vs. Wade could be in serious jeopardy.
If Donald Trump gets his way with Scott Pruitt as he has with former Exxon/Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson, now at State, it’s a good bet that once 45’s Cabinet members start to dismantle the very agencies they run or roll back the health & safety regs, Justice Gorsuch, once confirmed, will adhere to his mother’s ethos and back their play.
If you have any doubts, remember Ronald Reagan, the man Jeffrey Lord predicts Donald Trump will emulate. Long before his hyper-spending on defense drove the Soviets toward Perestroika and Glasnost, there was his union-busting firing of the air traffic controllers, his rush to deploy an unreliable nuclear weapons system in Germany and his staggeringly misguided EPA appointments. Thin about all that, then imagine the damage another pro-corporation justice can do on The U.S. Supreme Court.