President Donald Trump is right, so far: the sprawling investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller hasn’t shown that Trump himself did anything wrong. It may never.
But it is beginning to show that some of Trump’s top advisers were shady characters who had no business helping run a U.S. presidential campaign. Should Trump have known that? Unclear. But Trump’s history as a candidate, and now as commander-in-chief, increasingly reveals a boss who prizes loyalty over competence and risks his own success through subpar hires.
Mueller has indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s partner, Richard Gates, on charges related to foreign business dealings that may have involved money laundering. Mueller has made no connection between those charges and Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign.
Another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, has pled guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts he had with Russian officials while working on the Trump campaign. As part of that plea deal, Papadpoulus appears to be cooperating with prosecutors, which means he could provide information leading to charges against other Trump campaign officials. That’s bad news for Trump all around.
It’s worth pointing out that a few bad apples on an entire presidential campaign staff is more the norm than the exception in American politics. Scoundrels exploit politics for personal gain, sometimes illegally, just as they do in business, sports, entertainment and probably every other sector of the economy.
Trump’s advisers are loyal but unfit for the job
What’s different about Trump is his willingness to rely on senior advisers who might be loyal, but who are also weak or compromised in ways that make them ineffective at best and a major liability at worst. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after less than a month because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about details of his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn was appointed to run the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, but was essentially fired two years later amid questions about his competence. President Barack Obama advised Trump not to bring Flynn into his administration. Trump should have listened, but he didn’t, and Flynn’s shocking early departure became one of Trump’s first major embarrassments.
Trump’s first Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September following revelations that he needlessly flew around the country on private military jets, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Trump should have known Price was sketchy, given multiple reports of questionable stock trades he made involving companies that could have benefited from the actions of House committees Price was an influential member of. Was Price the best guy to run a large part of the government? No. But he turned out to be Trump’s guy, until petty greed sank him.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appear to be other members of Trump’s private-flyer club. They’re still in the Cabinet, with Mnuchin’s mettle soon to be tested as Republicans try to jam a tax-cut bill through Congress. Mnuchin is Trump’s point man on taxes. He originally predicted Congress would pass a tax bill by August. That prediction was laughably wrong. Mnuchin may yet redeem himself, but if tax cuts fail, Trump may seek a more capable Treasury boss.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is so beleaguered that Trump himself called him “weak.” The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, came to the job with no experience in the field and little apparent enthusiasm for it. Trump’s Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, once wanted to abolish the department he now heads. Presidents often dole out Cabinet jobs to potentates who donated to their campaigns and helped get them elected — but the appointees usually have a veneer of experience in the field, or at least interest in it.
At the White House, meanwhile, Trump has blown through so many senior aides — Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, Steven Bannon, and on and on — that it’s the boss who deserves the real scrutiny, rather than the ousted employees. If all of those people were unfit for the job, why did Trump hire them? It’s understandable that one or two folks might not bear up under the intense and unfamiliar pressures of the White House. But not a dozen.
Trump, the businessman, was shielded
Trump, of course, ran as a businessman able to get things done, rather than a bureaucrat only able to talk about getting things done. But as head of the Trump Organization, Trump ran a private company where he was the only boss. The consequences of bad hires were confined inside a black box.
As a candidate and now president, Trump’s bad hires have very public consequences, which are now manifest in a sprawling investigation into any Trump associate who may have run afoul of the law. Mueller may ultimately clear Trump of any criminal or suspicious activity. But he has already indicted Trump for hiring and relying on people he never should have.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman