President Trump’s defense of Ronny Jackson, chief White House physician and his nominee to serve as secretary of veterans affairs, against serious charges of drinking on the job, overprescribing medicine, and contributing to a “toxic” work environment among his relatively small team is not the lowest moment of his presidency. For that, you’d have to look to something truly egregious like the both-sidesing of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally or the betrayal of all his campaign promises on health care.
But it is the stupidest.
When Trump tried to defend alleged domestic abuser Rob Porter, his former staff secretary, he at least had the reason that Porter’s presence was integral to the smooth operation of the White House staff. Trump defends guys like scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt because he’s a favorite of the conservative donor class.
Jackson, by contrast, is wildly unqualified for the job over and above any misconduct issues. Despite the misconduct allegations, he was well-liked by both Trump and his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush — three presidents who have massive disagreements on policy and style between them. But I like my doctor too. And he definitely doesn’t overprescribe medicine, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t drink on the job or harass subordinates either. Still, I wouldn’t propose putting him in charge of a large federal agency, because he’s, you know, a doctor rather than someone with vast administrative experience.
Jackson wasn’t vetted at all before Trump announced on Twitter that he would lead the VA, and he no particular connection to conservative politics (or, indeed, politics of any kind).
He’s just an unsuitable impulse pick who turns out to also have some issues. It’s borderline preposterous that Senate Republicans are spending any time indulging Trump in this whimsical selection. And the fact that nobody on the White House staff or in congressional GOP leadership seems capable of imposing a rational decision-making process on the president has scary implications for a huge range of issues.
The VA is a big deal
Veterans affairs secretary is undoubtedly something of an also-ran post in a presidential Cabinet. But that’s because the issues the VA deals with are far from the central axis of partisan political debate, not because the job is trivial.
The VA employs around 375,000 people with a budget surpassing $185 billion. Only the Defense Department is a bigger US government agency.
Jackson was a successful combat surgeon who oversaw a few dozen staffers at the peak of his wartime service and now supervises a small staff of about 70 people in the White House medical office. He appears to struggle with the (modest) management aspects of the job but has succeeded nonetheless due to his strong personal rapport with a series of presidents. Trump likes him, in particular, because of his virtuoso press conference defending Trump’s health (including a height and weight estimate that registered him as officially non-obese), but this has nothing to do with the VA’s work.
Even if the charges against Jackson are entirely false, “wasn’t drunk on the job” and “the president likes him” is not an appropriate bar for an important substantive position that requires considerable management skill and subject matter expertise. On some level, there’s no need to vet Jackson or look into these charges in a serious way because the idea of installing him should be rejected out of hand.
Jackson running the second-largest Cabinet agency is moderately less absurd than Jared Kushner spearheading the Middle East peace process, but unlike Kushner, Jackson needs Senate confirmation, and the Veterans Affairs Committee both could and should just reject him and suggest some plausible candidates in his place. That the whole Jackson concept is being taken seriously at all merely shows how far we’ve fallen as a country.
America continues to be at risk
It is, of course, not all that far out of the ordinary for Trump to make a terrible Cabinet selection.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, like Jackson, is a skilled medical doctor whom Trump happens to like and who has no business running the agency he’s been appointed to. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proved unable to answer rudimentary questions about education policy at her confirmation hearings.
None of this is any good, but a neutral observer could at least console himself that Republicans were deliberately trying to destroy HUD and the Department of Education since they don’t actually care about the missions of those agencies.
Veterans, by contrast, are a politically relevant constituency for Republicans. Conservatives may want, in some sense, to wreck the VA as part of a larger program of privatization. But they also genuinely don’t want to anger veterans or be seen as shitting on their interests. Like the military itself, which has been in good hands under James Mattis’s leadership (so much so that even Democrats don’t want to talk about his own serious scandal), a GOP administration should sincerely want a solid pick to lead the VA.
That Trump simply can’t bring himself to run a disciplined process and make a reasonable pick — and nobody in his circle can make him do it — is a reminder that the country continues to be led on an ongoing basis by a man who fundamentally has no idea what he’s doing.
Trump’s selection for both the Pentagon and the Federal Reserve have been reasonably solid, so we’ve avoided true catastrophe on either the military or economic front. But there’s no real rhyme or reason to anything he does, even on issues that are close to his heart. And no number of electoral warning signs from down-ballot races seems to inspire congressional Republicans to try to do anything about it. All we can do is buckle up and hope for the best.