Trump’s botched coronavirus response isn’t the first time his administration has put Americans at risk. And it won’t be the last.
The Trump administration’s failures in dealing with a global pandemic threat raise a frightening, but important, question: How else is this administration putting the United States at risk right now? And what is this administration neglecting in 2020, that will put Americans at risk five, 10, 20 years from now?
In 2017, Michael Lewis, author of books like The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blind Side, began asking these very same questions — and arrived at some startling conclusions. “The United States government” he writes “manages the biggest portfolio of [catastrophic] risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world.” And that means the US president, is, above all, the risk-manager-in-chief. “Some of the things any incoming president should worry about are fast moving: pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks” writes Lewis. “But most are not. Most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode.”
In his most recent book, The Fifth Risk, Lewis explores the different ways that the US government manages its “vast portfolio” of risks — and how the Trump administration has systematically and purposefully undermined that effort. I spoke to Lewis about what the US government’s risk portfolio looks like, why Donald Trump’s leadership puts us all in danger, how undermining trust may be the biggest risk of them all, and more.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
There are a lot of ways to view the US federal government and the role of the president. But one that you draw out in The Fifth Risk, is the idea of the president as a risk manager and the government as a risk aggregator. That is not a way we are used to thinking about our leaders or our institutions. So what does it mean for the president to be a risk manager? And why do you think that is a helpful lens through which to look at our leaders/institutions?
A lot of what the federal government does is manage risk, broadly defined. When I walked into my first agency, the Department of Energy, I encountered a man named John McWilliams who was the department’s “chief risk officer” and who had compiled a list of the 138 most dire risks that the Department of Energy alone faced. At the time, I didn’t even know what the Department of Energy did, so that there were 138 risks inside of it worth counting was interesting.
McWilliams was someone who thought about risk like a Wall Street person thought about risk. He thought about volatility. He thought about risk as a portfolio. He was grappling with it in that language. And I thought that was a very interesting way to think of the job of the president: to manage this giant portfolio at risk, not just the Department Energy, but across all of these agencies.
I’d also spent six months with Obama before the end of his first term. When I sat down with him and talked about what he thought about day-to-day, he framed the job as a decision-making job, and all of the decisions involved risk. In the end, the decisions that got to him, were all the horrible risk decisions that nobody else wanted to make. A lot of our conversation was just about that: how to make smart, risk-based decisions.
I think many of us are aware of, at least, some of the risks government manages. Right now, for instance, we are all fixated on pandemic risk — and there are other obvious risks like climate change or nuclear war. But in the book you talk about a set of risks that gets talked about a lot less. What is “the fifth risk?”
It’s an idea that grew out of that conversation I had with John McWilliams at the Department of Energy. I asked him, almost as a joke, to tell me five top risks the department faced off the top of his head. He got through four very quickly: they were things like nuclear weapons accidents, attacks on the electric grid, the Iran nuclear deal being undermined, and North Korea figuring out how to get a missile to California. He had very detailed stories about each one and why each one was much scarier than we knew. But then he got to the fifth and it took him like a long time — I could see that he’d run out of material.
And I thought, that’s the fifth. The risk you’re attending to, the risk that’s top of mind, is not likely the thing that’s going to actually kill you. The fifth risk is a scary one because it’s the thing you’re not paying attention to.
Now, eventually, he does come up with a fifth risk. He says “project management.” So literally, the fifth risk in the book is project management. And what he meant by “project management” was that there are these very slow, glacially-paced risks that the government manages day-to-day where nothing really dramatic ever happens. But if it gets mismanaged over the long run, something really dramatic could happen.
What do some of those longer-term risks look like?
McWilliams pointed me to the management of the old nuclear bomb manufacturing site in Hanford, Washington. It’s 600 square miles where plutonium was pumped out to make bombs. Now it’s the scene of a massive attempt to clean up gazillions of gallons of lethal waste that’s now underground and slowly moving in a plume toward the Columbia River. If it gets in the river, it poisons the Pacific Northwest. The Department of Energy alone was spending $3 billion a year on this problem. And it was going to go on for 100 years before it was cleaned up [in February, the Trump administration proposed cutting the site’s budget to around $1.8 billion, and in June of 2019 introduced controversial deregulatory rule-changes to the site’s oversight].
