The Trump administration began its law enforcement crackdown almost immediately after taking power, with the ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries dominating headlines for months as it weaved through the courts. Meanwhile, President Trump and his hardline attorney general, Jeff Sessions, jump-started the failed war on drugs while the president continued painting immigrants from south of the border as “violent criminals” to crowds of cheering supporters.
Recently, the administration’s most high-profile targets have been migrant families seeking asylum at the southern border, and the latest reports suggest that parents traveling with children were specifically targeted for forced separation and deportation. Like the migrant mothers fleeing violence in Central America, Trump’s authoritarian agenda puts some of the most vulnerable among us in the crosshairs.
However, the administration’s “tough-on-crime” approach to governing has not been extended to wealthy corporations that violate the law at the public’s expense. A new report by the watchdog group Public Citizen shows that the number of federal law enforcement actions taken against corporations has markedly declined under the Trump administration, with total penalties levied against corporate law-breakers plummeting since the final year of the Obama administration.
“Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ enforcement policy against first-time border crossings and street crimes has rightly grabbed headlines,” said Rick Claypool, a Public Citizen research director and co-author of the report. “But what makes this even more shocking is how these so-called ‘tough on crime’ policies coincide with policies that decrease prosecutions and penalties for giant lawbreaking corporations.”
Claypool’s team tracked enforcement actions and penalties levied against corporations by 12 federal agencies that were headed by a Trump appointee during the president’s first year in office. At 11 of the 12 agencies, penalties imposed on corporations for breaking federal laws and violating regulatory rules dropped — in many cases, significantly. Ten of the 12 agencies saw drops in enforcement actions, most notably the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Justice Department is the nation’s lead federal law enforcement agency and presides over Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies that have deported hundreds of migrant parents without their children. The department is primarily responsible for criminal prosecutions, and under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, total penalties against corporations by the Justice Department fell 90 percent — from $51.5 billion in President Barack Obama’s last year to $4.9 billion in Trump’s first year in office, according to the report. The total number of enforcement actions against corporations fell by 22 percent.
Trump campaigned on defanging the EPA, the federal agency responsible for holding corporate polluters to account with regulatory actions and civil court cases. Amid a deregulatory blitz ordered by Trump and orchestrated by disgraced former Administrator Scott Pruitt, penalties for environmental violations dropped by 94 percent, largely because the EPA decreased penalty sums for corporate polluters. The amount of money the EPA has required polluters to pay for environmental cleanup has also dropped.
Consider Syngenta Seeds, a massive agrichemical company that was busted violating safety rules after workers were sickened by dangerous pesticides at controversial GMO seed farms in Hawaii. Five weeks before Trump’s inauguration, the EPA announced $4.8 million in penalties against the pesticide manufacturer, but a year later, the Trump administration cut that number to $550,000 — about 11 percent of the original fine, according to the report.
At various federal agencies that serve as watchdogs for corporate wrongdoing — including the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission — penalty sums and enforcement actions declined during the first year of the Trump administration. Enforcement actions often take years to complete, so most of the investigations into cases of corporate wrongdoing would have begun under the Obama administration and continued (or dropped) by career staff that remain relatively unchanged since Trump’s inauguration.
The only federal agency that saw an increase in penalties and enforcement actions was the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency in charge of international sanctions imposed by the US government and the United Nations. That agency saw a 465 percent increase in penalties as the US pursued sanctions against countries, such as Russia, Syria, North Korea and Iran.
Claypool told Truthout that the data do not show the whole picture because Trump officials may have dropped corporate cases that the Obama administration planned to prosecute without notifying the public. It would be difficult for journalists and researchers to learn about them unless information was leaked from inside the agency.
“It’s very hard to prove a negative, and the cases that are dropped, we will never see,” Claypool said. “And there are cases that were started ages ago, and we are still waiting for them to be completed, and that might also provide us some signs of how this is going.”
Trump has long pledged to make life easier for big business and cut government “red tape,” and Claypool said the drop of enforcement actions against corporate violators is often the result of specific policies put in place by Trump officials implementing the administration’s deregulatory agenda.
For example, Sessions issued a memo last June prohibiting settlement payments to third parties not directly involved in Justice Department litigation. The policy effectively canceled a planned $3 million payment the Obama administration had required Harley Davidson to make in support of American Lung Association programs after the company sold illegal parts that caused air pollution, according to the report.
At the Department of Education headed by Betsy Devos, policy changes led to the dismissal of hundreds of civil rights and disabilities cases. The department also blocked state attorneys general from enforcing state fair-lending laws against federal student loan providers, frustrating several attorneys general representing students who were ripped off by for-profit colleges.
Of course, Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about the role government should play in regulating corporations, and a drop in corporate enforcement could be expected after a Republican replaces a Democrat in the White House. The administration of George W. Bush had a somewhat mixed record: President Bush signed major corporate integrity legislation in 2002 that strengthened disclosure requirements for public companies and ramped up some white-collar criminal enforcement, all while aggressively rolling back environmental protections, civil rights enforcement and various regulations meant to protect the public.
However, the Trump administration is not your average Republican outfit. Trump has placed hardliners in key posts, particularly in the Justice Department and agencies like the EPA. While going easy on corporations, the administration has pursued policies that impact the most vulnerable among us. His push to roll back Medicaid and slash the social safety net punishes the poor and underpaid. When polluters are free to violate environmental laws, it’s often low-income neighborhoods and children of color who are harmed first. The ongoing immigration crackdown has struck fear into communities across the country.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s attitude toward big business, which it has been happy to greet with leniency and second chances.