Jun 23, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Behind the scenes: How Trump's team staffed the U.S. government

A coffee mug with the Trump/Pence logo holding crayons

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The documents are the product of a hasty, dysfunctional, thrown-together effort to put together a presidential administration. Chris Christie helmed a traditional transition effort during the campaign. Then, after Trump won, Steve Bannon fired him and tossed most of his work.

Why it matters: Trump's original Cabinet, by most counts, was a mess and many are now gone.

  • Some key Cabinet secretaries opposed him on core philosophical issues (see Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.) Others had lethal ethical problems (EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.)

Behind the scenes: Trump's frazzled transition team foisted the job of political vetting onto the Republican National Committee.

  • The RNC's team of about two dozen researchers, almost all of whom were in their 20s, faced trying circumstances. The contenders were such a motley crew that people who other administrations never would have considered looked like real standouts.

What they're saying: "To be honest, the process was such a disaster and such a shit-show and there were so many unqualified people coming through that the issues with [future HUD Secretary Ben] Carson don't really stick out to me," said one RNC vetter. "You know, I'm like, 'Oh gentle Ben is unqualified and thinks that pyramids store grain or whatever. Great. At least he's not beating his wife and his wife's not appearing on Oprah.'"

  • "We'd be sitting around and Trump would be like, 'Oh, hey, I'm bringing like Joe Shmoe up to Bedminster for Department of Interior,' and then we were like, 'F---, we need to run a vet on this guy to make sure he's not a kid-toucher,'" said one source involved in the vetting. "It was just a clown show."
  • "I think I truly understood what less than half of the people were being vetted for," said another source involved in the vetting. "Totally inadequate resources for the overall process. ... We would probably run through dozens [of contenders] a day."

Problems: The harried RNC team foresaw some of the problems that plagued the Trump Cabinet (including Scott Pruitt's ethical issues). But in the rush, they also overlooked a bit.

  • Andrew Puzder, Trump's first pick for Labor Secretary, is a good example. The Trump transition team vetted him in a hurry. And they missed that his ex-wife had accused him of domestic violence in 1986. The RNC vetters overlooked a local news report on her allegations. She retracted the allegations in 1990, though not before appearing anonymously as a victim of domestic abuse on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
  • Puzder withdrew the day before his confirmation hearing. In a statement to Axios, he said, “I withdrew because I knew the votes wouldn’t be enough for a confirmation, not because of false claims that were publicly recanted nearly 30 years ago.”

The response: RNC spokesperson Mike Reed defended the team's work. "It is not abnormal for a presidential transition team to utilize the national party committee as a resource in putting together background briefings on potential nominees and executive branch staff," he said.

  • "These over 2-year-old documents were initial pre-interview briefings put together to inform the transition team of top-line issues of note in the candidates' background."
  • "Individuals selected for high-level administration jobs would have gone through more thorough background checks by lawyers, law enforcement agencies, and ethics officials before formally assuming their role."

Between the lines: Nobody we spoke to who worked at the senior levels of the transition could point us to any additional political vetting that was done before Trump announced his nominees. (Hence, the Puzder situation.)

  • This is how Trump works; he makes announcements on the fly, and his team scrambles to catch up. It was a problem during the transition, and it persists now. Earlier this year, for instance, he announced he would nominate Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Fed. Neither had been vetted, and both withdrew because of reputational problems (for instance, Cain's email list hawked wacky theories and products, including a cure for erectile dysfunction).
  • And Patrick Shanahan, his pick for Defense secretary, withdrew from contention last week after allegations of violent domestic situations involving his wife and son surfaced.
  • Many outside observers point to Christie's firing as the moment Trump's transition went sideways. The move, which discarded a ton of work, was hugely disruptive.
  • But Trump's team argues his presidency should be judged on results, not process. And not everyone is nostalgic for the short-lived Christie era. One senior transition official said he was "autocratic" and favored people who were "not MAGA."

How it normally works: The Bush and Obama transitions might as well have happened on a different planet. Clay Johnson, who ran George W. Bush's transition, said Bush asked him in June of 1999 — 17 months before the election — "to develop the transition plan for when I win the presidency."

  • "We developed a transition plan with input from numerous senior transition leaders from previous Republican administrations," Johnson said. "As a part of this plan, 4 months before the election, based on the rigorous personnel process we had developed for Gov. Bush, we began to confer with policy experts about people to first formally consider for key positions once the election was official."
  • Chris Lu, the executive director of Obama’s transition team, said he worked closely with the Democratic Party veterans to fill top jobs. And the Obama campaign leadership trusted Lu and his colleagues; meanwhile, the Trump team fired Christie right after the election. Senior campaign leadership — most importantly Jared Kushner — distrusted Christie, a senior transition source said, and therefore distrusted his work.

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