Political News

Trump's gut-driven picks continue to collapse

Posted May 2, 2019 4:59 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump's outside-the-box picks for administration posts have long contributed to the allure of his "drain the swamp" mantra. Yet for many of those selections, a life spent outside the "box" -- paired with the President's own rush to name his nominees before they are properly vetted -- have proven ill-fated.

Herman Cain and Stephen Moore, two of his picks to sit on the board of the Federal Reserve, have withdrawn their names from contention when it became clear their backgrounds were too pocked even for many Republicans.

Dr. Ronny Jackson, his choice to run the Veterans Affairs department, was felled by allegations he improperly dispensed medication in his role as the President's physician. Heather Nauert, who Trump elevated to serve as US Ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew because a nanny she employed didn't have proper work papers.

The pattern has frustrated some Trump aides and Republican senators, who say the President's eagerness to trumpet his selections before their backgrounds can be thoroughly checked has led to embarrassing withdrawals and questions of administration competence.

It's also partly a consequence of Trump's unorthodox process for selecting the people he wants to fill vacant jobs. Often his picks are those he has seen on television or knows personally, not the type of career government official whose background might yield fewer ignominious episodes.

Whatever the cause, the effect has been a series of individuals put through a wringer of public scrutiny -- rather than a quiet vetting -- that leads to a moment of recognition: the nomination is untenable. Their reputations forever marred, the picks withdraw from consideration. And, in some cases, another posting, one requiring neither congressional approval nor any prominence, is found as consolation.

Trump has long surrounded himself with aides sourced from a range of backgrounds. His top social media adviser, Dan Scavino, used to work as his golf caddy. Hope Hicks, his onetime communications director, was introduced to the President through her public relations work on Ivanka Trump's fashion brand. Both count themselves among Trump's closest advisers.

And two of his top West Wing advisers were pulled from the ranks of cable news: Larry Kudlow, the former CNBC pundit, is his economic adviser, and John Bolton, the former Fox analyst, is the national security adviser.

Those White House jobs don't require lawmakers' approval. Putting unconventional experiences up against the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation has proven a far more difficult task.

Failed nominations happen to every president, and even the most experienced officials can be brought down with decades-old revelations that vetting teams failed to identify. But for Trump the pattern appears exacerbated since he telegraphs his choices early in the process and selects nominees well outside the government norm.

Unconventional picks

The latest examples came this month, as the men Trump announced as his selections to fill vacant seats on the board of the Federal Reserve both found their nominations facing steep resistance from Democrats and some Republicans.

First through the gauntlet was Cain, the former pizza executive whose own bid for the presidency crumbled under allegations of sexual harassment in 2012. Those allegations were thoroughly aired during that race, but did not prevent Trump from declaring his intention to nominate Cain to the Fed seat seven years later.

"I've told my folks that's the man, and he's doing some pre-checking now. I would imagine he'd be in great shape," Trump said in early April.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, it was clear Cain was not in great shape. Aside from the sexual harassment allegations, senators had come to question his qualifications for a position that helps determine monetary policy and has a major role in the nation's economy. Eventually, at least four Republican senators said they couldn't support him, ending the prospects for his confirmation.

Later, Cain said he withdrew his name from consideration because taking the job would force him to abandon his "business interests."

With Cain out of the running, attention turned to Moore, the conservative commentator who advises Trump on economic matters. Trump initially announced he was nominating Moore in March -- allowing plenty of time for reporters (led by CNN's KFile) to unearth a series of sexist writings as well as raise questions about his personal finances.

Republicans senators took notice, alarmed by the content of Moore's columns but also his closeness to the President (the Federal Reserve is supposed to operate independently of the White House). Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said it was "very unlikely that I would support that person." Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, said "it's hard to look past" the sexist writing.

Even Sen. Lindsay Graham -- Trump's top Senate ally who golfed with the President this weekend -- said he is "still looking at it but it would be very problematic."

Even with the writing on the wall -- and with the White House urging him to maintain a low profile -- Moore engaged in a vigorous self-defense. But the same morning he was quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying he wouldn't withdraw, the President ended the drama with a tweet.

The pair of Federal Reserve selections became just the latest Trump administration flame-outs sparked by the President's whim-driven nomination process.

Beyond the group of high-profile picks whose nominations or would-be nominations have been sunk because of insufficient vetting and a hasty announcement by the President, the Trump administration has racked up an unusually high number of withdrawn nominations, with the statistic even earning its own Wikipedia page.

Two consecutive nominees for Secretary of the Army withdrew from consideration before the post was filled by a third nominee 10 months into Trump's presidency. Trump's first pick for labor secretary, the fast food executive Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination a month into Trump's term. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has yet to be led by a Senate-confirmed director after Trump's first two nominees withdrew or were forced to withdraw.

More than a dozen other nominees for positions requiring Senate confirmation -- including federal judgeships, ambassadorships and deputy-level department positions -- have withdrawn their nominations after it became clear they could not be confirmed.

Jackson and Nauert

The most prominent example came in the spring of 2018 when Trump nominated Rear Adm. Dr. Ronny Jackson, the presidential physician, to head up the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jackson had served as a White House physician under three Presidents and Trump had grown particularly fond of Jackson and the impassioned assessment of Trump's health he delivered just months earlier, declaring the then-borderline obese President who showed evidence of heart disease in "excellent health."

But Jackson had no executive experience to speak of to qualify him to run the federal government's second-largest department -- and one only just emerging from years of scandal and a crisis of confidence in its leadership.

He had previously been the subject of an internal report that held him partially responsible for creating a hostile work environment and several of his colleagues harbored concerns about his handling of prescriptions and behavior on the job. But before the White House office tasked with vetting prospective nominees could even begin to uncover the extent of the allegations that would be leveled against Jackson, Trump announced Jackson's nomination with a tweet.

Within days, Jackson went from being a little-known public figure with a largely intact public reputation to a hotly-scrutinized, high-profile nominee facing damaging allegations of mishandling prescriptions and drinking on the job. Less than a month after he was nominated, Jackson withdrew from consideration.

"I understand the President wants his people and we want to be deferential as much as we can, but it would be nice to know some of the issues that come up after the fact, before the fact," Sen. John Thune, then the No. 3 Republican, said at the time.

Even Trump acknowledged in the waning days of Jackson's nomination that his nominee had "an experience problem." Trump was even more blunt in the following months.

"He might not have been qualified," Trump said.

Months later, Trump announced his intention to nominate State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to become the US ambassador to the United Nations -- once again before the White House had concluded a thorough vetting of the would-be nominee.

The announcement already sparked questions on Capitol Hill about whether the former Fox News journalist-turned-spokeswoman was qualified to assume one of the US's most high-profile diplomatic posts. And White House officials later found out Nauert had employed a nanny who was not authorized to work in the US.

Before her nomination could be formally submitted to the Senate, Nauert withdrew, citing family concerns. Like Jackson, she found herself appointed by the President to a less-prominent post: a seat on the Fulbright foreign scholarship board.

Afterward, people close to Nauert and Jackson both said neither seemed particularly keen on the jobs they were unsuccessfully tapped to fill. But encouraged by a President who believed they would be perfect for the job, they accepted to be nominated.