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Opinion The Shanahan debacle exemplifies Trump’s incompetence

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan at the White House on March 25. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Post reported Tuesday on the tragic, profoundly disturbing story of acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan’s family turmoil involving domestic violence and prosecution of his son. Shanahan was never charged with any act of violence. (Although there were accusations Shanahan was uncooperative with the investigation, he was never been charged for that conduct either.) The story appears to have prompted Shanahan to withdraw from consideration for the “permanent” defense secretary position. In one story, we have a perfect illustration of the myriad ways in which this administration, through sheer sloth and incompetence, has become the least desirable workplace for those who want a career after Donald Trump’s presidency.

Let’s start with the problem that Shanahan was in an “acting” role for about six months. And he isn’t the only “acting” official. Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney doesn’t have the permanent title. The Department of Homeland Security — in the midst of what President Trump calls a dire emergency — also has an acting secretary. And Trump has been operating with an acting ambassador to the United Nations since Nikki Haley bailed out at the end of last year.

Acting secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, withdrew from consideration to head the U.S. military as reports of domestic violence in his family surfaced. (Video: Reuters)

For long stretches of time, multiple posts (e.g., at the Interior Department, Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency) have been run by acting heads. In some cases department have gone 100 days or so with no confirmed secretary, according to data provided by the Partnership for Public Service. The Defense Department has lacked a confirmed secretary for nearly 170 days, the Interior Department (after Ryan Zinke was forced out) didn’t have a permanent secretary for 99 days, and the Department of Veterans Affairs lacked a confirmed secretary for 117 days. At one time or another eight departments have lacked a confirmed secretary for 90 days or more.

In some cases the tenure of “acting” officials gets extended because of flubs in the selection process. The Post reports:

Several Democrats pointed to a long line of episodes in which Trump’s nominees have withdrawn from consideration for Cabinet posts, assistant secretaryships and federal judgeships after compromising personal or professional details emerged. Notable examples include Mark Green, who withdrew from consideration to become Army secretary in 2017 over his past comments about Islam, evolution and LGBT issues; and Philip Bilden, Trump’s pick for Navy secretary in the same year, who withdrew over financial concerns. Last year, Ronny L. Jackson withdrew from consideration to become VA secretary over allegations of professional misconduct, while two nominees — Andrew Puzder for labor secretary and Heather Nauert for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — withdrew their bids over legal-documentation issues related to immigrant household employees since Trump took office.

The result is uncertainty, lack of direction and stalled decision-making (not to mention an end run around the Constitution’s advice and consent process.) When an incident such as the Iranian attacks on tankers occurs, we have no permanent defense secretary empowered by the president (and Senate) who has full authority and influence over a massive bureaucracy.

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Another problem is that Trump never should have named Shanahan in the first place. Shanahan was a former Boeing executive with no military or foreign policy experience before joining the Trump administration in 2017. By any standard, he was not an A- or B-team pick for defense secretary (even on an acting basis), quite apart from conflict-of-interest concerns. He commanded neither international respect nor credibility with Congress and the public.

At this juncture, candidly, there is not a single Cabinet official with the exception of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats who escapes the “crony of Trump” label or whose integrity and judgment are respected outside the Oval Office. Anyone with a modicum of any of those qualities (e.g. Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn) has long since departed. A willfully ignorant, impulsive and unreasonable president has surrounded himself with only the best … hacks.

Then, of course, there is the problem a persistently stunning lack of vetting. No one seems to care to conduct even a rudimentary review of Trump’s choices before they are announced (partially because he has a habit of announcing picks before his staff, or in some cases the nominee, knows about it). This wastes time, delays selection of permanent officials and deprives departments and agencies of direction. Moreover, it reveals just how incompetent and clueless Trump is in his role of chief executive. He has indeed run the Oval Office like a business — one of his failed casinos.

Certainly, the Senate has not helped matters by rubber-stamping one less-than-stellar executive-branch nominee after another. (In the exceptions that prove the rule, Republican senators managed to nix Herman Cain and Stephen Moore.) As a result, the administration never perceives pressure to exercise quality control.

By now, the “best people” — honest, competent, experienced, decent — do not want to work for this president. The pool of possible nominees therefore gets worse over time. Trump alone is responsible for causing qualified, honorable people to remove themselves from contention. It’s one of many reasons we so desperately need a new president.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Patrick Shanahan’s departure plunges the Pentagon into uncertainty

Max Boot: Another yes-man bites the dust

The Post’s View: The problem with Trump’s ‘help wanted’ administration

Brian Klaas: The Trump administration is riddled with holes — and the president couldn’t care less

Jennifer Rubin: Run government like a business? Not like Trump Inc.