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 new Democratic majority in Congress maps out its investigations of the Trump administration.
To avert an investigative free-for-all, Democrats decided early on that they needed to prioritize their inquiries within a basic narrative framework: How is misbehavior X endangering the health and safety of our democracy or of the American people?
Issues ranking high on Democrats’ inquiry list include the administration’s
- response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; its decisions
- not to defend the pre-existing conditions provision of Obamacare and to undermine the program by starving it of funds; its policy of
- separating migrant families at the southern border; and its
- rollback of environmental protections. Other prime lines of inquiry are
- whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stood to benefit personally from decisions he made in office,
- whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress about his efforts to add a question about citizenship to the new census — and
- pretty much every decision made so far by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Such potential maladministration may not be as buzzy as, say, exploring
- whether Mr. Trump paid hush money to former mistresses or
- underpaid his taxes by a few hundred million dollars. But it does concretely influence the health and well-being of the public.
This is not to say Mr. Trump will get a pass on his personal behavior, simply that Democrats will try to keep the focus on the bigger picture. For instance, Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns is part of his family’s sketchy financial dealings, which raise serious questions about everything from emoluments violations to inappropriate dealings with foreign interests. The crucial question isn’t whether the president has violated the law but whether he has been selling out the nation for personal gain.
Just this week we had a top aide with multiple domestic abuse allegations, plus a chief of staff who never seemed to bother to pursue the matter. And a communications director — third one in a little over a year — who helped write the statement defending said aide, whom she happened to also be dating.
.. Tenure is irrelevant. Kirstjen Nielsen has only been secretary of homeland security for a couple of months, but we already know her as the woman who tried to support her boss by claiming she wasn’t sure whether Norway was a predominately white country.
.. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar .. Azar’s mission is supposed to be bringing down prescription prices, and his main qualification is having run the American division of a drug company during the five years when the price of its insulin rose from $122 to $274 a vial.
.. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency
.. “Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100? … That’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.”
.. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is busy pushing the federal death penalty and trying to prosecute the marijuana industry in states where grass is legal.
.. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is trying to dismember the World Trade Organization. Smaller minds are fascinated by reports that Lighthizer has a life-size portrait of himself hanging on the wall at home.
.. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is in charge of the upcoming census, which is underfunded, and rumors are that the chief candidate for deputy director is a highly partisan Texas professor whose book on reapportionment is subtitled “Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”
..Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin .. The new Trump nominee to lead the I.R.S. is a tax lawyer who specializes in defending wealthy clients against — yes! — the I.R.S. To cheer things up, we can go back to recalling the time Mnuchin posed with his wife, dressed in black opera gloves and a come-hither hairdo, admiring his signature on bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is well known for his enthusiasm for fossil fuel drilling. But even some of his fans were a little perplexed when he announced a policy for expanding offshore oil and gas drilling, and then abruptly added that there would be an exception for … Florida. Think it was all about Mar-a-Lago?
.. taxpayers paid $6,000 to helicopter Zinke to a critical appointment going horseback riding with Mike Pence.
Step 3. Zinke suddenly announced that Florida was “unique” and that there would be no offshore drilling there.
People, why do you think Florida is “unique”?
A) It has a Republican governor who might try to run for the Senate... The Republicans and Democrats came up with a compromise that ties protection for the Dreamers to a ton of nonwall security money. The sheer reasonableness of their effort triggered Step 3, in which Trump rejected everything, complained about the “shithole countries” and sent Washington into chaos.
As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blasted many within his department for being disloyal to the Trump administration’s agenda this week, the agency’s inspector general’s office continued a probe into whether officials acted inappropriately when they abruptly reassigned dozens of senior workers.
.. The reassigned workers include Joel Clement, a climate scientist who was removed from his job as director of policy analysis and reassigned to a revenue accounting position for which he has no experience. Clement became a whistleblower when he publicly complained about his switch from his longtime role, in which he assessed climate impact on Alaska Native communities... Beyond how the reassignments were carried out — which Atkinson said violated the U.S. Code — “it’s a waste of government money to just arbitrarily move people around in the hopes that they will quit,” she said... Another staffer called the news a “shock to the system” that would require a move to Washington from a post hundreds of miles away.
Presidents of both parties have often overplayed their efforts to strong-arm a member of Congress. It’s often not effective. In Mr. Shelby’s case, it even accelerated his switch to the Republican Party.
.. Mr. Sullivan told The Alaska Dispatch News that Mr. Zinke, whose department controls considerable resources in Alaska, had phoned both senators to let them know the state’s relationship with the Trump administration had been put in jeopardy by Ms. Murkowski’s vote. Howls of outrage followed, along with accusations of White House extortion.
.. Whether the phone calls were misinterpreted or not, it was certainly a ham-handed effort. Every decision the administration now makes in regard to Alaska will be interpreted through the lens of the health care dispute and seen as some kind of punishment of innocent residents if the state suffers.
.. Not to mention the fact that Mr. Zinke was put in the position of challenging a lawmaker who oversees his budget and policy programs. Ms. Murkowski is the chairwoman of both the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department. She arguably has more control over some aspects of the agency than the secretary has.
.. “In my experience, it is not wise for a cabinet secretary to bully the person who controls his purse strings,” said David Hayes, the former deputy secretary of the interior during the Obama administration, who has worked closely with Ms. Murkowski. “It’s very curious: He seems to have the relationship backward. In many respects, she is his boss.”.. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve seldom seen threats to be very effective,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri... In fact, the opposite tack has usually proved more effective, with lawmakers more likely to bend when offered benefits and goodies for their states. Carrots have produced more congressional wins than sticks... Mr. Shelby said that when the Clinton White House began discussing the job moves, he returned home and held a news conference to announce that “my vote is not for sale or lease to anybody, because it belongs to the people of Alabama.”
“Wow,” he said, “the people rallied around me.”
.. He, too, suffered a White House snub in 2001 when he was not invited to a Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate the teacher of the year — a Vermonter. The White House and its allies also made noises about rejiggering the New England Dairy Compact, a major Vermont issue.
.. Like Mr. Shelby, Mr. Jeffords ultimately left his party and stunned Washington by becoming an independent in May 2001, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats for most of the first two years of President George W. Bush’s term.
.. So if there is a lesson to be drawn from the experiences of Senators Shelby and Jeffords, it’s that too much hardball from the White House can sometimes lead a lawmaker to decide to play for the other team.