That was an example of something that the federal can’t just stop dealing with. It could inevitably be a tragedy one day. But no one president, no one administration was likely to have that tragedy pinned on them. So there was every incentive for someone who had a very short-term view of the world and only cared about their own administration or their own time in office to just ignore it.
If the president is fundamentally a risk manager, then what does that make Donald Trump? What does Donald Trump do to the basket of risks that the US government is supposed to manage?
He amplifies them all. And he does so in various ways. One is that he has virtually no interest in hiring people for their ability to manage risks, for their understanding of risk, or for their knowledge and expertise about risks. So the people he hires in risk management positions are often wildly ill-suited to them because the only filter they pass through is a loyalty test to Donald Trump.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, huge numbers of people, both Democrats and Republicans, who are experts in the specific risks the government managed, came out against Trump. And he just refused to take them into his administration.
Could you talk a bit about the type of people who were hired by Trump?
There was a list of CVs that Politico dug up of Trump appointees to the Department of Agriculture, and none of them were qualified for anything they got appointed to do.
But since we’re on the Department of Energy, Trump appointed Rick Perry as secretary of energy. He had called for the elimination of the department in a presidential debate without being able to remember the name of the department. Later, once he was appointed secretary of energy, Perry said he didn’t realize the department did things like manage the nuclear arsenal. There may be less qualified people to run the Department of Energy, but it’s hard to think of them.
You can move around the government and find at the very top level people who were really ill-suited to the jobs, but the people who flooded into the second- and third-tier jobs — they were all just hacks on campaigns.
Here’s an example that chills my spine. The Department of Agriculture has a $3 billion a year research budget for the science that it funds — all mostly focused on how we are going to feed ourselves in the future, especially as the climate changes. In the past, this research has yielded gold, but that’s because it’s been in the hands of real scientists. Trump tried to install in that job a right-wing talk radio show host from Iowa who happened to back him and who had absolutely no understanding of the science of agriculture or anything like it.
Now, the Senate refused to confirm him, and the Senate has been somewhat of a check on some of Trump’s more idiotic moves. But that sends the signals out that Trump is not in the market for expertise — he’s in the market for fans. The government is going to be his fan club; if they aren’t his fan club, they get fired. That’s one way he amplifies risk.
In the book you talk about a few other ways Trump increases the possibility of future risk — those connected to his particular personality and temperament. What are some of the other ways Trump amplifies risk?
Trump has created a bizarre absence of information channels from people who know things to the Oval Office. Just look at the coronavirus. People were trying to tell him this was a problem in early January. And on the rare occasions anybody who knows something gets through to him, he doesn’t want to hear it. That’s his temperament. He doesn’t want you to give him the bad news. And if you give him the bad news, you’re fired.
That’s exactly the opposite of the temperament you want in somebody who’s managing risk. People are already reluctant to give you bad news or bad information or tell you about risky situations because it’s an inherently unpleasant thing to do. If you disincentivize them even further, you’re just not going to find out what you need to know.
But there’s a third aspect to him that I find is almost the key to everything. So far, we’ve been talking about Trump as if he cares about risk and he wants to manage it well. I don’t think that’s true. I think that his whole life is about doing whatever his impulses tell him to do. And then, after the fact, telling a story that renders him the hero of the story — the person who saved the day. He’s always done this, no matter the facts.
I actually think he moves through life thinking, whatever happens, I can undo it with a story. That’s why he’s so numb to [experts]. He has no use for them. So I don’t actually think he’s thinking in terms of risk.
Something about risk management that you draw out really nicely in the book is that it’s often a thankless job. Worrying about existential risk doesn’t get you a pat on the back or any reward; in fact, if you do your job well, the outcome is that no one really notices. And Trump’s way of operating is the opposite: He’s constantly thinking about how he can personally get credit and steal the spotlight. Do you think that it plays a factor here?
