Rewire, February 28, 2017
In his address tonight, President Donald Trump is likely going to tell Congress and the world that he is upset his nominees are “being stalled” in the Senate. He’ll probably note that by this time in 2009, more Obama nominees had been confirmed.
Oddly for those who have been following Donald Trump, expect fact checkers to agree. It is unassailably true that the nominations made thus far by President Trump have moved more slowly through the Senate than their Obama analogues eight years ago.
But is this comparison is meaningful?
No—it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
It’s not even an apples-to-oranges comparison.
What is the right analogy?
How about comparing Obama’s imperfect but reasonable sampling of “apples” to a collection of fake fruit wherein half of said fruit is covered in the poison of corruption?
The reality is that Trump’s nominees are generally unethical, unvetted, and unqualified; oddly few in number; and dropping like flies!
For that matter, his nonnominee “beachhead” team is deeply worrisome.
Let’s take those issues in turn, so that you can be well-informed enough to assess President Trump’s whining about Democratic senators being mean to his team.
Trump’s Nominees Are Generally Unethical, Unvetted, and Unqualified
Is the Trump team well-suited to the United States’ most powerful and prestigious jobs? The answer was no when I wrote this for Rewire in early February.
Sadly, that answer is becoming more emphatic by the day. For example, just last week we learned that recently confirmed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt “told attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference that they are ‘justified’ in wanting to see the agency eliminated."
If that’s not bad enough, Pruitt lied to Congress. Under oath, Pruitt told Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) that he never used personal email for work as Oklahoma attorney general. Except he did. Remember when nothing mattered more than email retention policy?
Don’t take my word for it on Pruitt. Fox’s Oklahoma City affiliate writes that “the revelation” of Pruitt using a private email for public work “is in direct conflict with Pruitt’s written and oral testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee during the confirmation process.” Oklahoma City Fox 25 goes on to note that Pruitt “told lawmakers he had never used private email for state business.”
Why was Pruitt chosen? One clue came from Stephen Bannon—Trump’s chief strategist and the former head of the white nationalist website Breitbart News—who said at a conservative gathering last week, “If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.”
And if in addition to “deconstruction,” you’re concerned about either money laundering or the Trump administration’s ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, DCReport has a lengthy report that is well worth wide consideration. As it summarizes, there are “deep financial ties between Donald Trump’s nominee for Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and three Russian oligarchs, whose lives and fortunes depend on staying in the good graces of Vladimir Putin …. These relationships between nominee Ross and the oligarchs involve ownership and management of a European bank with a reputation for laundering Russian money and making bad loans.”
Wilbur Ross is not a random billionaire—he once helped save Trump’s failing Atlantic City casinos (yes, a rich kid who was going broke running casinos was elected president because of his “business acumen,” a fact that we must never forget). As the Los Angeles Times put it in December, “Ross embarked on a strategy that helped Trump avoid a personal bankruptcy that could have derailed his unlikely trajectory from real-estate mogul to reality television star to president-elect.”
As David Cay Johnston (a past Pulitzer Prize winner) noted concerning DCReport’s giant report, “During Ross’s confirmation hearing last month, these issues and other issues that [DCReport editor and report author James] Henry examines were not explored.”
There’s much more evidence Congress is being overly deferential to Trump nominees, giving the president too little benefit of the doubt.
Trump’s Nominees Are Oddly Few in Number
There are 549 key positions that require Senate confirmation. Trump has yet to nominate anyone to 515 of them. As Vox reported, “According to Max Stier, the CEO of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, when it comes to political appointments, Trump is lagging behind almost every recent president—and he has a long way to go.”
Apparently, per Politico, that is because of battles between Cabinet nominees who “joined the administration believing they’d have wide latitude to pick lieutenants, but … [have] Trump’s powerful advisers are looking over their shoulders.”
One explanation for this mess, also from Politico, is that Trump’s staffers “’weren’t heavily focused on people below the Cabinet level during the transition. They just weren’t,’ one person familiar with the operation said.
As former Army officer and former Pentagon official Phillip Carter put it in an excellent and scary piece for Slate:
To this day, the Trump administration lags in terms of picking its political appointees, let alone articulating a comprehensive policy agenda that goes much beyond “make America great again.” At the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, the two largest federal agencies by budget and headcount, the Trump imprint on policy remains amazingly light …. Federal agencies require certain commodities to run: leadership, legislative authorization, funding, and people. The combination of these commodities results in programming, executed either by government employees, contractors, or local governments using federal grant funds. Every part of this formula has been neglected by the Trump administration.
One amazing example of how this process is playing out can be found at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where, according to Politico, “Shermichael Singleton, a top official, joined the department before being terminated when criticism of Trump surfaced in a final White House review.”
Insistence on unstinting praise of Donald Trump does tend to narrow one’s search for qualified appointees!
Trump’s Nominees Are Dropping Like Flies!
