A Handover Like Nothing Before


Michael Lewis’ latest book, The Fifth Risk, is a riveting read about how the Trump Administration took control of the government.

Sometimes the most riveting of stories can be found in the most boring of places. Also, if the writer happens to be Michael Lewis, you know you will be reading non-fiction written in the style of an unputdownable thriller. Lewis’ latest book The Fifth Risk belongs to that genre, and it won’t be a surprise if in the years to come it’s turned into a film, like his other books The Big Short and Moneyball, have been.

On the face of it, the premise of The Fifth Risk is rather boring. The American law essentially requires the candidates of the two major political parties (the Republican party and the Democratic Party) to prepare to take control over the government, if their candidate happens to get elected. As Lewis writes,

The United States government employed two million people, 70 percent of them one way or another in national security. It managed a portfolio of risks that no private person, or corporation, was able to manage.

Given the fact that top bureaucrats changed with the government, any new government needs to prepare to take over. Also, given the portfolio of risks the American government manages, a proper transition is very necessary. To his credit, Barack Obama had prepared well to hand over the government to the next President. Lewis makes particular note of this, “Obama’s preparations to hand over the government had been superb: the Obama administration had created what amounted to the best course ever on the inner workings of the most powerful institution on earth.”

The trouble was that Donald Trump, the Republican candidate who eventually won the presidential election, was not interested. In fact, the first time Trump paid attention to this was when he read about it in a newspaper.

The story essentially revealed that Trump’s transition team led by Chris Christie had raised several million dollars to pay for the staff. This disturbed Trump so much that he called Steve Bannon, the chief executive of his campaign, and started yelling, “You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?” At another point Trump tells Christie, “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”

The question is why was Trump reluctant to prepare for taking over as the American government, as mandated by law. Lewis feels this was primarily because Trump did not see himself winning. He explains:

It wasn’t hard to see why Trump hadn’t seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: Why study for a test you’ll never need to take? Why take the risk of discovering you might at your very best be a C student?

And this lack of preparation soon started to come out in the most mundane of things. After Trump won, as per convention, he was talking to leaders from around the world. Soon, the president of Egypt called the board line at Trump Tower and got through the president-elect. And “Trump was like … I love the Bangles! You know that song ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’?” This must have really left the Egyptian president wondering.

Trump won the election on November 8, 2016. The Department of Energy was ready for his people to come and was waiting for them. The morning after Obama had won, he had sent between 30 to 40 people to the department. In fact, thousands of people had spent a better part of a year to draw “a vivid picture for the benefit of the new administration.” It took almost a month for Trump’s transition team to arrive at the Department of Energy. This team was led by Thomas Pyle, who ran American Energy alliance, a propaganda machine funded by the oil companies. Lewis quotes someone at the meeting (with Pyle), as saying, “He didn’t bring a pencil or a piece of paper. He didn’t ask questions. He spent an hour. That was it.” The president-elect’s attitude percolated down to his representatives as well.

A similar story played out the Department of Agriculture, a department which manages a lot of things other than agriculture. As Lewis writes:

Its very name is seriously misleading—most of what it does has little to do with agriculture. It runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, for instance. It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals Americans eat, including the nine billion birds a year. Buried inside it is a massive science program, a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting, and a bank with $220 billion in assets. It monitors catfish farms. It maintains a shooting range inside its DC headquarters. It keeps an apiary on its roof, to study bee-colony collapse.

To prepare for the handover, the Department of Agriculture had prepared 2300 pages of material in 13 volumes. The nicest rooms in the nicest building with the nicest view was set aside for the Trump’s team. Obama, and before him, Bush’s transition team had turned up just a day after they won the election. Trump’s team turned up a month after. Actually it was just one guy.

And finally, Lewis writes about the Department of Commerce, which like many US government agencies is seriously misnamed. He elaborates:

It runs the United States Census, the only real picture of who Americans are as a nation. It collects and makes sense of all the country’s economic statistics… Through the Patent and Trademark Office it tracks all the country’s inventions. It contains an obscure but wildly influential agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, stuffed with Nobel laureates, which does everything from setting the standards for construction materials to determining the definition of a “second” and of an “inch.”

The Department spends around $9 billion each year, of which $5 billion goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration. A bulk of that money is spent in forecasting the weather across the nation. That’s what the Department of Commerce really does. Trade forms just 10% of the activities of the department. And as had happened in other departments, no one from Trump’s team turned up initially. Eventually, William Ross, a 79-year-old billionaire, who Trump had appointed to be the next secretary of Commerce, turned up for a single meeting. And of course, he had no idea of what he was getting into. In fact, in March 2017, the Trump administration asked for help from a former senior climate policy adviser from the George W Bush administration. This official told Ross that the Department of Commerce wasn’t really the department of commerce but its mission was actually a science and technology mission. To which Ross applied: “I don’t think I want to be focussing on that.”

Lewis makes an excellent case for how unprepared Trump was to govern the United States — as were his appointees. In doing so, he brings out the stories of people on both sides: people who had been working for the Obama administration and people who would be working for Trump.

One of the most fascinating stories in the book is about a gentleman called DJ Patil, who Obama hired as America’s first Chief Data Scientist. Then there is the story of Ross himself, and his shenanigans to get on to the Forbes list of richest people by over-declaring his wealth. It is these details that make the book a riveting read. Lewis takes these detours often to make the story people-oriented without losing focus of the overall theme.

Those in support of Trump like to believe that America’s government is too big to be managed. This may be true, but it does not mean that the President-elect takes no interest in figuring out what the different departments really do so that he can appoint the right people to run them. The Fifth Risk is a must-read for anyone trying to understand what a mess Trump is making in the United States. Of course, dear reader, you must be wondering by now what exactly is the fifth risk. Well for that, you will have to read the book and figure out.

About the author

Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times. His latest book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It Is Hurting Us, has just been published. He is also the author of the Easy Money trilogy.