My god, yes. Trump has absolutely no use for doing something that he’s not going to get lots of lots of credit for. Imagine another world where we had a different kind of president and he hadn’t axed the $200 million dollar Predict program which tried to predict where serious viruses are going to emerge and what we can do to take early action against them. And imagine if that program actually had identified the coronavirus right at the outset, so this pandemic never happened. What value would that have been Donald Trump knowing what you know about Donald Trump? Zero. He would have gotten no gratification in any way.
And it’s not just pandemic prevention. Much of what the experts inside of government who manage risks are doing is trying to prevent it all from happening. If they succeed, then you never know about it.
I do want to talk more about coronavirus, but I think something that’s important to recognize first is that this isn’t the first time that the neglect and incompetence of the Trump administration has put Americans in harm’s way. Can you talk a bit about some of the other instances earlier in the administration where we’ve seen similarly careless mistakes?
It’s Puerto Rico. It’s children on the Mexican border. It’s the FAA-Boeing failure. This is the first time that Americans are feeling the real existential dread they should have been feeling from the moment that he walked into the White House. And it’s the first time that everybody’s lives are being threatened and dramatically changed. Before, it was someone else’s plane crash, someone else’s hurricane, someone else’s bungled border patrol policy. It was all someone else’s. I think this is the first time it’s not someone else’s.
Let’s talk about the coronavirus then. I think this pandemic has really brought your book’s thesis to life. So if you had to write another chapter of The Fifth Risk about coronavirus what would it be about?
What I would do next is study the way society is now compensating for the ineptitude and malign character of its leader. It really does remind me of a dysfunctional family with a psychotic, alcoholic dad, where where everybody’s trying to cover for dad.
The pandemic has taken this to an extreme. My mayor, the mayor of San Francisco, has to take extraordinary action all by herself because the president doesn’t know what he’s doing. And we’re all gonna be much better for it. A lot of people are gonna be alive because of it. But it was an example of local officials taking charge of something that they really shouldn’t have had to take charge of.
Given everything we’ve been discussing, do you think voters and analysts need a new framework for deciding what makes a good president? If a president is fundamentally a risk manager then should we be thinking differently about what we look for in a presidential candidate?
What I think might happen because of the pandemic is that voters are going to start asking: Is this someone I would trust to manage this situation? Just like we ask, Is this someone I trust to manage my money? Or, is this someone I would trust to drive the car? Maybe we’ll start treating the president as someone who is going to handle a risk that, if handled badly, could kill.
I think that we’ve gotten away from that, largely because we’ve forgotten what government does. A large part of the country is under the illusion that the government is just this “deep state” that undermines “real” Americans. But I think people are starting to figure out just how critical government is. I think this experience of having confronted a really terrifying risk is going to naturally lead voters to think in terms of risk when they’re voting.
My last question is about the future. As you mentioned, we’ve already dealing with pandemic risk. If Trump is elected for another term, what are the risks that are top of mind for you that you are most worried about?
Leaving aside, asteroids hitting the Earth, or the big ones like other pandemics or nuclear weapons or terrorism, I think that the big thing is trust. I think of Trump as a trust-destroying machine. He’s undermined trust in the media, in the electoral process, in the judiciary, in science. He undermines trust everywhere he turns.
So I’ve been asking myself: What critical trust that holds a society together is still more or less intact that he could undermine? And what comes to mind is the trust in the Federal Reserve and the Treasury — essentially the credit worthiness of the United States. Both in the financial crisis and now, the Fed is able to step in and act as the financial parent in the room when everything else is in doubt. The minute we lose that, the minute the world ceases to trust our government financial institutions, is the minute we lose our ability to touch bottom on any kind of crisis. I think Trump is perfectly capable of undermining that trust. And I can think of several ways in which he would do it.
That’s the thing I worry about with him most because I think it’s his instinct. He gropes for these trusted relationships and seeks to disrupt them. And he does so, I think, for a very simple reason: He knows that in a world with trust, he’s at a disadvantage because he’s not trustworthy. But if he manages to make everybody untrustworthy, he’s on a kind of level playing field. That’s the thing I worry about.
Author: Roge Karma