The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How hard up is President Trump in staffing his administration? Pretty hard up!

The Trump administration is now scraping the very bottom of the bottom of the barrel.

President Trump speaks to the media as he departs the White House for a campaign event in Florida on June 18. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Last year, in the wake of White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigning after allegations of spousal abuse, I noted in this space that the Trump administration would have serious difficulty hiring quality people: “[This is] an administration that cannot find anyone competent to work for it beyond those exiled on the Island of Misfit Wonks. Trump has been looking for a few good men for quite some time now. His own management style, however, precludes that possibility.”

At the time, Trump disagreed, telling reporters in March 2018, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”

Fifteen months later, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I was right and Trump was wrong:

In the wake of Patrick Shanahan’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration for secretary of defense, Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Marianne Levine report that the Trump administration is continuing to have difficulties with, you know, hiring and retaining qualified people:

Trump has a Cabinet-by-default, many of whose members were simply the last man — or woman — standing after others pulled out of the running, declined the president’s job offers or couldn’t get through their nomination hearings....
If there’s a thread running through them all, it’s a president with a penchant for choosing many top appointees based on instinct — and without regard to prior government experience — plus a White House whose vetting operation is far from thorough and a thin Republican Senate majority with little room for error. The result is that the Trump administration’s senior ranks are comprised largely of individuals who were not, in many cases, the president’s first or even second choice to fill the post, but instead became the only logical choice after the competition evaporated....
Add to these woes an administration with abnormally high turnover, as well as the usual churn in Washington, and Trump is presiding over a government run in many cases by acting officials from the Cabinet level on down.

Lest one think that this is an exaggeration, let’s consider some of the people this administration actually has managed to bring on. In April, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin hired serial plagiarist and Fox News contributor Monica Crowley to be a Treasury Department spokeswoman. According to the New York Times’s Alan Rappeport, “the White House wanted to add staff members who, like Ms. Crowley, could be counted on to fiercely defend Mr. Trump’s policies on television as the 2020 election season gets into full swing.” Because there is nothing like lame denials of serial plagiarism to bolster the credibility of a government spokeswoman.

The Crowley hire is old news, however. Consider the events of the past few days. Kelly Craft, Trump’s choice to replace Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has faced her own issues. Her primary accomplishment prior to serving as U.S. ambassador to Canada was as a GOP fundraiser. According to Politico’s Lauren Gardner, however, a former U.S. official there said that “Craft was viewed around Foggy Bottom as an ‘absent ambassador’ at the embassy in Ottawa and that the mission was often placed in the hands of her deputy while Craft attended to personal business and domestic politics in the United States.” My favorite part of this story is that the State Department approved a senior member of Craft’s team in Ottawa to acknowledge that she had “left the embassy in the control of a separate chargé d’affaires ‘more times … than perhaps at any other embassy.’ ”

The lack of a permanent replacement to Haley has weakened a U.S. presence at the United Nations that was already ... let’s say “challenged” during the Trump years. Richard Gowan notes in Politico that, “In the absence of a full-time ambassador, the U.S. has pursued a scattershot approach to crises from Libya to Venezuela in the Security Council — sending confusing signals over American interests in some cases, blocking U.N. action in others, and pointlessly alienating its diplomatic allies on the way.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s temporary employees are wreaking their own havoc. Trump appointed Ken Cuccinelli to be the acting head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The chances of Cuccinelli being confirmed by the Senate are exactly zero, which somewhat undercuts his authority. The other thing that undercuts his authority is sending crazy emails, according to Buzzfeed’s Hamed Aleaziz:

The newly appointed leader of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, sent an email to staffers Tuesday in which he appeared to push asylum officers to stop allowing some people seeking refuge in the country passage at an initial screening at the border.
“Under our abused immigration system if an alien comes to the United States and claims a fear of return the alien is entitled to a credible fear screening by USCIS and a hearing by an immigration judge,” Cuccinelli wrote to USCIS staffers....
One official at the Department of Homeland Security — of which USCIS is a part — said the email was “insane,” while former officials said the email was clearly a threat.
“I read this only in one way — a threat. A threat that asylum officers will be blamed by their new boss for the repeated failures of the Trump administration,” Ur Jaddou, a former chief counsel at USCIS, told BuzzFeed News. “This is an unbelievable threat and not something a director would normally ever send.”

I don’t even have the space to go into Katharine Gorka — yes, that Mrs. Gorka — being hired as the new press secretary at Customs and Border Protection. That is not even the most scandalous hiring news in the past week.

All of this is going to get worse. At this point, there are only two kinds of people willing to work in this administration. The first are those at the end of their career and want one last, meaningless hurrah. The others are dead-enders who would never get hired by anyone else, These people inspire about as much confidence as the doctors in “The Death of Stalin.” This situation will last two to six years.