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David Cay Johnston: Why would any honest and competent person work for Trump — especially after these hearings?

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

Donald Trump has a terrible time getting good people to work for him. Just look at who is, and is not, giving testimony in his impeachment hearings, which increasingly suggests a contest between Super Bowl champions and backyard flag football players, most of whom ran away when they saw who was across the scrimmage line.

The impeachment inquiry, and Trump’s entire presidency, is a complete contradiction to his frequent campaign promise that as president he would “surround myself with only the best and most serious people.

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As time passes, Trump’s ability to attract the best and the brightest diminishes. For many jobs, he can’t get anyone to join his team.

For starters consider Gordon Sondland, the goofy Oregon hotel magnate who bought himself an ambassadorship with a $1 million gift to the Trump inaugural. Sondland is so naive that sitting in a Kyiv restaurant he rings up Trump on his cell phone, not giving a moment’s thought to Ukrainian and Russian intelligence services recording that call.

Here is a man with no diplomatic experience, no knowledge of America’s national security interests in the region of the old Soviet empire and a remarkable inability to get his story straight. Sondland is what the Soviet called “a useful idiot” only in this case he was Trump’s idiot, who in turn is at times Putin’s idiot.

Then there’s Tim Morrison, a nuclear weapons “super hawk” and Republican operative whose extreme partisanship, his Wednesday impeachment inquiry testimony shows, blinded him to a bribery-extortion plot unfolding all around him.

Worse, Morrison smeared Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, testifying he was warned by his predecessor at the National Security Council, Dr. Fiona Hill, about “judgment” issues. The White House, using its official Twitter account, then repeated this smear.

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But on Thursday, Dr. Hill revealed that all she warned Morrison about was that Vindman is so much a model military officer that if he left the Army he might not flourish in a political environment. In her July performance evaluation of Lt. Col. Vindman, Dr. Hill described Vindman as “a top one percent military officer and the best army officer I have worked with in my 15 years of government service.”

Were Morrison a first-rate political operative he would have never given testimony that could be so easily knocked down and shown to be nothing but a smear. The stain on his reputation will be indelible. That’s what happens to anyone who devotes even 90 days of their career to Trump, as Morrison did in his short White House stint.

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And what of the Trump appointees who won’t testify?

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff and budget chief; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; former National Security Adviser John Bolton; and Mike Pence, the small-town radio talk show host cum vice president? And where is Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s private lawyer who ran the whole Ukraine bribery-extortion scandal to advance the common interests of Trump and Vladimir Putin.

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Pompeo is a West Point graduate, first in his class. But as Thomas Friedman pointed out, last in his class in ethics.

If these Trump acolytes have knowledge that would help Trump why aren’t they testifying? Why isn’t Trump turning over documents, even selectively? Why do they cower when reporters approach?

Indeed, where is Trump? Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited him to come testify and give all the exculpatory evidence he has. Trump, of course, because he doesn’t have helpful facts and, like Sondland, he can’t keep his story straight.

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Compare these cowards and fabulists with Dr. Hill, career diplomat David Holmes, Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. and George Kent, a senior state department executive, all gave crisp factual evidence. They didn’t smear anyone. They declined to take political positions. They stuck to the facts. They’re the Super Bowl team. The Republicans asked accusatory questions and called at least one of then a liar, but anyone reading the transcripts years from now will observe that the Republicans didn’t lay a glove on them.

For America, the problem is that as time passes Trump’s ability to attract the best and the brightest diminishes. For many jobs, he can’t get anyone to join his team and so he explains that he is just saving taxpayers money.

Who wants to work for a man who has no compunction about attacking valorous military officers, such as Lt. Col. Vindman?

Who wants to work for a man who will tell you on the way in that you are the greatest and on the way out either denounce you or say he hardly ever spoke to you.

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Presidential Paranoia

Trump has a paranoid fear of competent people who know what he does not, especially when he claims to be a top expert. His tweets show his belief in an imaginary “Deep State” that is out to get him.

His cabinet has been in constant turmoil. The Brookings Institution even runs a website that tracks the high-speed turnover of Trump appointees.

As we reported last week about the book “A Warning” by Anonymous, Trump blows off intelligence assessments because he lacks the intellectual capacity to understand them, even though he claims to be the world’s top expert on what, by my count, are 22 subjects.

Anonymous noted that behind closed doors when Trump tries to speak on many of these subjects he falls flat because, in reality, he knows nothing about Middle East politics, military strategy, taxes or law.

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Trump, according to Anonymous, does whatever “he wants to do,” consequences be damned. And he behaves “like a 12-year-old in an air traffic control tower, pushing the buttons of government indiscriminately, indifferent to the planes skidding across the runway and the flights frantically diverted away.”

More troubling for Trump is his inability to keep secret his machinations to remain in office with help from foreign governments. Veteran public servants’ testimonies about what Trump did prompted attacks on everyone and anyone who questions what he has falsely asserted is a Constitutional “right to do whatever I want.”