Michael Flynn’s high-profile departure as Trump’s historically short-lived national security adviser received a lot of press, deservedly. However, Flynn was not appointed to a position subject to Senate confirmation; nor were the similarly scandal-ridden Jason Miller and Monica Crowley.
But Andy Puzder was. Trump’s pick for secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor faced serious allegations of domestic violence by his ex-wife and had made a series of offensive statements about employees who worked for the fast-food chain he ran. Puzder’s confirmation hearings were continuously delayed until they were called off for good, as Puzder bowed to the reality that he was unconfirmable.
Similarly, Vincent Viola, Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Army, is a billionaire high frequency trader (HFT), the type of financier attacked by Michael Lewis in his bestselling book Flash Boys. Viola also asked for his nomination to be withdrawn, though it’s unclear why. It seems unlikely it was his reported summer 2016 fistfight, although that was not necessarily a great look for a potential senior Defense Department official, nor his ham-handed efforts to avoid conflict of interests in his aviation holdings. More likely it was his unwillingness to divest from his HFT firm.
And just Sunday, we learned that President Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, had “withdrawn his name from consideration,” claiming that his “business interests created complications.”
As CNN noted about the retired private equity executive, “‘After an extensive review process, Bilden said, ‘I have determined that I will not be able to satisfy the Office of Government Ethics requirements without undue disruption and materially adverse divestment of my family’s private financial interests.'”
Ironically only a week ago, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer countered a report by Major Garrett of CBS News that two sources had told him Bilden was likely to withdraw from consideration for the Navy job. Spicer tweeted on February 18: “Those people would be wrong. Just spoke with him and he is 100% committed to being the next SECNAV pending Senate confirm.”
What’s even more troubling than Sean Spicer’s batting average for truth is that ethics issues are supposed to be assessed before nominations are made. Sadly, reality is continuously proving the claim that, again, Trump’s nominees are unvetted.
Trump’s “Beachhead Team” Is Deeply Worrisome
So who is running the government while Trump makes few nominations, and even fewer have been confirmed? Trump and Bannon are not deferring to career civil servants whom they are seeking to “deconstruct,” but instead hiring—the best and brightest? Or the almost-best-looking and most closely related?
Consider how, according to Axios, a “member of President Trump’s extended family who once competed for the title of ‘hottest bachelor’ in Washington, D.C. is helping to prepare the new administration’s overhaul of energy policy.”
Who is this? “Kyle Yunaska, who is Eric Trump’s brother-in-law, is part of the ‘beachhead’ team of temporary political appointees working at the Energy Department.”
Okay, surely he has some relevant experience? No: “He does not appear to have a background in energy policy.” But at least he was once the “hottest bachelor?” Um, again, apparently… no. “Yunaska took part in Inside Edition‘s competition for “hottest bachelors” in Washington, D.C. in 2013 (but didn’t win).”
More seriously, we learned that White House staffers had the run of the place despite not having yet passed background checks here. In a scandal obscured by … other scandals, six Trump White House staffers were dismissed this month “after failing FBI background checks, according to sources familiar with the matter. Some of the aides were ‘walked out of the building by security’ on Wednesday after not passing the SF86, a Questionnaire for National Security Positions for security clearance.”
One who failed the background check, Caroline Wiles, was sanguine, because while she was not going to be cleared to continue work at the White House, she was set to move from “deputy assistant secretary” to “get another job in Treasury.”
Which raises very interesting questions about Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury Department!
But the Departments of Energy and Treasury are not alone in being run by the United States’ least qualified and least vetted: “The White House has created a new position, called senior White House adviser, atop agencies and in many cases installed top campaign aides in those spots,” reported Politico.
One Trump administration official “leaked” why this is worrisome to Politico, stating that “’a lot of these special advisers are overwhelmed, because they have very little relevant issue area expertise and are sometimes way out of their depth,’ one person involved in Trump’s administration said.”
It’s particularly bad to have political appointees without qualifications when the Trump administration is also telling “career employees and acting leadership” to slow all nonessential work, as Politico has reported.
So is the Senate “obstructing President Trump,” or is it providing some notable resistance to his radical, unqualified, and unvetted team? It’s not only clearly the latter; there are still problematic people receiving smooth sailing (like CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Wilbur Ross), with vastly too little scrutiny and too much deference.
But problems with the Trump team are not limited to names being submitted to the Senate. From short-lived NSA Director Michael Flynn to fired White House aides to Trump’s “beachhead” teams, Trump’s administration is proving that “personnel is policy” in the worst manner possible.
Americans are demonstrating renewed vigor and exciting civic engagement—whether it be through congressional phone lines, town halls, or airports. That engagement ought to include scrutinizing the Trump Team as it emerges.
Jeff Hauser runs the Revolving Door Project, an effort to increase scrutiny on executive branch appointments and ensure that political appointees are focused on serving the public interest, rather than personal professional advancement.