Playing favorites

Was the plutonium shipment Trump payback?

Plutonium was transferred from a Trump state to a Clinton state by the Trump administration. Trump is seen here in a file photo with Ronny Jackson, his physician who he appointed to head Veterans Affairs.

Plutonium was transferred from a Trump state to a Clinton state by the Trump administration. Trump is seen here in a file photo with Ronny Jackson, his physician who he appointed to head Veterans Affairs.

The Trump administration has long had a reputation for dealing roughly with those who supported Hillary Clinton for president—and the states that supported her.

In 2017, the business website MarketWatch reported, “Trump’s plan to end the federal deduction of state and local property taxes will strip a staggering $355 billion in annual deductions from people living in the states that voted for Hillary last November. That works out an average of $5,400 for each tax filer—single or joint—in those 20 states.”

About the same time, the Washington Post said, “Since gaining control of Washington, President Trump and Republicans in Congress have pushed an array of policies that tend to punish states that voted Democratic in last year’s presidential election.”

During the battles over repealing the Affordable Care Act, a Republican/Trump replacement measure had noticeably different impacts on funding for Trump and Clinton jurisdictions. Clinton states would have lost funding under the GOP bill, while Trump states would have gained.

Last month, Trump blocked oil drilling off the coast of Florida (Trump state) but not off the coasts of Virginia, Oregon or California (Clinton states).

On climate change, Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement was bad news particularly for coastal states, which tended to be Clinton states.

During the Camp Fire, when Trump was lecturing California on its forest treatments, most people wrote it off to ignorance on Trump’s part of the fire terrain. But radio host Thomas Hartmann wrote, “California is one of the most progressive and diverse states in America. Perhaps [that is] at least part of the reason that Donald Trump is threatening the Golden State by denying FEMA funds unless they rake their forest. Although forest management is an important part of stopping wildfires, especially as climate change creates more uncontrollable wild fires; it seems inconsistent with Donald Trump’s policy to care about this but consistent with Trump and Republican Party policy is [sic] punishing progressives, denying care to people of color and then blaming the results on the Democratic Party.”

Trump’s hope of cutting mass transit assistance to states is particularly hurtful for urban areas in Clinton states.

All of which raises the question of whether the Trump administration’s decision to move plutonium from South Carolina (which voted for Trump) to Nevada (which voted for Clinton) was motivated by something other than good government—that it was engaged in punishing another state that voted for Hillary Clinton.

Fast action

The U.S. Energy Department is not often noted for fast action, which—given its dubious performance record—is probably good. But in this case, the department somehow went through a decision making process, packed and transported half a ton of plutonium, and offloaded it in Nevada, quickly and secretly, then announced it in a court filing.

“Because sufficient time has now elapsed after conclusion of this campaign, DOE may now publicly state that it has completed all shipment of plutonium (approximately ½ metric ton) to Nevada,” wrote DOE counsel Bruce Diamond. “Although the precise date that this occurred cannot be revealed for reasons of operational security, it can be stated that this was done before November 2018, prior to the initiation of the litigation.”

“Quickly,” in this contest, is a relative term. But U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs ordered DOE to remove a metric ton of plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina on Dec. 20, 2017. She gave the department two years to do it, and DOE accomplished it in less than one. In DOE terms, that was quick.

“The department led the State of Nevada to believe that they were engaging in good-faith negotiations with us regarding a potential shipment of weapons-grade plutonium, only to reveal that those negotiations were a sham all along,” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a prepared statement. “They lied to the State of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment.”

Nevada should probably expect more of that in the future. South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham wants more of it dumped in Nevada, and soon.

“Yeah, that’s not much of a comfort to me,” he told the Aiken Standard when its reporter reminded him that his state had just been relieved of a half ton of waste.

Graham seems to have taken the view that while the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which was intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors, was operating in his state, he was content since it dealt with waste. But now that the Trump administration has mothballed the facility, he wants waste removed.

“I want the stuff out.” Graham said. “I want a pathway forward out of the state.”

There have been earlier cases of presidents who favored some states over others based on election results—the Kennedy administration, for instance. But most of those involved benefits for supporting states, not punishment for opposing states. This is one more way this era of polarization has changed the normal rules.

Newsweek says that since Trump and the Republican Congress increased spending more than Democrats ever dreamed of doing, “Therefore, Republicans are going to have to raise taxes to avoid bigger deficits. They have set out to do exactly that to their political opponents while cutting taxes for their supporters. All of this makes their current narrative about eliminating the state and local deduction from federal tax liability especially unseemly. They claim the deductions force low tax states to subsidize high tax states like California, but that’s not true. California and New York pay more in federal taxes than they reap in federal benefits. That isn’t to defend the egregious taxation in states like New York. But as Republicans love to remind us, the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans pay most of the income taxes and most of those people live in blue states Republicans are targeting for effective tax hikes. To raise spending by $200 billion and then claim the moral high ground based on fake news is exasperating even by Washington’s standards.”

Even so, some may find it difficult to believe that vindictiveness could guide federal actions. But Donald Trump is not the usual president. His own interests tend to guide his actions. His life is littered with people he liked until they disagreed with him—Michael Cohen, Steve Bannon—and last year NBC reported, “He praises and pardons friends/allies who have committed crimes (Manafort, Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza), but calls for the prosecution of enemies who haven’t been charged at all (Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Peter Strzok, Christopher Steele).” This is not a president whose actions are predictable, but his earlier actions against Clinton states are relevant.