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Trump pursues the wrong kind of ‘extreme vetting’

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 11: President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news cenference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump’s…

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump routinely boasted about his ability to “hire the best people.” The Republican made it sound as if it were some kind of innate superpower.

But when it comes to actually vetting people for high-ranking government posts, “best” isn’t exactly the adjective that comes to mind. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni put it this way yesterday:

Donald Trump’s zeal for extreme vetting has one glaring exception, one gaping blind spot: his own administration.

If you’re a bedraggled sixth grader from a beleaguered country where the Quran is a popular text, he will stop you at our border. If you’re a retired lieutenant general who hallucinates an Islamic terrorist behind every last garden shrub in America, he will welcome you to the White House.

Quite right. Trump clearly believes in a strenuous and comprehensive vetting process – for everyone except the top officials who’ll work in his administration.

This came to mind yesterday, of course, when Andrew Puzder, the president’s choice to lead the Labor Department, was forced to quit in the face of bipartisan opposition. Everything that brought Puzder down could’ve been uncovered in advance by the White House, but by all accounts, Trump World doesn’t particularly care for this kind of scrutiny.

The same is true of Vincent Viola, Trump’s choice for Army Secretary, who quietly ended his own nomination late on a Friday night two weeks ago. Viola’s troubles could’ve been uncovered before the president nominated him, but the White House was careless in following through on its due diligence.

This same dynamic applies to Michael Flynn. And Monica Crowley. And Tom Price, Betsy DeVos, and Steve Mnuchin – each of whom likely would’ve been rejected under a cloud of controversy were it not for compliant Senate Republicans, eager to carry Trump’s water. In every instance, the White House was caught completely off guard by controversial revelations because Trump World simply chooses not to do its homework.

Part of this reflects Trump’s incompetence and general inability to manage effectively, but it’s also a reminder that so many of the president’s problems are of his own making. Were it not for self-inflicted wounds, this White House would be in a far stronger position.

Every administration is confronted with crises that emerge unexpectedly, with developments officials aren’t in a position to control directly, but most of Trump World’s crises are their own doing.

That’s certainly the case with the president’s failed nominees. The New York Times reported yesterday:

President Trump has blamed “obstruction by Democrats” for delays in confirming his senior appointments, saying on Twitter that “it is a disgrace that my full cabinet is still not in place.”

But the slow pace of filling out Mr. Trump’s cabinet can be attributed in part to decisions made in the early days of the nominee vetting process.

The Trump transition team deviated from the practices of recent Democratic and Republican administrations, according to five people directly involved with the transition process. The Trump team chose to skip a practice of grilling nominees to prepare them and protect the president from potential embarrassment during the confirmation process.

Candidates, for example, were not asked about financial conflicts and past vices — known informally as the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” questions.

There’s at least some good news for Trump and his backers: these kinds of problems can be corrected. A White House can fail, learn from the missteps, and get better by applying valuable lessons. The bad news is, there’s nothing to suggest the president and his team have any interest in learning from their mistakes, preferring instead to lash out and blame others when things go wrong.

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