The Memo: Trump prizes loyalty over experience in Cabinet
President Trump’s penchant for making unconventional picks to fill senior positions is once again on full display.
On Wednesday, he announced that he would nominate the White House physician, Ronny Jackson, to replace David Shulkin as the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Jackson, who served President Obama as well as Trump, has no significant experience managing a large organization. The VA has an annual budget of around $180 billion and well over 300,000 employees.
Trump’s approach to appointments, which often seems to put loyalty and personal chemistry ahead of experience, extends far beyond Jackson.
Voters who backed Trump elected him despite his own lack of Washington experience, choosing to trust his business background and gut instincts. Trump seems to be taking the same approach with many of his appointments.
Earlier this month, he chose Larry Kudlow to replace Gary Cohn as chief economic adviser.
Kudlow’s main focus in recent years has been as a television commentator, though he does come from a business background as a former chief economist for Bear Stearns. That experience, however, dates back more than 20 years.
Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and former rival to Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has little evident experience in the areas within his purview as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His tenure has been marked by a number of controversies.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been deeply involved in the promotion of charter schools over orthodox public schools for years, but has never before held public office. That inexperience has been exposed on occasion, most recently in an awkward CBS “60 Minutes” interview.
These stumbles have strengthened critics’ convictions that Trump is failing to hire “the best people,” as he famously promised.
“One thing that has always been valued in a White House — except for perhaps this one — is real qualifications and real experience,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron and the author of a book on presidential chiefs of staff. “President Trump doesn’t really seem to pay attention to those things.”
It is, to be sure, easy to oversimplify Trump’s hiring style, and its effects.
Experience doesn’t always lead to success. Donald Rumsfeld was seen as a successful chief of staff to President Ford. His tenure at the Pentagon during the Iraq War was viewed very differently.
While critics complain of Trump’s unorthodox, inexperienced picks, some of his most conventional choices have not exactly covered themselves in glory either.
Sean Spicer, his first press secretary, was basically an emissary from the GOP establishment to the Trump insurgents who had won the White House — but his tenure was characterized by memorable missteps.
Tom Price, another popular pick with conservatives inside the Beltway as Secretary of Health and Human Services, resigned after spending around $400,000 on chartered flights and other travel expenses.
Similarly, Trump supporters would argue that media coverage of the tumult that has affected his administration fails to acknowledge those figures who have performed competently: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is often mentioned, as is Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
But there is no doubt that Trump has been prone to out-of-the-box appointments from the start — for better and for worse.
This week sees the departure of Hope Hicks as his communications director. She has been by his side since the start of his outsider bid for the presidency, and had never previously worked on a political campaign.
Hicks’s exit is a source of genuine sadness inside the West Wing.
A very different reaction was produced when Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former contestant on the Trump-fronted NBC series “The Apprentice,” was ousted from her post late last year in the White House Office of Public Liaison.
Much media coverage of Trump’s personnel picks has focused on his fondness of people from the television world. But backers and critics of the president alike caution against painting with too broad a brush.
Some note, for example, that State Department spokeswoman and acting under-secretary of State Heather Nauert is generally seen as having acquitted herself well — despite some harsh coverage when she was first appointed that sneered at her history as a Fox News anchor.
Others bridle about the emphasis given to John Bolton’s frequent appearances on the same cable network.
They note that, whether or not one agrees with the hawkish foreign policy stance of Trump’s pick to be his third national security adviser, Bolton has a history of government service that dates back decades.
Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee and a frequent Trump critic, said that “a lot of folks” had been critical of Trump’s fondness for TV commentators.
“When it is Omarosa, it is an absolutely valid point,” he said. “But having people in important positions able to well-articulate their positions? I think that’s a good thing.”
A Republican strategist with ties to the White House drew a distinction between Bolton and other choices, however.
“Larry Kudlow has been a television commentator for what feels like decades,” the source said, “I think it is an open question whether he is qualified to handle his position — and we’ll soon find out.”
Others take an even more sharply negative view, arguing that Trump prizes loyalty above all else, to his own detriment.
“If any president in our modern era truly needed people to speak truth to power, it’s this president, because he comes into the job with so little experience,” said Cohen. “Unfortunately, I don’t think he is really interested in learning.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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