An administration of charlatans

ATLANTA -- The best gauge of a leader's character, competence and intelligence is the quality of people whom he chooses to surround him and act on his behalf. As proof of that assertion, I offer up the example of Donald J. Trump.

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Jay Bookman
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- The best gauge of a leader's character, competence and intelligence is the quality of people whom he chooses to surround him and act on his behalf. As proof of that assertion, I offer up the example of Donald J. Trump.

As former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt describes it, "we've never quite seen the assemblage of crooks, just outright weirdos, wife beaters, drunk drivers, complete and total incompetents that's been assembled" by Trump, and it's hard to argue with that assessment.

Fifteen months into what is scheduled to be a 48-month presidency, the circus of mediocrities surrounding Trump has only grown more bizarre and incompetent. At this rate, we'll end up with Seb Gorka as our secretary of state and Sarah Palin as our secretary of defense.

The most recent example of this human resources debacle is Dr. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician whom Trump nominated to serve as secretary of veterans' affairs. Even on its face, that nomination made no sense.

The Veterans Administration is a vast and troubled bureaucracy, with more than 375,000 employees, and whatever his other attributes, Jackson clearly lacked the managerial skills and experience to succeed in what might be the toughest job in government.

In addition, the White House clearly did not attempt to vet Jackson’s background and record before announcing his nomination. Questions of a personal nature were raised about Jackson that would have been uncovered and dealt with beforehand by a more professional White House, and again the result is a tarnished personal reputation.

Everywhere you look at the Trump White House, you see trouble. These people aren't draining the swamp, they are the swamp. At the EPA, longtime political grifter Scott Pruitt has flung open the doors to the pollution lobby and undermined the role of science in deciding policy.

At the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke rules like some tinpot dictator of a Third World country, acting as if rules are for little people and aping the likes of Queen Elizabeth. By Zinke's orders, a special flag has to be flown above Interior Department buildings when His Royal Highness is in attendance, then lowered when he departs. And when he does depart, it is quite often on a chartered private jet.

My favorite, though, is Mick Mulvaney. Back when he was a lowly House backbencher from South Carolina, Mulvaney was downright obsessive about deficit spending and the debt ceiling. Now, as head of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, none of that seems to bother him anymore.

Mulvaney has also been appointed interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and in that role he addressed some 1,300 bankers and finance-industry executives last week.

"We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," Mulvaney recalled to an audience of people whom he is supposed to be regulating. "If you're a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."

He then went on to urge the lobbyists to give money to Republican congressmen, and to then use the access that they purchase to demand further de-regulation of their industries.

In the meantime, Mulvaney is doing everything in his power as interim director to turn the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into an agency that protects the financial industry from consumers. He is dropping lawsuits and enforcement actions, and trying to undermine if not reverse consumer protections.

For example, he told the lobbyists and finance executives that federal law requires the CFPB to collect consumer complaints about finance companies and to maintain those complaints on a database. He has no choice but to abide by that law, he said, but he does have the right to make that database inaccessible to consumers looking to see which companies have a bad track record.

"I don't see anything in (the law) that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government," Mulvaney told the crowd. "I don't see anything in here that says that I have to make all of those public."

If those kind of comments had been uttered in a private conversation or email that was later leaked to the public under any other administration, Republican or Democrat, they would be controversial and might get a person fired. So the boldness of making them in public, to an audience of the supposedly regulated, sends a message in its own right about what's going on in Washington. This isn't hidden; it's not something that they think they have to be shy about.

In fact, rumor has it that Mulvaney's actions have made him a strong favorite to replace John Kelly as Trump's chief of staff.

Jay Bookman writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: jbookman(at)ajc.com.

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