The appearance by Paul Manafort to answer a 12-count indictment doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about Russia meddling in our election, but it does tell us much of what we need to know about Donald Trump’s staffing. He does it without extreme vetting — Trump spent more time checking the references of pit bosses who could steal for him in his casinos than of Manafort to chair his campaign.
What presidential candidate would choose a lobbyist with three passports, applications for 10 more, a contract with a murderous Ukrainian political party, and a penchant for laundering money he spent like a drunken sailor, most of which Trump could have found out about if he’d bothered. Federal prosecutors describe him as a “flight risk.” His daughter sadly observed he lacks “a moral compass.”
But Trump didn’t notice. A moral compass is not the tool Trump uses to judge his people, not that some don’t have one. He now blows off the alleged felon as a fill-in sent from a temp agency he can barely remember.
Failing to choose solid people who can stand up to him isn’t Trump’s only problem by a long shot. But it is a huge continuing one. Retired four-star Gen. John Kelly, rather than providing the “adult day care” Sen. Bob Corker hoped for, has become another Trump partisan. Hardly known to Trump when he nominated him to head the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly sailed through confirmation in what Sen. Heidi Heitkamp called a “love fest,” despite hardline views similar to Trump’s.
Trump afterward did get to know Kelly so that when congressional Republicans asked, please, for someone to manage the White House, Trump secretly welcomed Kelly who, if he hadn’t fallen in love with the president at DHS, certainly fell in line. Kelly shares Trump’s ignorance of history and soft spot for white supremacy, calling Robert E. Lee an “honorable man” on Fox News and claiming the Civil War was fought because of a lack of compromise, echoing Trump’s earlier claim that he could have negotiated a deal to prevent the conflict. The two of them ignore that multiple compromises failed over the impossibility of compromising over slavery.
Kelly no longer looks like he’s managing Trump, but that Trump is managing him with Kelly’s hostage-like press conference to defend Trump’s attack on a second Gold Star family and his refusal to apologize for getting his facts wrong. When Kelly said he was just lost in thought when he grimaced as Trump equated Nazi sympathizers and ordinary protesters in Charlottesville, we should have listened.
As Kelly learned, the key to success and avoiding Trump’s blinding fury is to go along with him. Ask Gary Cohn, who mildly criticized Trump after Charlottesville, and then stood to the side in the Rose Garden Thursday as he saw his dream to be Fed hair disappear in Trump’s nomination of Fed governor Jerome Powell.
And look at Trump devotee Sam Clovis. Even as Manafort was being fingerprinted, Trump was still determined to install Clovis, Manafort’s co-chair and a former radio host who equated gays and child molesters, as the top scientist at the Department of Agriculture.
Despite checking “none” next to every box on a Senate questionnaire about his experience for the job, the obsequious Clovis might have been confirmed by a pliant Senate had it not been for Monday’s revelation that campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, aka “coffee boy,” reported to him. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about putting Trump family members in touch with Kremlin officials who had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. It was this, not failing to know the difference between a lima and a soybean that forced Clovis to withdraw his name.
And yet, don’t think Trump will let a loyal lieutenant go. Clovis will stay on in the White House as a senior adviser, which doesn’t require confirmation. Not that the Senate has been a check on Trump’s obviously deficient nominees, from Education’s Betsy DeVos who crippled many a school in Michigan and wants to do the same nationally, including weakening special education and rules on campus sexual assault, to the Small Business Administration’s Linda McMahon, a failed Senate candidate, whose appeal to Trump is her money-making belief that pro wrestling wasn’t vulgar enough and that she could become wealthier yet by denying her wrestlers health insurance.
Then there’s former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, swept into office despite being against his agency’s mission and being compromised by alleged insider trading as a congressman. He proceeded to destroy Obamacare from within, stopped only when his habit of flying like royalty forced his resignation.
There’s EPA’s Scott Pruitt, who’d ghostwritten legal documents for the energy industry as Oklahoma Attorney General, who has turned his agency into the Fossil Fuel Protection Agency, scrubbing the very words climate change from agency documents. Tormented Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists he hasn’t been castrated, proving that he has been, for suggesting that we should talk with North Koreans rather than risk world War III.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proved himself less responsible than the government of Puerto Rico who rejected the $300 million contract with a two-person firm with ties to Zinke to repair its infrastructure. Now he can get back to drilling for oil in the Arctic and selling off parkland.
Although Trump has his minions in place, he won’t need them as much after today when, in one fell swoop, he proposes to starve the government he deplores with a tax bill that rolls up every bad idea out there into one big giveaway to the rich. It relies on discredited trickle-down economics to sell it to the unwealthy. Trump alone will save tens of millions of dollars in a single year, an estimate based on his publicly available 2005 tax return.
He’s ensured that there would be no staff around to stop him from pushing it.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.