The Administration

Why vetting nominees is so important

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Hardee’s CEO Andy Puzder won’t be the next secretary of Labor. Vincent Viola won’t be the next secretary of the Army. Monica Crowley didn’t get a position at the National Security Council and Philip Bilden withdrew his nomination as secretary of the Navy.

Failures of vetting by the Trump administration continue to dominate the news.

Despite my own partisan leanings as a Democrat, as a former political researcher who has done fair bit of vetting, it’s painful to watch this series of self-inflicted wounds. And the growing list of nominees who have withdrawn already also leaves aside the longer list of Trump nominees thus far who have made it through bruising confirmation hearings and tough votes based on troubling revelations about their business practicesfailure to pay taxes, insider trading allegations and more.

These issues needn’t have been a surprise, and for most administrations, they wouldn’t have been. In nearly a decade of heading vetting efforts for campaigns, nonprofits and corporations, I never had a client who appeared to have so little concern over the basic background of it’s partners or hires. While different organizations have different appetites for risk, at a minimum they want to know the issues that exist, and make an informed decision.

Instead, the Trump administration has put forth a cast of nominees who, regardless of their qualifications and talents, didn’t receive even a basic degree of vetting or diligence before their nominations were made public. A report by The Wall Street Journal early in February noted that prospective appointees hadn’t received requests for financial or other background materials — a basic step in the process.

{mosads}This total lack of vetting is unprecedented, and it does a real disservice to all parties involved. It’s done a significant disservice to the nominees themselves, as many of these issues could have been dealt with much more easily up front. It’s also forced congressional Republicans to spend time and political capital backing nominees who almost certainly wouldn’t have been nominated by an administration vetting its choices. Finally, it’s pushed this responsibility off onto the press, Congress and the public.


The vast majority of the revelations that have dogged the administration’s nominees thus far have stemmed from public records which the administration should have known about — but clearly didn’t — prior to the nominee’s announcement. Indeed, it’s often appeared that the administration was learning about potentially disqualifying issues with their candidates the same way the rest of us are: by reading about it in the press.

Take, for instance, the case of U.S. Trade Representative nominee Robert Lighthizer. As a former deputy U.S. trade representative, Lighthizer would seem to be well-qualified for the role, and an easy nomination to shepherd through. In fact, you might think he’d have already been confirmed, given the administration’s tough rhetoric around trade.

Instead, Lighthizer’s still waiting — his first hearing was finally scheduled for later this week. After his nomination, newspapers reported that Lighthizer had registered as a foreign agent, negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of Brazil in a trade dispute over ethanol, and represented a state-owned Chinese company.

Now, instead of coasting to nomination, Lighthizer would require an additional waiver —something the Trump administration hadn’t mentioned in his announcement.

Administration members didn’t seem to have known about the issue at all. If they had, it’d have made sense to acknowledge it, as they did with the appointment of retired Gen. James Mathis, who also required a waiver to be secretary of Defense.

The troubling thing is that these reports drew on publicly available Foreign Agent Registrations, which are a standard search in most vetting processes. Looking at them would take a few seconds. It’s not just that they didn’t know about it; the problem is that they didn’t even bother to do the extremely modest amount of work that would have been required to find out.

The vetting process is a basic diligence function, ensuring that those who serve in positions of power are free of conflicts of interest or other compromising embarrassments and entanglements. Across nearly every industry, similar checks are performed — of executives and business partners, of borrowers and grantees, and even of political candidates themselves. It’s basic risk management.

As the Trump administration is learning, it’s a whole lot easier to know about these issues up front, before you’re answering questions about them at a hearing or from a reporter.

Mike Phillips is a former opposition researcher for Democratic senatorial candidates and the CEO and founder of Vigilant Web, a software platform for research, vetting and due-diligence investigations.

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