The shake-up at the Department of Veterans Affairs — out with Secretary David Shulkin and potentially in with White House physician Ronny L. Jackson — is being portrayed, correctly, as President Trump surrounding himself with Cabinet officials with whom he feels personally comfortable. A broader question arises, however, over the extent to which this president prizes or disparages expertise.
Defenders of the president can point to his national security team to rebut suggestions that he resists recruiting people with experience and expertise to advise him. Though he has run through more than his share of foreign policy advisers, one reality is that they have mostly brought either military, business or relevant congressional experience to their positions.
That was certainly true of his early team: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, who has since become White House chief of staff. McMaster and Tillerson are on their way out, however, with Pompeo nominated for State and John Bolton selected as the president’s third national security adviser.
Bolton comes to the job with many critics, who see him as far too hawkish at such a dangerous time internationally. But he is no novice when it comes to the issues, nor is he a stranger to the inner workings of government and the bureaucracy. For Pompeo’s replacement, Trump has picked CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, a career intelligence official. She could face a challenging confirmation process but nonetheless has strong support from former intelligence community officials for her capabilities and experience.
The domestic side of Trump’s Cabinet is another story. Shulkin was a holdover from the Obama administration and early on was praised — even singled out — by Trump for his leadership of an agency long plagued by scandal and inefficiencies. Though he had the background to run the agency, he leaves under a cloud of his own making — the misuse of taxpayer money that drew a rebuke from the department’s inspector general. In his final weeks, he ran a divided agency bunkered in his office, as portrayed vividly by The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein. Shulkin is among several Trump Cabinet officers who have faced ethical questions.
Trump concluded a change was needed and looked no farther than inside his own White House, tapping Jackson, even though the White House physician has had no experience running a big operation, let alone something as complicated and dysfunctional as VA. What counted in the decision seemed to be Jackson’s compelling performance briefing reporters about the president’s physical examination.
Look beyond VA.
Ben Carson was one of the world’s foremost pediatric neurosurgeons before he entered politics, and he had a compelling personal story of rising from the inner city of Detroit to the highest ranks of medicine. But he had never served in government, nor did he have specific credentials to oversee the Housing and Urban Development Department. His main qualification seems to have been running against and later endorsing Trump.
Carson has made little substantive mark at HUD, though he has recently been caught up in the embarrassment of having a $31,000 dining set ordered for his private office. Testifying before Congress, Carson declined to accept full responsibility for the purchase, saying he had left redecorating to his wife and others and “dismissed myself from the issues.” Days later, he took responsibility.
At the Education Department, Secretary Betsy DeVos arrived on a mission — to build up charter schools and to push for school choice and school vouchers, while reducing the federal government’s role in education — issues she championed as a Republican activist and philanthropist in Michigan. She has no experience in the classroom, nor has she overseen a local school district or served in a state government education position, the backgrounds of recent education secretaries.
That DeVos was a polarizing choice was not a surprise, given the policies she believes in and her political advocacy before coming to Washington. Her lack of preparation about the status of public education and schools was displayed most recently on national television earlier this year when she was interviewed on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and repeatedly could not answer questions from correspondent Lesley Stahl.
Others in the administration — Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt the most prominent — reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change.
Expertise isn’t everything. Vietnam showed how even the so-called best and brightest could lead the country astray. It was then-House speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) — who after hearing then-vice president Lyndon B. Johnson rave about the brains and credentials of the Cabinet assembled by President John F. Kennedy — reportedly said, “Well, Lyndon, they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for sheriff, once.”
Rayburn’s instincts proved tragically correct, showing that brains alone weren’t sufficient for those in positions of responsibility and that both an absence of hubris and a connection to everyday Americans were vital to the careful exercise of power. But he also understood, as one of the strongest House speakers in history, that to be successful, he needed an intimate understanding of the institution and the people he was leading.
In today’s political climate, skepticism of expertise is widespread.
During a television interview ahead of the Brexit vote, Michael Gove, a British Conservative Party official, was read a list of domestic and foreign leaders, including then-president Barack Obama, who were uniformly warning that leaving the European Union would have dire consequences for the United Kingdom.
“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts with organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong,” Gove famously replied.
He was proved right when the British public voted narrowly to leave the E.U., a vote that foreshadowed the even bigger earthquake months later in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of the country’s political and cultural elite.
Trump played on those anti-expertise sentiments as a candidate, appealing to voters to reject the establishment’s policies and leadership, and instead to trust themselves and especially him, a political novice. He carried that viewpoint to an extreme when, at the Republican National Convention, he declared, “I alone can fix it.”
Trump’s presidency continues as an extension of that pronouncement, with the nation’s leader increasingly trusting in himself rather than those around him on critical decisions. Some — not all, but some — of his personnel choices underscore the related belief, that expertise or relevant experience is overrated, perhaps even a handicap. It is an experiment, to say the least, and a risky one at that.