The position of director of national intelligence was created after the 9/11 terror attacks to prevent another such assault on the American homeland. The DNI, as the director is known, must oversee 17 intelligence agencies with a total budget of about $60 billion. There are few jobs more important in the federal government — or the entire country. Yet President Trump treated the selection of a DNI with less care and forethought than he would give to picking an interior designer for Mar-a-Lago.
When Dan Coats decided last month that he had suffered enough as Trump’s DNI, Trump reportedly called Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to ask what he thought about Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) as a replacement. “Burr responded that he didn’t know much about the lawmaker but would consult with a few people,” Politico reported. “But less than a half hour later, Trump tweeted that Ratcliffe was his choice.”
Trump picked Ratcliffe, it seems, because he liked the congressman’s obnoxious questioning of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July hearings and his role in spreading cuckoo conspiracy theories about a nonexistent “secret society” of FBI agents supposedly out to get the president. But it soon emerged that Trump didn’t know much about his new nominee.
In the days after Trump impetuously announced Ratcliffe’s nomination on July 28, The Post and other news organizations discovered that the three-term congressman from Texas had greatly embellished his résumé. He had boasted that he had “arrested over 300 illegal immigrants in a single day” and had “firsthand experience combating terrorism. When serving by special appointment in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, he convicted individuals who were funneling money to Hamas behind the front of a charitable organization.” Turns out that Ratcliffe had played only a small role in a sweep of undocumented immigrants and an even smaller role in the Holy Land case; an aide told the New York Times that Ratcliffe only “investigated side issues related to an initial mistrial.”
With Senate opposition growing, Trump withdrew Ratcliffe’s nomination on Friday just five days after putting him forward. He had lasted less than half a Scaramucci. In pulling the plug, Trump both credited and blamed the media, saying, “You are part of the vetting process. I give out a name to the press and you vet for me, we save a lot of money that way. But in the case of John [Ratcliffe], I really believe that he was being treated very harshly and very unfairly.”
Ratcliffe was treated “very harshly and very unfairly” — but by Trump, not the news media. There’s a reason presidents normally vet nominees before, not after, they’re announced. It’s better both for the prospective appointee and for the president to have any skeletons uncovered before swinging the closet door wide open.
By ignoring the traditional way of doing things, Trump subjected his personal physician, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, to considerable embarrassment in 2018 by nominating him to become secretary of veterans affairs and then having to withdraw the nomination after stories emerged accusing Jackson of “freely dispensing medication, drinking on the job and creating a hostile workplace.” The Defense Department inspector general even launched an investigation of Jackson. Learning nothing, Trump repeated the same mistake this year when he nominated Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors — posts for which they were utterly unqualified. Facing Senate resistance, Trump had to withdraw their names — but not before unflattering details of Moore’s divorce became public.
And those are the good-news stories: the nominees who never took office. Much more common for Trump has been his discovery, after the fact, that his appointments were terrible mistakes. His clunkers have included a secretary of state
- (Rex Tillerson) who devastated morale at the State Department; a national security adviser
- (Michael Flynn) who was convicted of lying to the FBI; three Cabinet officers (Interior Secretary
- Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Health and Human Services Secretary
- Tom Price) who were forced out for improper travel expenses and other ethical improprieties; a secretary of labor
- (Alexander Acosta) who had given a sweetheart deal to a wealthy sex offender; and of course a communications director
- (Anthony Scaramucci) who was fired after 11 days for giving a profanity-filled, on-the-record interview to a reporter.
Coats is the 10th Cabinet member to leave the Trump administration. In President Barack Obama’s first two years in office, not a single Cabinet member departed. Trump also has a record-setting rate of 75 percent turnover among senior, non-Cabinet officials. The cost of this constant churn and chaos is high: It becomes nearly impossible to develop or pursue coherent policies.Trump is a president straight out of “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his protagonists: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In Trump’s case, the thing that he has smashed up is America’s government, and the cleanup cannot begin until January 2021 at the earliest.
The Shadow Rulers of the VA
How Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and two other Mar-a-Lago cronies are secretly shaping the Trump administration’s veterans policies.
.. shortly after Peter O’Rourke became chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he received an email from Bruce Moskowitz with his input on a new mental health initiative for the VA.
.. an informal council that is exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago
.. The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is a longtime acquaintance of President Trump’s. The third member is a lawyer named Marc Sherman. None of them has ever served in the U.S. military or government.
.. They have remained hidden except to a few VA insiders, who have come to call them “the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.”
.. they downplayed their influence, insisting that nobody is obligated to act on their counsel.
.. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd spoke with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views. “Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring,” a former administration official said.
.. If the bureaucracy resists the trio’s wishes, Perlmutter has a powerful ally: The President of the United States. Trump and Perlmutter regularly talk on the phone and dine together when the president visits Mar-a-Lago. “On any veterans issue, the first person the president calls is Ike,”
.. VA leaders who were at odds with the Mar-A-Lago Crowd were pushed out or passed over.
