In the weeks leading up to Trump’s March 2016 announcement about his foreign policy team, there had been a lot of speculation about who, if anyone, was guiding his approach to international affairs. Trump had already dispatched several of his Republican primary opponents, but that only made party leaders more wary about him as he continued to gather strength toward the nomination. So in a meeting with The Washington Post’s editorial board, Trump outlined the people who were assisting him, including Papadopoulos.
The Post wrote an article about Papadopoulos after he was named, with the (fully accurate) headline, “One of Trump’s foreign policy advisers is a 2009 college grad who lists Model UN as a credential.”
Two things led to the identification of Papadopoulos by Trump in that editorial board meeting, two things that have helped explain Trump’s candidacy and presidency and, specific to this moment, the quickly erupting dispute over Trump’s decision to name Navy Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, the White House physician, to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The first is that Papadopoulos probably wouldn’t have been appointed to any position in any other major campaign. (That he came to Trump from the faltering campaign of Ben Carson supports that idea.) Papadopoulos had few significant credentials generally, and much fewer credentials specific to the job to which he had been appointed. But Trump was hardly in a position to turn away assistance. From the outset, the Republican establishment kept Trump at a distance, assuming that his virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric would make him too toxic to be a viable candidate. The party had spent decades building a bench with experience in foreign-policy issues that covered a broad spectrum of approaches. But the people on that bench either worried about Trump as a candidate or worried about offending the establishment, so they stayed away. Trump was left with the Papadopouloses.
The second is that Trump didn’t really care. During his time in politics he has vacillated between worriedly wanting to do the things that candidates are supposed to do and ostentatiously ignoring them. His campaign put together policy papers and he had advisory teams because it was expected, not because he had fully articulated policy ideas or was relying on the input of others. He was more than happy to put forward Papadopoulos in that meeting with The Post, even calling him an “excellent guy.” Someone gave him a name, and he wanted to say it, so he said it. The end.
Two years after Trump unveiled that team, he fired David Shulkin, the former hospital administrator whom Trump had elevated to serve as secretary of Veterans Affairs. At one point, Trump hailed Shulkin’s efforts to improve care for veterans, but the secretary was also the subject of several embarrassing ethical questions. So Shulkin was out.
To replace him, Trump seized on someone who can be charitably described as “unexpected.” Jackson was well known to the political world not because of his history of leading massive government bureaucracies but for his lengthy news conference defending Trump’s physical and mental health this year. Jackson is a physician, not an administrator. And while there’s an instinct (embodied by Trump) that experience is overrated, asking Jackson to lead VA is a bit like asking a random guy from the Bronx to run New York City. Maybe they could do a good job, and they certainly know the city! But … maybe they would not.
This is why we need a verb form of Papadopoulos: Trump Papadopoulos’d this. He likes Jackson, clearly. He clearly feels that Jackson can handle the job. That, to Trump, was the most important thing, not what external qualifications Jackson might have had. Or, for that matter, the political strength of Jackson’s candidacy for the position. On Monday night, The Post reported that serious questions about Jackson’s nomination had emerged, pushing back his nomination hearing. But Trump wanted to do it.
It’s not clear at this point whether he had other options. We’ve seen instances, as with his foreign-policy advisory team, in which Trump had a winnowed pool of potential candidates because many people weren’t interested in working for him — perhaps because he does things like pick people for positions seemingly on impulse.
The firing of Shulkin came about a week after Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd quit the president’s legal team. Trump has struggled to add new lawyers to that team. He has also publicly declared that “everybody wants to work in the White House,” but that apparently excludes many high-profile attorneys. It may also exclude a number of qualified individuals who might be happy to lead VA in another administration.
This pattern isn’t new with Jackson, but Jackson encapsulates it neatly. Trump appoints whom he wants to appoint from the pool of people willing to accept that appointment. That seems to mean that a lot of positions go unfilled, and it seems to result in a lot of turnover.
What’s really remarkable about Trump’s presidency is that embodying this pattern will likely be, at most, the second-most important thing for which Papadopoulos is known.
Update: During a press availability with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump seemed to wash his hands of Jackson’s nomination.
TRUMP says Ronny Jackson will be "making a decision" -- "I said to him what do you need it for?" POTUS says of recent conversation with Jackson. "You're too fine a person...what do you need it for?"— Katherine Faulders (@KFaulders) April 24, 2018
This, too, is in line with Trump’s staffing system. Despite his well-honed rhetoric from “The Apprentice,” Trump has been loath to actually fire anyone as president. Trump also said that Jackson’s nomination would be “up to [Jackson]” — as though the nomination had nothing to do with Trump himself.