About a month ago, I noted that the Trump officials with significant public-sector experience were doing their job way better than the Trump officials with only private-sector experience. Let’s revisit that hypothesis, shall we?
The administration has received cautious praise for its handling of hurricanes Harvey and Irma despite the widespread destruction. My Post colleague David Nakamura writes about the reasons. This stood out:
[President Trump’s homeland security adviser Thomas] Bossert, who briefed Trump on the progress of the storms, has significant experience, having worked in FEMA’s policy shop during the Bush administration.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who headed the Department of Homeland Security for five months, also brought a familiarity with FEMA and a close working relationship with acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke. Two of Kelly’s deputies, Kirstjen Nielsen and Joseph Hagin, worked on hurricane relief efforts in the Bush administration.
And [FEMA Administrator William “Brock”] Long served as the hurricane program manager at FEMA from 2001 to 2006. Former Bush aides recalled a video conference on Air Force One during Katrina when Hagin was with the president on the plane and Long was on the other end at the agency.
“The people who are there have lived through painful experiences,” said Steve Atkiss, a former operations aide to Bush. “They are acutely attuned to what could go wrong, and having them in place prevents you from stepping on a lot of land mines.”
So, in other words, a big reason this emergency response went well is that the White House, DHS and FEMA officials handling the crisis all had prior government experience that was relevant to this emergency.
Time’s Zeke Miller tells a similar tale:
Ultimately, the greatest source of the administration’s show of competence in the face of the twin storms may have been the storms that came before. Senior administration officials credited the wealth of veteran emergency managers who cut their teeth on 9/11, Katrina, Rita, Sandy and other storms who have moved to positions of authority across the government. FEMA Administrator Brock Long was an official responsible for planning highway counter-flow during disasters Florida and Georgia in the early 2000s. Bossert did a tour at FEMA and was deputy homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. They, along with many of the leaders at NORTHCOM, the Coast Guard and volunteer organizations like the Red Cross have all worked together closely in response to past storms, in some cases for more than a decade.
“If there’s anything good to come out of the last 20 years of busy emergency management—really the last 16 since 9/11—you’ve got a fully mature emergency management community with experience,” said Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert. “You can’t buy that kind of experience.”
Both of the stories also make clear that president Trump was keenly interested in these emergencies, and presidential attention counts for a lot. Still, the sharp contrast between the competence on display here as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, the president’s first overseas trip is telling.
Meanwhile, how are the president’s private-sector cabinet appointments doing? Well, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is in some hot water, according to ABC News:
Secretary Steven Mnuchin requested use of a government jet to take him and his wife on their honeymoon in Scotland, France and Italy earlier this summer, sparking an “inquiry” by the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General, sources tell ABC News.
Officials familiar with the matter say the highly unusual ask for a U.S. Air Force jet, which according to an Air Force spokesman could cost roughly $25,000 per hour to operate, was put in writing by the secretary’s office but eventually deemed unnecessary after further consideration of by Treasury Department officials. …
Mnuchin, an independently wealthy former Goldman Sachs banker, has already triggered a review of his travel for using government jet to travel to Louisville and Fort Knox, Kentucky last month. The inspector general is reviewing whether he improperly used that trip to catch a prime view of the solar eclipse with his wife, a Scottish actress and model named Louise Linton.
Pause for a moment to consider the breathtaking stupidity involved in thinking that these requests were in any way proper. Managers with prior government experience would have known not to do this.
And then there’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has finally hinted at some of the organizational reforms in the works in an email sent to State Department employees yesterday. According to Politico’s Nahal Toosi, who procured a copy of the email:
[Tillerson] focused on ways to better coordinate what the State Department does with what USAID does. Tillerson never explicitly says he wants to merge the two entities, which would probably require congressional approval, but leaves the impression that he wants to eliminate redundancies.
“Our redesign plan seeks to align State and USAID foreign assistance and policy strategies, capabilities, and resources to execute foreign policy priorities more effectively,” Tillerson writes. “It includes several ambitious proposals with investments that will generate a minimum deliverable of 10 percent [$5B] in efficiencies relative to current [FY2017] spending over the next five years, with an aspirational general interest target of up to 20 percent [$10B].” …
Some State Department employees were left scratching their heads by the email and eager for more details. “It’s lots of business school buzzwords with no tangible details,” one employee said of Tillerson’s message.
How to put this gently? Say that Tillerson’s reforms generate the estimated savings (which I doubt, because there are limits to what Congress will allow). Saving $5 billion a year is not actually worth the destruction wreaked at Foggy Bottom by the seven-month organizational paralysis for this dog’s breakfast of meager reforms. A functioning State Department with some modest levels of bloat is far superior to what Tillerson is doing now, and it’s not close.
And then there’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. Alec MacGillis’ devastating New York story from last month really says it all. Especially this:
In his visit to the Baltimore HUD office, Carson caused friction with his suggestion that staff needed to work harder, comparing the federal work ethic unfavorably with the long hours he put in as a surgeon. Employees were also struck by how he kept seeming to look to his wife for cues as he spoke. At a later meeting with public-health officials and researchers, which his wife, son, and daughter-in-law also attended, he kicked things off 15 minutes early and referred to those who arrived on time as being late. He demurred when asked by the city’s former health commissioner Joshua Sharfstein if he’d commit the department to an ambitious reduction in child lead poisoning, saying something to the effect that he needed to be careful about setting big goals because he “worked for a guy who, if you don’t meet your goals, he’ll so skewer you.”….
[Carson’s son] Ben Carson Jr. resurfaced at the second day’s other open event, a visit to a health fair in East Baltimore. I watched with some amazement as the younger Carson, clad in tinted aviator shades, circulated among those seeking his father’s attention. At one point, Carson Jr. was approached by two entrepreneurs he knew who were hoping to pitch HUD on a proposal to use public housing as the site to pilot their for-profit venture replacing cash bail with the relinquishing of guns. Carson Jr. heard them out and then said, “Have you talked to Dad?” He then led them over to a clutch of Carson’s HUD aides to make introductions.
To repeat myself: Every month, the Trump administration proves that public-sector experience is necessary for a functioning government. Private-sector experience is a poor substitute.