Let’s imagine that Donald Trump hadn’t summarily fired former Gov. Chris Christie and thus had binders full of candidates for high office, color-coded by area of expertise and by department: Does anyone believe President-Elect Trump would have even flipped open those 30 volumes?
Please. If you say yes, you probably believe Trump when he says he never even met his most recent accuser, journalist E. Jean Carroll (there’s a picture of them at a party), who told her story of staying after hours at Bergdorf Goodman to help real estate developer Trump find a gift of lingerie for whomever he was sleeping with at the time only to be raped by him in a dressing room.
Vetting, schmetting. Trump doesn’t give a fig about background checks, whether by Christie, twentysomethings from the RNC, or the FBI whose denial of security clearances he overrules. What cursory reviews — called “scrubs” — uncovered that should have been a turnoff actually emboldened Trump. If Trump cared about getting his choices right before starting, he wouldn’t be on his third try filling the position of wife.
Still, kudos to Axios for uncovering the research cobbled together to replace Christie’s opus. There were some juicy morsels about the prospects who didn’t like him — Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Mick Mulvaney — but who were chosen for compensating qualities like ignorance and subservience. There’s a tape of an ABC interview in which acting chief of staff Mulvaney scurries from the room when Trump scolds him for coughing. But those morsels hardly come close to current lapdog and golfing companion Sen. Lindsey Graham calling Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic bigot.” He’s so made up for that with rapt devotion, it’s a wonder he’s not up for the newly opened position of Secretary of Defense.
Like a bull, Trump is attracted to red flags waved at him. Trump’s admiration for Fox’s Laura Ingraham, in the running for press secretary, grew when he saw her trenchant comment in her crusade against North Carolina’s bathroom bill: “People should wear diapers rather than share bathrooms with transgender people.” Trump just gave her a prized with the D-Day commemoration in Normandy in the background, and him talking politics in the foreground. With Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ departure as press secretary, she could be in the running again.
Most of these newly seen scrubs were superficial except the one for Rudy Giuliani, who became Trump’s pit bull in his war against the FBI, the CIA, and Justice, but was then angling for secretary of state. He got 25 pages with headings “Foreign Ties,” “Corporate Entanglements,” and “Paid Speeches” scratching the surface of what made him a dangerous choice.
Trump not choosing either the best or the brightest for his White House is as unsurprising as his skipping serious deliberations on whether to attack Iran until the last moment when, he says, he called it off on a whim.
There’s no devising a vetting that could meet Trump’s needs: Do you look the part (former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did, until he didn’t). Are you almost completely unqualified? (HUD’s Ben Carson). Do you give off outsider vibes but will nonetheless be at home in a swamp of Trump’s creation? (Steve Bannon and too many others to mention). Most importantly, are you obsequious? (Mike Pence, Elaine Chao, Mike Pompeo, all the free traders who now meekly support crippling tariffs, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue who is ruining “patriot farmers” with soybeans rotting in silos, and John Bolton). The national security adviser Trump now calls “absolutely a hawk”, as if he just discovered it, wasn’t rejected the first time around because he’s never met a regime he doesn’t want to change. Bolton failed the Tillerson test: Trump was put off by his mustache.
The list goes on, and on. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, known for insider trading and a congressional tenure “haunted” by “dysfunction and division,” was chosen anyway. He was one of the first to leave after months of criticism for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on chartered and first class flights. On Scott Pruitt to be his EPA administrator the vetters highlighted his "coziness with big energy companies." Kudos and a big promotion for that alert. It’s why Trump chose him. Not only did Pruitt almost single-handedly keep the coal industry alive, he proved to be a worthy contestant in the stiff competition for Most Corrupt Cabinet Official Ever by dint of having some of the Most Curious Scandals, including not answering the door of his condo (rented at a sweetheart rate from a lobbyist) when his security team pounded on it, and asking his staff to shop for a used mattress from the Trump hotel.
The lack of vetting meant that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta got through despite approving a sweetheart deal for child molester Jeffrey Epstein, who’d faced prison for life for trafficking in underage girls. The Miami Herald eventually did the vetting for Trump. It didn’t matter. Acosta remains in a position of honor.
So many Trump officials have now left in disgrace or disgust that the president now saves himself the trouble of vetting anyone in favor of letting Capitol Hill and the press do it. Take his two recent choices for the Federal Reserve Board. There was Herman Cain, charged with sexual harassment, pushing erectile dysfunction drugs, and a preposterous 9-9-9 tax plan and Stephen Moore, a silly presence on TV who cheated on his taxes, his wife, and child support payments. Neither was formally nominated before they were laughed (and cried) out of contention.
From the leaked vetting docs, we know Mulvaney thought Trump was “not a very good person” but was nonetheless named anyway to the second-tier Consumer Financial Protection Bureau where he so pleased Trump by gutting it while resuscitating the payday lender industry, he was promoted to head of the Office of Management and Budget. But Trump didn’t go so far as to bring him into the White House as permanent chief of staff job. “Acting” keeps Mulvaney on his toes as he watches another “acting” Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan’s being shown the door for keeping secret a sad family altercation.
Whatever Trump wants, Mulvaney will do and also bear the embarrassment of cartoonish mistakes, like planning to cut funds for Special Olympics. Right now, congressional Republicans are begging the White House to send Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to negotiate the budget and debt limit for fear that Mulvaney is so indebted to Trump he will opt for a government shutdown if that’s what Trump wants.
What Mulvaney really hopes for is to be named real chief of staff and, then, real Secretary of Commerce. That requires Wilbur Ross to leave, or be fired for lying that it was Justice that added a question on citizenship to the census. No matter the vetting for the latter, it’s not likely to show what Trump will base his decision on: Is this person presentable, completely pliable, and willing to race from the room, no matter how bad a cold, rather than risk coughing in the president’s presence.
This is why Trump likes those “acting” titles so much. They makes divorce so easy. They clear the desks so that Trump can flirt again, and find another red flag to charge at.
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.
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