President Trump on Tuesday picked uber-hawk Mike Pompeo, who would like to get rid of the Iran deal, to replace Rex Tillerson at the State Department, where, for all his faults, Tillerson tried to keep Trump from damaging U.S. credibility by pulling out of international agreements.
Wednesday, Trump hired supply-sider Larry Kudlow, a sunnier version of himself. The Post reports: “Both men favor expensive tailored suits and bright-colored ties, and have hosted television programs. In past decades, they have frequently connected socially at business and Republican functions.” Kudlow is a free-trader and in favor of immigration, so how his views will mesh with Trump’s is unclear, unless Kudlow is planning on what Eliot Cohen exquisitely calls going “full Mnuchin.” Cohen, a former State Department official, explains, “The secretary of the treasury is shameless in his flattery of the president. One suspects that his sycophancy is matched by his cynicism.” Kudlow’s view that tax cuts pay for themselves, deficits don’t matter and income inequality is irrelevant will, however, fit in well with an administration that has all but given up the pretext of economic populism (unless it’s tied to xenophobia and nationalism).
The team of rivals Trump once bragged about is becoming a hall of mirrors with little Trumps as far as the eye can see. Cohen warns:
The upshot of such an environment in the White House is that — again, with the honorable and quite possibly heroic exception of [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis — it will become more than ever the conniving and dishonest court of an unpredictable, ill-informed and willful monarch. The president will hear no forceful disagreements; he will not be contradicted; he will believe that his instincts and whims are invariably correct. Those around him may not be quite as honest in admitting their lack of integrity as Peter Navarro, the economic adviser who recently described his job as finding the data to support Trump’s instincts. To stay in favor, however, they will have to do as he does — and hope that the president will forget his really stupid or dangerous decisions while they undo the damage. The dangers of an executive branch run this way, with public groveling and private deceit the order of the day, are evident.
Now, while Kudlow’s post is not subject to Senate confirmation, Pompeo’s nomination to State is. If Trump swaps out some or all of the Cabinet secretaries embroiled in one scandal or another (e.g., Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Interior), their replacements will also require confirmation.
Brace yourself: The quality of the replacements (and replacements for those who were themselves replacements) is going to go downhill. After seeing this White House in action and how Trump treats Cabinet secretaries and top advisers, many capable people will shy away. The smart ones will realize this is not a good career move. Like in the Woody Allen joke — the food is terrible, and the portions are so small! — there is another problem. Max Stier, who heads the Partnership for Public Service, tells me, “The closer we get to the midterms, the harder everything becomes for recruiting talent since a change in party would likely create a much, much harder operating environment. You are also looking at a shorter and shorter period in office, which makes the cost of getting in harder to accept.”
Trump’s wholesale hiring and firing mean that in many cases we will need to start over with deputy secretaries and other top people whom a new secretary will have to work with. What happens to nominees at lower levels already in the pipeline? What about newly installed appointees who were picked by outgoing secretaries? “Leadership change at the top typically leads to more attrition among the leadership ranks as people who came to work for Tillerson choose not to stay or are told to go,” Stier says. “That will also play out for those that are in the confirmation pipeline. To make matters worse, there is going to be a period of substantial uncertainty while Pompeo is going through the confirmation process.”
The Senate, which has rubber stamped one dreadful nomination after another — only to see them crash and burn at record speed — needs to step up to the plate and do its constitutional duty. Rather than giving Trump every one of his ill-fated nominees, Republicans would have been far wiser to have blocked problematic nominees and saved the president and country from a year of turmoil and scandal. The Senate must not continue rubber-stamping unqualified and ethically impaired nominees, of whom there are likely to be more, not fewer. It is far better to have capable “actings” in place than to introduce more chaos, ethical sloth and incompetence. Moreover, it behooves the Senate to ask nominees tough but entirely justified questions such as: What will you do if the president rashly orders a nuclear strike? Will you quit if, against all available evidence, the president initiates a trade war with allies? Seeks to punish individuals or firms because of personal animus? Refuses to accept undisputed facts? How will you be able to present the bad information or contrary views the president needs to hear?
The good news is that with a 51-49 split, it takes only two senators to defect from the GOP majority (if Democrats all vote no) to block a nominee. Each and every senator matters, and each should be held accountable for the people he or she votes to confirm — and their subsequent scandals and screw-ups.