Reporting from the streets of the U.S. Capital — Inaugural “Drain the Swamp” Day
Thursday, January 26, 2017 10:20 AM
On Friday, January 20, I descended from the well-heeled streets of Bethesda, Maryland, down an escalator into the catacombs of the Washington, D.C., subway, heading for the National Mall, with the words of a federal employee still in my mind: “What Donald Trump loves about this country is that it allows him to love himself.”
I had notebooks, pens, a battery charger, my all-purpose camera/audio recorder/map/iPhone, a computer cord, water bottle, snack bar and eyewash (in case I got maced) stuffed in the exceptional number of pockets in my long black raincoat. I crammed my driver’s license and get-out-of-jail money into a secret pocket near the ankle of my grey jeans. Not that I was expecting to get arrested. Like most middle-aged American women, I was invisible. It was like a magic cloak for a journalist headed to the street to seek out Trump supporters and protesters and ask why they had come to the nation’s capital for the inaugural swamp draining.
The lights flashed in the tunnel, the train pulled up, doors slid open, closed. I sat down next to a man and his teenage son, who was wearing a red-white-and-blue knitted stocking cap with a pom-pom on the top and TRUMP in big letters across the front. It had a folksy country charm.
Why wait until I entered the swamp?
“Nice hat,” I said to the boy. “Going to the inauguration?”
“I supported him because of healthcare,” the man told me.
He had a family of seven, owned a small business, and said his health insurance premiums had just jumped from around $900 a month to $1,400, with a $5,000 deductible.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said.
Affordable health care for him would be no more than $900 a month for the family and a $1,500 annual deductible. He cancelled his insurance and decided to pay the penalty.
“That has happened to a lot of people I know in Kentucky,” he said. “The monthly premiums shot through the roof under Obamacare. Nobody could afford it.”
In fact, Kentucky’s new governor, Matt Blevins, had gotten elected promising to gut Obamacare and repeal the Medicaid expansion that states could opt for to provide health coverage to their poorest residents. Kentucky’s previous governor had signed on. (Maine’s LePage has not.)
It turned out that one in three Kentuckians relied on either Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act to get insurance. It would have been political hari-kari for Blevins to get rid of it, according to Bloomberg News. Instead, Obamacare got rebranded as Kynect in Kentucky. Many residents don’t even realize they are getting their reduced insurance rates through the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid expansion got tweaked with a work/volunteer requirement of 20 hours a month for the poor. A modified Affordable Care Act is still there in all but name, according to Bloomberg, which identified the Kentucky program as a possible template for the Replace portion of Repeal and Replace.
It’s hard to unscramble an egg, a political advocate of killing Obamacare in Kentucky said, particularly when a lot more residents are covered.
This Kentucky gentleman and avid Trump supporter wanted coverage for pre-existing conditions, lower deductibles and a lower monthly premium.
“It needs to be more affordable and more fair,” he said.
Could the free market insurance companies fix his problem? It seemed like he had just made a pitch for something a lot like the universal coverage supported by Bernie Sanders, not the universal access to buy insurance with trimmed-down coverage and higher deductibles that the Republicans up on the Hill were pushing. Trump was starting to rumble about universal access/universal coverage and lower drug prices. How all that would be paid for was still hard to fathom. One scenario is that the expensive costs, like maternity care, will be kicked out of basic coverage, leaving the very poor to go to the emergency room or end up in a high-risk pool supported by state taxes.
That bill would get kicked down to the rest of us, one way or another.
Downtown, vehicle traffic had been banned and all the workers who usually inhabit the federal office buildings had the day off. I caught up with Michael Arkfeld, an analytics specialist and faculty fellow at Arizona State University at the corner of 8th and E streets, while he was checking the map on his phone. A nearby Starbucks was jammed, with a line on the sidewalk. Down the street, protesters were chanting something very impolite about walls.
“I’m just here to sort of see what it all means,” said Arkfeld. He wasn’t planning to attend the inauguration or the protests. “I’m an extreme, fierce independent. I don’t really care about the personality of the president. I’m a lawyer and a writer and one of my primary concerns is about personal privacy.”
Arkfeld mentioned the national security order signed just days before by Obama’s Attorney General that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to share personal data with 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, and CIA. Prior to the order, the FBI and other security agencies had to work with the NSA directly: now they can tap into the raw privacy data on their own, according to the New York Times, who broke the story. Conservative Fox News reported that the data would be handed over to foreign interests: the order doesn’t directly allow that, but it does rely on the judgment of those who are now going through the Trump cabinet confirmation process in Congress and who will almost certainly be confirmed to support a president who has an appetite for retaliation.
“We should all be concerned about this, but it’s barely in the news,” said Arkfeld. “Instead, all we hear about is tweets.”
The long blocks leading up to the security checkpoint at the intersection of D and 7th were clogged with thousands who had come to Washington for Friday’s “Act Now to End War and Stop Racism” protest.
It didn’t seem to be a problem, according to a Secret Service agent who looked astonishingly like Mel Gibson without the mullet. The people who wanted to get into the inaugural parade area were still getting through the checkpoint. People who looked like country club Republicans were coming out.
The Secret Service agents, National Guard troops and other branches of law enforcement were manning the gates and funnelling people into a tent with metal detectors and another cadre of mixed uniformed law enforcement inside.
Out by the barricades, Tyler Aldman, a young woman from Boston who was wearing a pink hoodie, held up a sign that said, “Health Care is a Human Right.”
“I don’t think that policies, lobbyists and politicians should be more important than actual lives,” she said. She said Obamacare was good health care reform.
“There are so many marginalized populations that didn’t get the healthcare they needed,” she said. “We have to be patient. Costs will go down as people are better able to take care of their health. We’ve already seen that.”
