Trump’s vetting leaves much to be desired
By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: June 27, 2019
For weeks, rumors circulated that President Donald Trump was cooling toward naming Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan to the job on a permanent basis. The alleged reason: lack of personal compatibility.
But when the prospective nomination collapsed last week, the reason was not presidential unease, but the surfacing of graphic newspaper accounts of Shanahan’s messy personal situation, including charges of spousal violence against both the ex-Boeing executive and his former wife. Within hours, he withdrew.
Much of this, it turned out, was in the 4,000-page record of the Shanahans’ divorce in King County Superior Court in Seattle, where the case was litigated in 2011. It raised questions how Shanahan passed internal administration muster two years ago when he was named and confirmed as deputy secretary. More broadly, it showed once again the inadequacy of this administration’s personnel vetting procedures.
Trump promised he would name “the best people” to top posts. But since the transition period preceding his inauguration, more than four dozen choices for top executive branch posts or judgeships, including three Cabinet posts and seven Pentagon jobs, have been forced to withdraw over issues ranging from personal finances to extreme views. Others were approved despite questionable ethics issues.
In most cases, the problems should have been discovered and resolved before Trump publicly tapped them. But while the vetting system is clearly flawed, problems have been exacerbated by the president’s predilection for instinctively naming people he likes, regardless of whether they have been vetted or were qualified.
Perhaps the highest profile example occurred last year when Trump named his personal physician, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, as secretary of veterans affairs, even though he had no administrative experience for running one of the government’s biggest departments.
In a tweet, he called the popular White House doctor “highly respected” before any vetting by the FBI or White House aides. Within weeks, questions arose including accusations of improper pill dispensing, drinking on the job and fostering a hostile work environment.
“There’s no proof of this,” Trump contended on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” after Senate Democrats circulated a detailed list. Facing a contentious confirmation fight without assurance of success, Jackson withdrew.
More recently, resistance from the Republican-controlled Senate forced withdrawal of two potential Federal Reserve Board choices, businessman Herman Cain and economics writer Stephen Moore. Trump publicly announced his intention of nominating both in an effort to force more administration-friendly Federal Reserve policies.
Cain, a businessman who unsuccessfully sought the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, faced questions about sexual harassment charges that arose at that time. Moore’s problems ranged from a messy divorce and non-payment of support payments to his qualifications — he writes on economic affairs but is not in fact an economist.
Many initial administration personnel problems — including withdrawal of announced candidates for secretary of labor, the Army and Navy — stemmed from the post-election coup in which Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, ousted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had been assigned to manage a potential Trump transition.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Kushner took over and, according to a detailed review by the web site Axios of many of the Trump personnel briefing papers, ignored some initial warning signs.
According to Axios, the “red flags” included concerns about Dr. David Price’s “management ability,” noting that “Dysfunction And Division Has Haunted Price’s Leadership Of The House Budget Committee.” But he was picked anyway as secretary of health and human services, only to be forced out for misusing government planes and other perks.
Another example was Scott Pruitt’s “coziness with big energy companies.” That foreshadowed the ethical issues that forced his resignation as Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Christie told Axios his team had compiled 30 binders of well-vetted personnel options, terming what ensued “a monumental staff failure.”
Trump named his initial secretary of state, corporate executive Rex Tillerson, and his first secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, because he thought they looked the part. And he picked long-time friends like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, despite questions about their personal finances.
He cooled on Tillerson and Mattis, because they disagreed with his views on climate change and the Iran nuclear agreement. He eventually fired former campaign chairman Jeff Sessions as attorney general, largely because the former Alabama senator recused himself from the probe of Russian influence on the Trump campaign.
Further evidence of Trump’s mishandling of personnel choices is the revolving door on White House appointments, which don’t require Senate confirmation. Trump has had three chiefs of staff, and five communications chiefs, and almost every original top aide left, except counselor Kellyanne Conway, one of his strongest advocates on television.
Recently, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency headed by a Trump appointee, accused her of violating the Hatch Act against political activity by federal employees, because of her attacks on specific potential Democratic rivals.
But Trump said he had no intention of punishing or firing Conway, one more example that, when it comes to personnel, Trump follows his own rules, regardless of the consequences.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.