And this week, Trump showed, yet again, that he believes the very existence of America depends on his being in office. In the latest twist in his declarations that he should be dictator-for-life, Trump tweeted the impeachment hearings will fail and thus “save our Country from certain destruction!”

Trump has always surrounded himself with people who will either tell him how great he is or carry out his orders without question. I watched while Trump fired competent executives, some of whom went on to superb careers managing much larger and more profitable properties. He then promoted men whose incompetence was whispered about by their peers in the Trump Organization and at competing casinos, one of them a falling down drunk known only for his fierce loyalty to Trump.

Unwelcome advice gets people fired, as the right-wing, military intervention advocate John Bolton discovered in August. Bolton saw Trump in the Oval Office after the president knew there was a whistleblower complaint about his July 25 attempt to extort the president of Ukraine. Shortly after Bolton was fired.

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‘I make all the decisions’

Upon firing Bolton, the president declared that he would have no trouble filling the slot with someone even better.

“A lot of people want the job. And we—it’s a great job,” Trump told reporters on Sept. 12. “It’s great because it’s a lot of fun to work with Donald Trump, and it’s very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work.”

A week later Trump named Bolton’s successor. His choice was not a seasoned expert on national security, but a hostage negotiator named Robert C. O’Brien.

O’Brien wrote a month later that he would cut the National Security Council staff from 174 to under 120. That means 54 fewer people who know more than Trump in a position to give advice he doesn’t care about and doesn’t understand.

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Firing Dan Coats

Dan Coats discovered how anything short of obeisance is grounds for firing. In August the former senator from Indiana was dismissed as director of National Intelligence, whose duty is to oversee and coordinate the work and findings of America’s 17 intelligence agencies.

Coats declared in 2017 that every U.S. intelligence agency agreed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. Coats also appointed a staffer to address expected Kremlin interference in the 2020 elections. Evidently Coats was kept on for more than two years kept his job because he doesn’t work right alongside Trump and he made his critical remarks in forums outside the Oval Office, in contrast to Bolton.

Anyone taking a top intelligence job under Trump has to know that they may not be trusted and that they will be expected to attack those under them.

Soon after taking office, Trump infamously declared his distrust of American intelligence agencies. Then in July 2018 in Helsinki he declared his faith in Putin citing the modern czar’s “extremely strong and powerful denial” that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

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Trump said that “Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.” This is the very definition of naivete, something that in a president risks our national security and helps enemies of freedom and democracy including Putin, Xi in China, Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in The Philippines.

Empty Positions After Three Years

Nearly three years into Trump’s term he has not nominated anyone for about one in five important positions. Out of 741 key positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump has failed to nominate anyone for 139 positions.

Of 189 ambassador level posts, 54 are empty according to a running list maintained by the American Foreign Service Association. America has no ambassador to Belarus, Brazil, Japan, Pakistan or Russia, among other countries. Our ambassador to Ukraine is acting, not permanent.

The top three Homeland Security positions and four other management positions requiring Senate confirmation are vacant, Senators Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, and Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, noted in a Nov. 6 letter.

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The senators, who lead the agency’s Senate oversight committee, wrote that Homeland Security “needs qualified principled leaders to successfully carry out its many vital national security functions.”

Homeland Security in Disarray

About a third of top Homeland Security positions are empty or held by people in an acting capacity, the agency’s Inspector General reported last week. The IG cited massive waste and inefficiency at the third-largest federal agency, focusing on turnover at the top.

The fact is that Trump cannot recruit top-notch people and in many cases anyone at all. Signing up to work for Trump runs the risk of huge legal bills not just for the current impeachment inquiry, but criminal investigations by the Manhattan district attorney and other prosecutors.

Visit the website of our diplomats, the American Foreign Service Association, and the first thing you see is a plea for money for the organization’s legal defense fund.

Trump is a master of reducing complex and nuanced ideas to slogans that benefit him. But he also can’t tolerate people who understand messaging in a professional way.

There have been seven communications directors announced for the Trump White House: Jason Miller (2 days in December 2016 before Trump took office), Sean Spicer (55 days), Mike Dubke (90 days), Anthony Scaramucci (10 days but never formally appointed), Hope Hicks (225 days), Bill Shine 246 (days) and Stephanie Grisham (124 days as of Wednesday, Nov. 20).

That’s an average of 147 days each. Compare this with presidents who served eight full years, more than twice Trump’s time in office to date. Obama and George W. Bush each had four. Clinton had five. Reagan seven.

The White House told Forbes that it has saved taxpayers $20 million by trimming down the size of the White House staff, including halving the first lady’s staff from 24 under Michelle Obama to 12 today.

The same magazine, Forbes, estimated last July that Trump’s golf outings have cost taxpayers between $105 million and $108 million. Should Trump serves two terms that would cost taxpayers $340 million.

Obviously, it’s not about saving money. It’s about Trump not wanting advice because, as he told us during the campaign, his best advisers reside in his own head.

If the person next to you on an airplane or at a bar said that you’d likely think they were crazy. Should we think any differently that this is what the president of the United States says?

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