Obamacare has been expensive, but the cost/benefit analysis is complicated and the benefit portion is still in play. The early struggles in implementation, recalculations on costs, and increasing premiums didn’t help with public perception, either, even though health care spending was in its slowest growth phase in five decades after the Affordable Care Act was put in place, according to Forbes. What is clear is that about 30 million Americans could potentially lose their health coverage if Obamacare is dismantled and not replaced.
“Nobody can say that money doesn’t matter, but we will always have money struggles,” said Aldman. “People’s lives are always the more important focus.”
Ethan the Farmer, a farm activist, had staked out a site on 7th Street just outside the metal barricade for his three llamas and a white dove. His protest seemed libertarian in nature and not specifically supportive of Trump or aligned with the thousands of protesters standing a few feet away.
Ethan’s tallest llama put its ears back and stuck out its buck teeth, preparing to spit.
“No spitting,” I said to the llama. “You’ll get ticketed.”
The white dove on Ethan the Farmer’s shoulder looked a little wilted by the well-rehearsed pro-small farmer, anti-Conagra, anti-GMO spiel.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not our friend,” said Ethan.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is a controversial free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries. Some analysts say it would benefit all partner countries while other analysts dispute that, saying workers would suffer while wealthy investors would benefit. The TPP includes codes of ethics regarding bribery, corruption, conflicts of interest, child labor, slave labor, intellectual property rights and more. The U.S. International Trade Commission says the American economy, including workers, businesses, and investors, would benefit as a whole. In the end, the debate won’t matter to Americans. Ethan the Farmer would get his TPP wish: one of the first actions of the new president the day after the inauguration will be to pull the plug on the trade deal.
The TPP will go on, but the United States won’t be in it.
Police sirens started wailing. The 7th and D Street checkpoint was about halfway between the Capitol and the White House. An empty bus started creeping up through the no-vehicle zone.
Not my president. Not my president. Not my president. Not my president. Not my president.
Later, I would find out black masked rioters broke windows and set a car on fire about six blocks away. If the Secret Service knew about the rioters, they weren’t letting on. At 7th and D, the crowd was peaceful.
They took up an adaptable chant: Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Donald Trump has got to go.
A young man with pink and yellow hair, a pierced eyebrow and a black bandanna over his face was reluctant to talk.
“What kind of media outlet are you from?” he asked. He didn’t give his name, but said he had come with three others and a crowd of strangers on a chartered bus from Chicago to stand up for LGBTQ rights.
“And for all human rights,” he said. “And to impeach Trump. Hopefully.”
The bandanna was a protection against identification.
“You never know what camera is going to catch you.”
A lot of cameras, apparently. Journalists were everywhere, sticking mics in people’s faces and hefting video cameras on their shoulders. A freelance British photographer on assignment for Vanity Fair ended up stalking the same woman carrying a Donald Trump flag that I had snagged. He was weighted down with camera lenses and looked wryly at my iPhone 6, my only piece of tech — a look I chose to interpret as envy since my phone weighs as much as a piece of toast.
Landa Metz, the woman with the Trump flag, scarf, hat and sweatshirt, had come from Bremerton, Washington, for the inauguration.
“I love that man,” she said. “I’ve always admired him as a businessman.”
“No fluff,” her companion said. He was wearing a white Make America Great Again hat and holding a see-through plastic cup with a murky green drink that looked like a medical sample.
“No BS,” he added.
“I just think he will bring unity back to the country,” said Landa. “And I admire his loyalty to his family and the people he knows.”
I had noticed Rudy Guiliani had slipped a few notches down on the VIP list, but I didn’t mention it.
The photographer apologized for elbowing in on my interview to flash-pop a few shots.
“Just man on the street,” I said.
“Women on the street, too,” he said.
“Manner of speaking,” I said.
“Doesn’t your neck hurt?” I asked, looking at the camera equipment.
I asked his name. He told me, then took it back. He was a known celebrity photographer who attended endless rounds of parties to photograph the beautiful people in London. What was he doing here? Going to an inaugural ball?
“I’m not technically supposed to be working,” he said, refusing to answer. Journalists hate questions.
“I’m here on a tourist visa.”
Oh, well. An undocumented alien photographer is taking my job. Not that I had any particular desire to photograph Mick Jagger.
All those pockets full of reporter gear fouled me up at the checkpoint, where I emptied pockets, set off the alarms a second time, emptied more pockets, set the alarm off again, pulled off several layers of clothes, emptied more pockets. The female agent patted me down. I took off my belt. Pretty soon I would be down to my Jockeys.
The police dogs looked bored.
Once inside the perimeter, I found the parade route relatively uncrowded. Sharpshooters lined the rooftops of the federal buildings across the street and some VIPs were on the balcony at the top of the building behind me, shoulder-to-shoulder security lined the parade route.
I climbed up on the rounded back of a park bench to get a view over the heads of those in front, balancing with one hand on the shoulder of a large African-American Trump supporter while filming using the spare battery lent to me by a protester on my right.
They were talking to each other on our civil little park bench while helicopters buzzed the tops of the buildings.
Police cars zoomed quick-quick up the boulevard towards the White House. There was a band, another, three. More police cars zooming by. Then black cars with black windows, Secret Service agents running alongside.
I kept reaching down, trying to keep my balance, fiddling with my charger cord, knowing there was a sharpshooter up there with me locked in his sights.
There was no sign of the newly sworn-in president.
More black cars zoomed by.
Then it was over.
“Did you see anything?” a bystander asked.
“Only a child,” answered another.
I had seen the boy, too, flashing past in a shiny black car, a pale, uncertain face looking trapped behind the smoky glass, one hand pressed against the window.
It might have been a wave, though it looked like Barron Trump, age 10, was trying to ward off the future.
by Christine Parrish, The Free Press