Tag Archives: institutional sabotage

Is Corruption at Interior Putting the Boundary Waters At Risk?


On the afternoon of Friday, December 22nd, with Congress in recess and most Americans already starting their holiday celebrations, the Department of the Interior issued a 19-page legal memorandum reversing hard-won, eleventh-hour Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Signed by Interior’s Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Memo M-37049 allows Twin Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Plc, to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands where it proposes to mine copper, nickel, and other minerals for the next 100 years.

Even one year of mining would scar the land, destroy wetlands, wreck the forest and fill it with industrial noise, and pollute the water. And this kind of mining — sulfide mining — always risks major environmental catastrophe, long after a mine is closed and the land reclaimed. After a brief reprieve, the Twin Metals project is again threatening this unique public wilderness area, along with the thriving tourist and outdoor economy that has grown up around it.

The reversal was immediately met with allegations of corrupt dealing. In a statement calling the move by Interior “shameful,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton cried foul.

A December 22nd headline in the Wall Street Journal offered what appeared to be a straightforward explanation: cronyism. “Trump Administration to Grant Mining Leases That Will Benefit Landlord of President’s Daughter Ivanka Trump.” But Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, whose family controls Antofagasta Plc, and who only after Trump’s election purchased the Washington, D.C. mansion Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent for $15,000 a month, claims never to have met his tenants, and says he met Donald Trump only once, at a New England Patriots game.

It’s unclear whether Luksic Craig’s denials can be taken at face value and whether they are enough to dispel the notion that the reversal was made directly to benefit Antofagasta or the Luksic family. What prompted the action? Who directed it? Who contributed to the memo, and who reviewed it? What conversations did Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, and other administrators have about the reversal, and with whom?

The public deserves clear answers to these questions, and last week, I submitted a FOIA request to the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior, to see if I might gain some insight into the process behind Memo M-37049. At the same time, it’s worth noting that these are not the only questions worth asking. Luksic Craig and his Washington, DC mansion may make good headlines, tabloid fodder, and Twitter snark, and there is no ignoring the whiff of impropriety about his real-estate dealings with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who also happen to be senior White House advisors. But that’s not the whole story here. A scandal involving Luksic-Craig and his tenants, or some direct dirty dealing between Antofagasta and Interior, might eventually come to light, but the prospect of such a scandal might also serve to distract us from other, large-scale corruption that continues to put the Boundary Waters — and other public lands and waters — at serious risk.

Put the reversal in context. Consider, for example, the Executive Order, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” that was issued just two days before the Boundary Waters reversal, and which, like the Interior memo, sets the stage for exploitation of mineral resources on public lands. The EO appeared to be the policy outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey of the country’s critical minerals resources published on December 19th; but Trump’s December 20th order was years, not one day, in the making.

The EO revives Obama-era legislative battles over so-called strategic and critical minerals and declares victory by executive fiat. Back in 2013, pro-mining measures introduced in both the House (HR 761) and the Senate (S 1600) promised to “streamline” the permitting process for multinational companies mining on federal lands, like Superior National Forest. The Obama administration opposed them on the grounds that they would allow mining companies to circumvent environmental review. Proponents of HR 761 called it cutting red tape; the resolution actually tried to shut the public out of the process. It touted jobs, but, as critics pointed out, provided no real strategy for creating them; and it hawked anti-Chinese hysteria of the kind that candidate Trump regularly advanced. (Tellingly, House Republicans rejected a motion that would have barred export to China of strategic and critical minerals produced under the HR 761 permit, in tacit acknowledgment that China drives global demand for copper and nickel.) Coming just two days after this EO, the Boundary Waters reversal looks less like a one-off favor to a Chilean billionaire, and more like a coordinated move in a broader campaign.

This subversion of public process is not just the dirty dealing of a few bad actors. It’s also the consequence of weakened institutions; and institutional sabotage — or what Steve Bannon pretentiously called the deconstruction of the administrative state — is the precursor to large-scale corruption. Scott Pruitt might still be the poster boy for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but Ryan Zinke appears to be pursuing a similar brief at Interior. Though his bungling of the offshore drilling announcement made him appear incompetent, he is making big changes to favor big mining. The Secretary has made it one of his agency’s top ten priorities to “ensure access to mineral resources” and committed to minimizing “conservation objectives” that interfere with extractive industrial development. His plan to shrink Bears Ears followed a map drawn by a uranium mining company. At Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte National Monuments, Zinke has virtually surrendered vast swaths of public lands to extractive industry.

The Boundary Waters reversal, too, looks like the work of institutional saboteurs. It settles a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior by conceding that the government should not have discretion over public lands when commercial interests are at stake. Its author, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, did a brief stint at Interior during George W. Bush’s second term, but it was his high profile job as Executive Director of the Koch Institute that distinguished him as the right man for Ryan Zinke’s Interior. As Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, notes, Jorjani was the Koch Institute’s very first hire, and among the five most highly compensated employees at the Charles Koch Foundation. Now, along with Scott Cameron and Benjamin Keel, Daniel Jorjani works with the team at Interior charged with “reviewing rules their previous employers tried to weaken or kill,” according to reporting by the New York Times and Pro Publica. Similar deregulation teams, “connected to private sector groups that interacted with or were regulated by their current agencies,” were formed at all administrative agencies. The teams put public institutions at the service of powerful patrons, subordinating public protections to private interests.

This capture and sabotage of government agencies compounds and multiplies risk, removing public safeguards and compromising appointed guardians. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the risk of irreversible damage and environmental catastrophe would extend far beyond the mining location, because mining in Superior National Forest would also significantly intensify the cumulative effects of the recent boom in leasing, exploration, and drilling throughout the Lake Superior watershed.

All around the greatest of the Great Lakes, the industrial footprint of sulfide mining operations is expanding rapidly. Just to the southwest of the Boundary Waters, for example, Polymet, a company that has never operated a mine before, proposes building an open pit copper and nickel mine that will require water treatment and tailings dam maintenance “in perpetuity” — that means forever. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is dismantling federal rules requiring hardrock mining companies to take financial responsibility for cleanup.

State regulatory agencies are poorly equipped to oversee these new projects. They often fail to give the public a meaningful voice in permitting, or obtain the required prior consent from the region’s Indigenous nations. For their part, many state politicians are racing to deregulate, or at least accommodate, the mining companies. Just this past October, Wisconsin republicans repealed the state’s Prove it First law, which required copper, nickel and gold miners to prove that they could operate and close a sulfide mine without producing acid mine drainage. (They never proved it.) In Michigan, where Canadian mining companies are moving aggressively into the Upper Peninsula, State Senator Tom Casperson has just proposed giving mining companies and other representatives of industry “disproportionate clout” in the review of environmental rules.

Obviously this all goes way beyond doling out favors to billionaire friends or cronies at Mar-A-Lago, and it didn’t start when the Trumps came to town. Until it is called out, voted out, and rooted out, corruption at this scale – coordinated, institutionalized, systemic – will make a mockery of rule-making and oversight, and put our public lands, as well as our public life, at risk.

Postscript: This January 10th article by Jimmy Tobias in the Pacific Standard takes a careful look at Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, which was obtained through a records request, and identifies two meetings with representatives of the Twin Metals mining project: a June 14, 2017 meeting with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals, and a July 25th meeting with Antofagasta Plc. I discuss these meetings in this follow up post.

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.