President Trump is not a man in a hurry to fill top-level vacancies in his administration. He hasn’t nominated someone for 1 in every 5 top jobs. He has left “acting” officials in charge of the huge bureaucracies for months at a time without selecting replacements. He has yet to name ambassadors in some of the most important diplomatic outposts in the world.
But he has reportedly taken a keen interest in confirming one official: his pick for . . . IRS chief counsel?
It’s not difficult to surmise a very self-serving reason for that. And other recent Trump appointments only reinforce the possibility that his motives aren’t entirely pure here.
The New York Times reported Thursday night that Trump pushed to put the IRS nomination of Michael J. Desmond on the fast track. Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos write that Trump asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in early February to take it up even before taking up Trump’s attorney general nomination of William P. Barr. That’s remarkable, given the gravity of the office Barr was being nominated to and his now-much-discussed role in overseeing the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.
The effort is problematic for a number of reasons. One is that Democrats at the time had been telegraphing a push to use an obscure federal law to force the IRS to share Trump’s long-hidden tax returns. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) previewed that battle shortly after Democrats won back the House in November. And given the law’s obscurity, there will almost definitely be a protracted legal battle that would involve the IRS chief counsel.
Another reason, as the Times notes, is that Desmond has personal ties to Trump:
In July, when Mr. Desmond was first being considered by the Senate Finance Committee, Bloomberg reported that he had briefly advised the Trump Organization on tax issues before Mr. Trump took office. James Wilkinson, a spokesman for Mr. Desmond, told Bloomberg that Mr. Desmond had helped with “a discrete reporting matter for a subsidiary company that was resolved with no tax impact.”
In private practice, Mr. Desmond worked for a time alongside William Nelson and Sheri Dillon, who currently serve as tax counsels to the Trump Organization.
Adding to the intrigue is a fast-emerging pattern of Trump installing people who have publicly taken his side on some issues of very serious interest — and often very personal interest — to Trump.
- The recently confirmed head of the IRS, Commissioner Charles Rettig, in 2016 wrote an op-ed arguing Trump shouldn’t release his returns.
- Before Trump nominated him as attorney general, Barr had publicly criticized Mueller’s probe and even wrote a lengthy, unsolicited memo to the Justice Department (that he shared with many people around Trump) arguing that Mueller’s obstruction of justice inquiry wasn’t warranted.
- Barr’s predecessor in that role, Matthew G. Whitaker (whom Trump elevated to that job after Jeff Sessions’s exit), was once a CNN pundit who mused about ways someone in that position could defund Mueller’s investigation.
- Trump’s new nominee for the Federal Reserve, Stephen Moore, has taken a position out of step with most other economists by calling for slashing the Fed’s interest rates by half a percentage point. He also in December called on Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell to resign over the Fed’s decision to hike the rate. Both track with Trump’s very public attacks on Powell’s interest-rate decisions, which Trump has suggested have hamstrung his economic progress.
- Trump’s rumored next nominee for the Fed, former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, once praised the Fed’s rate hikes as “good news” but in a January interview reversed course and said he was concerned the hikes were overly aggressive.
I’m not the first to note or assemble these examples and make the point that perhaps Trump is trying to install people to do his bidding — or suggest that some of these people may have been auditioning for these jobs with their public comments. Nor would it be unusual for a president to install like-minded people in positions of power.
But these are all issues in which Trump has a very vested personal interest. Barr has gone on to characterize the Mueller report in a way that allowed Trump to claim total exoneration and has made Mueller’s team uncomfortable. Trump’s public pressure on the Fed not to raise interest rates is out of line with how presidents usually talk about the Fed, and he clearly views it as hurting his political stock. Trump rather obviously doesn’t want to release his tax returns.
And the timing of his push for Desmond’s confirmation — just weeks after Democrats gained the power to try to force the issue — is very difficult to dismiss as a coincidence. Especially against the backdrop of all these other examples.