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Best and the Brightest? Trump’s Troika of Troubled Nominees

Senate can stop president’s dismal choices for cabinet jobs

April 25, 2018

Cross-posted from Roll Call

Senate confirmation fights have been the stuff of Washington drama from the fictional “Advise and Consent” (1960 Pulitzer Prize) to the real-life rejection of John Tower (a rumored alcoholic and inveterate skirt chaser) for Defense secretary in 1989. And of course, Mike Pence last year had to break a 50–50 Senate tie over the fate of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

But never in modern times has a president in the midst of his first term had three nominees as troubled as the Trump Troika.

Mike Pompeo was barely spared Monday the historic indignity of being rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What saved the undiplomatic would-be chief diplomat were an odd turnabout by Rand Paul (the Kentucky Republican suddenly became convinced that American forces will leave Afghanistan) and a surprise act of courtesy by Democrat Chris Coons (he voted “present” so Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson didn’t have to rush back from the funeral of a close friend).

But Pompeo is the lucky one, since he almost certainly will squeak through the Senate this week after three timorous Democrats (Heidi HeitkampJoe Manchin and Joe Donnelly) announced their support.

Despite the traditional stature that surrounds the secretary of State, the Pompeo nomination is probably the least important of the three Trump appointees twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. As the sorry State Department career of Rex Tillerson illustrates, Trump has no interest in a Cabinet member (Jim Mattis aside) who does not bow and scrape before his presidential majesty.

The selection of White House physician Ronny Jackson to head the Department of Veterans Affairs has all the hallmarks of a nomination destined to be withdrawn or even rejected.

When both the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee (Isakson) and the ranking Democrat (Jon Tester) issue a joint statement expressing “serious concerns” and postpone a Wednesday confirmation hearing, it is a sign that Jackson had better cling to his day job — gushing about Trump’s health.

The vague, but devastating, allegations surrounding Jackson (excessive drinking on the job and violating protocols on dispensing medicine) are the stuff of headlines. But the best reason to reject Jackson’s nomination is his lack of even a glimmer of experience running troubled, complex institutions.

With 377,000 employees, a nearly $200 billion budget and a history of bureaucratic neglect and incompetence, the VA cries out for a Cabinet secretary who displays the private-sector competence that Trump supposedly cherishes.

Instead, Jackson represents the worst elements of government by cronyism — a person nominated to one of the most challenging jobs in government only because he sees Trump on nearly a daily basis.

And while politics should play no role in caring for our veterans, it is worth noting that patients at VA hospitals have rarely been known for their devotion to Rachel Maddow or their unflinching support for Hillary Clinton.

Even more important than the ill-conceived Jackson nomination is Trump’s choice of Gina Haspel to succeed Pompeo at the CIA, where she is currently the deputy director.

A CIA lifer and a former clandestine agent, Haspel almost certainly appealed to Trump as his own Carrie Mathison. Haspel is also a comforting institutional choice for CIA insiders who rightly fear the further politicization of the agency.

But there is a blot on her record the size of the Gulf of Thailand.

After 9/11, Haspel ran a secret prison in Thailand, with the code name “Cat’s Eye,” where waterboarding and other forms of torture were used against suspected terrorists who were shipped to the site from Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When the CIA’s involvement in this so-called “enhanced interrogation” (a loathsome Bush-era euphemism) came under fire in 2005, Haspel played a key role in destroying the tapes of the waterboarding sessions.

Even though Haspel’s confirmation hearing before the Intelligence Committee is not until May 9, the CIA has already launched an unprecedented lobbying campaign on her behalf. Since so much of Haspel’s CIA career is shrouded in secrecy, there is not the public record that usually accompanies other nominees for top posts.

When Haspel testifies, no one will be missed more than the ailing John McCain. As a former Vietnam POW who was tortured in prison, the Arizona Republican remains the most persuasive and passionate advocate against these inhumane and illegal tactics.

Already, McCain has sent to Haspel a letter whose formal language barely masks the underlying fury. A typical McCain question: “Did you ever impose, direct, or oversee the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ including the use of waterboarding? Please explain your answer.”

Haspel is likely to defend herself with the argument that, at the time, the Justice Department had claimed with dubious legal logic that waterboarding and rendition were permissible tactics.

If Haspel gets confirmed despite her complicity in one of the darkest chapters of recent American history, it would send a message that would go far beyond tolerance for torture.

What it would be saying to Trump appointees throughout the government is not to worry about going along with legally dicey policies that offend the conscience. If Gina Haspel’s career can survive running a secret prison, then almost anyone (save perhaps Steve Bannon) in Trump World is immune from future consequences for their conduct in office.

The constitutional requirement for Senate confirmation is a reminder that there are built-in checks on presidential power. If Trump continues to want to fill Cabinet-level jobs with the incompetent and the morally tainted, then the only way to stop him is for a bipartisan Senate majority to exercise its power to “advise and consent.”  

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.