Editor’s Note: Alexander Nazaryan is the author of “The Best People: Trump’s Cabinet and the Siege on Washington.” He is a national correspondent for Yahoo News, and he is based in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Two years ago, on June 12, 2017, Donald Trump’s presidential Cabinet gathered for its first full meeting. These were the best people he’d promised to attract to Washington. On their watch, the American carnage would end.
This supposed team of superstars did not exactly last, and many of the Cabinet chiefs seated around that wooden table are no longer in the Trump administration. Most of them did not go gently into that private sector night. Among the departed are Scott Pruitt, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who once sought a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who wasted more than $340,000 of taxpayer money on varieties of luxurious travel not usually enjoyed by “unelected bureaucrats,” to use a pejorative term beloved by the right.
Some of those who remain are not much better custodians of the public good than those who have left. Survivors of that June 12 conclave include Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who once spent $31,000 on a dining set for his office. Confronted with the expense, Carson nobly… blamed his wife. Then there’s Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who in his erstwhile career as a federal prosecutor offered a covert plea deal to the financier Jeffrey Epstein, accused of serial sex abuse against underage girls, that many say was unusually lenient. Acosta has defended his role in the Epstein case, claiming his office was “too aggressive.”
No wonder that “the best people” has become a punchline almost on the order of “Infrastructure Week.”
To some, every new scandal involving a high-ranking Trump official is confirmation of the Trump administration’s pervasive incompetence. And evidence to that point is strong. But in trying to understand the physics of the Trump presidency, I became convinced that it was succeeding despite itself. That is, many of the people Trump had hired were plainly incompetent, which is why he has been forced to fire so many of them.
Even so, his Cabinet members’ theatrical displays of incompetence – the lavish meals, the private jets – proved bizarrely useful to those in the Trump administration who understood how to use such episodes to their advantage.
To those who say that the Trump administration has failed even on its own terms (never mind the terms of good government), I offer as counterargument the myriad supports offered to the gas and oil industries; the utter evisceration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; the several concessions made to for-profit colleges whose operations had previously proven to be brutally unscrupulous. Even the administration’s toughest critics must concede that Trump has given the conservative movement many of the victories for which it has long yearned. And even those critics should be curious how the Trump administration has managed any of that, when so much of what it has done has seemed haphazard, ill-considered and incoherent.
“There is no chaos,” a former top West Winger told me. “Only method.”
Plainly put, they used their own managerial incompetence to their advantage. That “the best people” were far from the best became obvious quite quickly. But even as some inside the White House – in particular, veterans of the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations – issued desperate warnings, others recognized that these “special people,” as one former senior West Winger derisively called them, served as a valuable diversion.
In a recent interview with me, our famously cocksure President admitted that not all of his best people had risen to the occasion. “We had some clinkers, but that’s okay,” he told me. “Who doesn’t? We have a very good Cabinet. There are those that say we have one of the finest Cabinets.” To the contrary, the previous summer, a Monmouth poll found that nearly 60% of Americans deemed his promise to hire “the best people” a bust.
Trump confirmed what my reporting had made clear, which is that many of those choices had been haphazard, in part because his presidential transition team was wildly unprepared for him to actually win the presidency. “I didn’t want to waste a lot of energy on before the fact, I wanted to win first,” Trump said. That meant that once he did win, he had none of the infrastructure a victorious candidate was expected to have. And that, in turn, allowed any number of suitors to make their case before Trump, prevailing on him to pick people who shared none of his political ideas but were favored by some sector of the conservative movement.
By the time we spoke in February 2019, Trump appeared to recognize that this approach had served him poorly. “I wouldn’t say that I agreed with all of the people,” Trump told me, “but I let them make their decision. In some cases, I was right.”
There had been no real vetting, Steve Bannon made clear when we spoke. There was no consideration of expertise.
So maybe the conniptions were the point. Conservationists had conniptions over Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke. Educators had conniptions over Betsy DeVos. Those conniptions began in December 2016, and would continue for months to come.
And then there’s the even more intriguing possibility that Bannon and others knew perfectly well that Carson – who said he was not ready to take on a Cabinet position – were bound to fail, and rather spectacularly so.
Maybe that, above all else, was the point.
That’s what Joel Clement believes. During the Obama administration, he was a high-ranking official at Interior working on climate issues. Interior Secretary Zinke, a wannabe cowboy from Montana, didn’t believe in climate change. In October 2017, Clement was transferred to an office in which he would process payments from oil companies. Believing this to be a retaliatory move related to his focus on climate change, Clement resigned from the Department of Interior and filed a whistleblower complaint.
When I spoke to Clement in the summer of 2018, he had come up with a curious conclusion about Trump and his “best people,” and why of many of them were chased from Washington, hounded by investigations that in some cases continue to this day. It was a conclusion that endowed the Trump administration – if not exactly Trump himself – with far more intentionality than many observers are willing to cede.
“They’re put in there to screw up,” Clement told me. Cabinet members like Zinke, he explained, intentionally “compromised the public trust in government” by secretly meeting with lobbyists, grossly abusing executive branch travel privileges and flouting the notion of public service. They generate daily outrage. But in doing so, Clement argued, they also fulfill an unspoken aspect of the Trump agenda.
If you are the Trump administration, Clement explained, “you don’t want people respecting or trusting government.” Reducing the reach of government, as well as Americans’ confidence about how government could improve their lives, had been a central project of the Republican Party ever since Ronald Reagan promised, in his 1981 inaugural address, to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment.”
Nobody in the Trump administration ever admitted to instructing cabinet chiefs to engage in corrupt acts that would besmirch the government they worked for. To the contrary, there were efforts to stop them, including by Cabinet Secretary Bill McGinley, a veteran Republican lawyer who lectured Pruitt and others on the basics of ethical behavior.
And yet Pruitt believed himself invincible because he had a fan in the Oval Office. Trump resisted firing him until pushed to do so by Laura Ingraham of Fox News.
If corruption was not encouraged by the White House, it was definitely sanctioned. It diverted a tremendous amount of attention, obscuring the work the Trump administration was actually doing. Much of the real work in an executive department, after all, is done by political appointees at the deputy and assistant secretary levels, many of whom today are industry lobbyists and conservative ideologues. They had been waiting for this opportunity since the Obama administration, and they have used it to dismantle regulations, confirm judges and undo as much as possible of Obama’s legacy.
Meanwhile, we focus on a congressional hearing in which Carson mistook an REO – “real estate owned,” a term used by housing experts – for an Oreo. How could we, after all, ignore a moment so preposterous? But as we watch and watch again the clip of Carson musing about cookies, his department has been working to keep or expel undocumented immigrants from public housing while allowing religious institutions to discriminate against homeless transgender youths seeking shelter.
Those proposals have gotten some attention, but not nearly as much as the Oreo comment. And if that comment caused progressives to wonder about the fitness of Trump’s “best people,” rest assured that the White House was happy with the conniptions playing out on cable news. Those conniptions take energy and time. And while the clip of a seemingly clueless Carson plays across the screens, the GOP’s most able functionaries are carrying out their party’s deepest wishes.
How thrilled they must be to have the Carsons and Pruitts of this administration give them such excellent cover.