Want to evaluate Donald Trump’s judgment? Listen to Donald Trump
“One of the things I have is really good judgment,” former President Trump claimed. “I think I have a really good temperament. … I certainly have a great relationship with people. I get along with everybody.” During his campaign in 2016, Trump pledged he would appoint “the very best people” to his Cabinet and administration.
As president, Trump selected people to serve in the most important positions in the United States government. Anyone interested in assessing his judgment should pay attention to his reasons for choosing them and his subsequent assessments of their performance in office.
When he appointed Army Gen. Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2019, Trump said he had “absolute confidence he will fulfill his duty with the same brilliance and fortitude he has shown throughout his long and very distinguished career.” In January 2020, after Milley apologized for allowing the military to be involved in removing protesters at a Washington, D.C., rally, the president declared Milley should “resign and be replaced with someone who is actually willing to defend our military from the Leftist radicals who hate our Country and our Flag.” In July 2020, Trump explained that he gave Milley the job because former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whom he also had appointed, “could not stand him, had no respect for him, and would not recommend him” and because former President Obama “didn’t like him and actually fired Milley. I often act counter to people’s advice who I don’t respect.”
Trump declared in July 2018, “I have long heard that the most important decision a U.S. President can make is the selection of a Supreme Court justice.” Brett Kavanaugh, his nominee, had “one of the finest and sharpest legal minds in our time,” Trump said. After Kavanaugh failed to vote to ax the Affordable Care Act or affirm Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election, Trump fumed that Kavanaugh “doesn’t have the courage you need to be a great justice.” Trump implied that “his” justices should put loyalty to him ahead of their oath to uphold the Constitution. “Where would he be without me?” Trump asked of Kavanaugh. “I saved his life. He wouldn’t even be in a law firm. Who would have had him? Nobody. Totally disgraced.”
In December 2018, Trump praised William Barr, his choice as attorney general, as “one of the most respected jurists in the country … a terrific man, a terrific person, a brilliant man.” In February 2020, Trump defended the then-embattled Barr as a “very straight shooter,” a person of “incredible integrity” whose “commitment to the rule of law, the Constitution, and the American people has proven this trust to be well-placed.” But when Barr announced that the Justice Department had found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Trump reportedly exploded: “How the f— could you do this to me?” Trump has now concluded that Barr is a “RINO,” or Republican in name only, a “hypocrite” who “went out in a whimper” and a “disappointment in every sense of the word.”
Mike Pence, a “man of honor, character, and integrity … a man I truly believe will be outstanding for our country,” was Trump’s first choice for vice president, Trump told Americans in 2016. When Pence began to maintain that the Constitution required him to certify the results presented by the Electoral College in 2020, Trump reportedly concluded Pence was “a stiff and a square,” a person “who could be rolled.”
“Do you want to be a patriot or a p—-?” he reportedly asked the vice president.
Any doubts about whether Trump’s self-acknowledged lapses of judgment constitute a pattern?
Just 11 days after Trump hired Anthony Scaramucci (“a person I have great respect for”) as White House director of communications in 2017, he fired him. “I barely knew him until his 11 days of incompetence,” Trump subsequently explained. A “highly unstable nut job,” Scaramucci (Trump said) “made a fool of himself, abused staff, got fired.”
Trump maintained that the directors of National Intelligence, the FBI and the CIA he appointed were “extremely passive and naïve” and “should go back to school.”
Trump initially deemed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “brilliant, one of the truly great business leaders of the world” but later called him “dumb as a rock. … I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell.”
Gen. John Kelly, “a true star of my Administration … respected by everybody,” Trump later claimed was “over his head” as chief of staff.
“A world class legal mind and considered a truly great attorney general,” Jeff Sessions became — in Trump’s subsequent judgement — mentally unqualified to hold the office.
The initially “great John Bolton,” director of the National Security Council, eventually was deemed “incompetent,” a “wacko” who “never had a clue, was ostracized and happily dumped.”
Gen. James Mattis, “a brilliant, wonderful man … the real deal,” turned — in Trump’s mind —into “the world’s most overrated general” after he served as secretary of Defense. “What’s he done for me?” Trump asked.
This short list does not include former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, or former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — all of whom resigned amid allegations of ethics violations.
Does Trump have really good judgment? Did he appoint the very best people?
Trump has already provided very persuasive answers.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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