.. Offering more private healthcare to vets was a signature promise of Trump’s campaign, but at that point he hadn’t decided who should lead an effort that would reverse the VA’s longstanding practices.
.. Perlmutter then recommended Shulkin to Trump
.. Once nominated, Shulkin flew to Mar-a-Lago in early February 2017 to meet with Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz.
.. Moskowitz elaborated on the terms of their relationship. “We do not need to meet in person monthly, but meet face to face only when necessary,” he wrote. “We will set up phone conference calls at a convenient time.”
.. Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman acted like board members pounding a CEO to turn around a struggling company
.. “Everything needs to be run by them,” the first former official said, recalling the process. “They view themselves as making the decisions.”
.. They planned to promote the campaign by ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange around the time of Veterans Day.
The event also turned into a promotional opportunity for Perlmutter’s company. Executives from Marvel and its parent company, Disney, joined Johnson & Johnson as sponsors of the Veterans Day event at the stock exchange.
.. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd grew frustrated with Shulkin, feeling like he wasn’t listening to them, and Perlmutter came to regret recommending Shulkin to Trump in the first place
.. Trump initially nominated White House doctor Ronny Jackson to replace Shulkin, with Pentagon official Robert Wilkie filling in on a temporary basis. On Wilkie’s first day at the VA, Sherman was waiting for him in his office, according to a calendar record.
Within a few weeks, Wilkie made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s pick to head veterans department faces skepticism over his experience
Jackson is a career naval officer who was an emergency trauma doctor in Iraq before spending the past 12 years as a White House physician. But his résumé lacks the type of management experience usually expected from the leader of an agency that employs 360,000 people, has a $186 billion annual budget and is dedicated to serving the complex needs of the country’s veterans.
.. “It’s great that he served in Iraq and he’s our generation. But it doesn’t appear that he’s had assignments that suggest he could take on the magnitude of this job, and this makes Jackson a surprising pick,” said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America... The active-duty rear admiral had been a behind-the-scenes figure while serving the past three administrations as a White House physician, but he moved into the spotlight in January when he delivered a glowing assessment of Trump’s physical and mental health to reporters, which aides said endeared him to the president... Democratic senators said privately when Pompeo was tapped to replace Tillerson that they expect far fewer Democrats to back him than the 14 who voted for him to lead the CIA... Jackson’s policy views are unknown, particularly on the most pressing issue facing VA: how much access veterans should have to private doctors outside the system at government expense. Shulkin’s moderate views on the subject, which were at odds with many administration officials, helped end his tenure... VA secretary is one of Washington’s most unforgiving jobs even for someone with extensive management experience. Shulkin, also a physician, had run large hospital systems — including VA’s — before taking the job. His predecessor, Robert McDonald, was a chief executive of Procter & Gamble. The secretary before him was a decorated retired Army general, Eric K. Shinseki, who was forced out after managers in the far-flung health system were found to have fudged waitlists for veterans’ medical appointments... “I’ve seen him managing a staff of a couple dozen, which he did to perfection,” said Ned Price, a National Security Council spokesman under Obama who recalled that he was treated by Jackson for a toe injury in the Philippines.“But how that would translate to managing the second-largest department in federal government I have no idea,” Price said. “He has competence and integrity. I don’t think he’s going to fly around the world first-class or be buying thousands of dollars in furniture. But can he run VA? Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”
Is It Policy, or Just Reality TV?
It also announced that President Trump was nominating the White House physician to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. What do these announcements have in common?
The answer is that both are indicators of how Trump views his job. He doesn’t seem to see actual policymaking as important; instead, he treats it all as an exercise in reality TV.
.. The point, instead, is that running veterans’ health is a management, not medical, job — and Jackson has no managerial experience.
.. Once you start looking at the Trump administration as an exercise in publicity, not policy, you see signs of it everywhere.
.. Larry Kudlow to replace Gary Cohn in that role, Kudlow’s remarkable track record on the economy — he’s been wrong about everything
.. nothing in Kudlow’s role as a shouting head on cable TV has prepared him for the job he’s supposed to do.
.. So Trump is acting as if his job were to run up ratings for his TV show, not to make actual policies.
.. Wall Street had a big relief rally when investors tentatively concluded that Trump wants to only play at trade war, and can be bought off with symbolic wins that change nothing real.
.. Trump hasn’t managed to repeal Obamacare, but his officials have undermined the program’s efficiency, driving up premiums and reducing coverage.
.. if and when America needs real leadership, there will be nobody home.
.. So far, the Trump era has been almost free from crises Trump didn’t generate himself. One of the few such events demanding an effective response was Hurricane Maria — and the response was disastrously inadequate.
.. So what happens if there’s a foreign policy crisis, a financial crisis, a health crisis
.. we’ll need actual policies. And who’s going to devise those policies? Lincoln had a team of rivals; Trump has assembled a team of poseurs.
.. And even if Trump should come to realize he needs better people, he probably couldn’t get them.
.. Trump can’t even hire good lawyers!
.. one of these days, the reality TV administration is going to bump up against actual reality. And it’s not going to end well.