The Vetting of the Swamp Dwellers

Who's a hero patriot and who's an establishment lickspittle? It's complicated.
June 24, 2019
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President-elect Trump reacts to the news that he has to hire his own people to run his government. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

In Donald Trump’s view of the world, all right-wing politics is divided into two types of people. There are those aboard the Trump train: heroes and patriots, beautiful, hardworking, selfless public servants straining every nerve to Make America Great Again. And then there’s the flotsam: prissy virtue-signaling Never-Trumpers, media lickspittles who are honestly just jealous, and coastal elites desperate to be loved by the libs, all of which taken together comprise that hated enemy, the Establishment.

As a political tool, this worldview works great. Rallying the troops is far more efficient when the only thing you have to worry about is whether or not they’re wearing the hat. But it also suffers from one key flaw: Sometimes, people move back and forth between camps, at which point everyone involved starts to look a little silly.

All of which is why the massive pile of vetting documents from Trump’s presidential transition team, which were recently leaked to Axios and released over the weekend, make for such entertaining reading. The documents, which detail potential “red flags” for people the White House was considering hiring for top administration roles in the weeks after the 2016 election, provide a glimpse behind the curtain at a time when the brand new regime was asking itself: Now, just which of these jokers are real hero-and-patriot material?

The presidential transition, you might recall, was a time of chaos, since Trump and friends didn’t have much higher expectations for their own campaign than anybody else did. Almost immediately, Trump fired his initial transition head, Chris Christie, and turned the job over to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. According to Axios, Pence outsourced nearly all vetting of candidates for top administration jobs to the Republican National Committee, which is a little more seasoned at that sort of thing. In many cases, this ended up being all the pre-hire vetting a candidate would get.

The RNC created a rap sheet of unearthed liabilities for each candidate, and it was these rap sheets that were leaked to Axios.

A number of candidates considered for senior White House jobs were dinged for deep entanglements with foreign governments or industries relevant to the positions for which they were being considered. Eventual (now-ex) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “Russia ties go deep.” Presidential lawyer Rudy Guiliani had a 25-page packet detailing his “foreign entanglements.” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had a snarl of “business conflicts of interest” and “family conflict of interest” (just a business that had had contracts with the, um, Department of Agriculture). Seema Verma, who oversees the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, had a history of advising the state of Indiana on how it would spend its Medicaid funds “while she was also being paid by a client that received Medicaid funds.”

Some red flags were just plain wacky. Economist Gary Cohn, who served as the director of the National Economic Council for the first year of the Trump administration, apparently had an “abrasive, curt, and intimidating style”: “He Would Sometimes Hike Up One Leg And Plant His Foot On A Trader’s Desk, His Thigh Close To The Employee’s Face, And Ask How Markets Were Doing.” Laura Ingraham, under consideration for a press shop job, had said “people should wear diapers instead of sharing bathrooms with transgender people.” (Some opinions, it seems, are too goofy even for the Trump administration.)

The vetting process even involved nods to the president’s own notorious narcissism. If a candidate had bad-mouthed Trump during the the 2016 campaign—Nikki Haley saying he represented everything “we teach our kids not to do in kindergarten,” or Rick Perry decrying his “toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense”—those comments were given pride of place at the top of that candidate’s file.

“To be honest, the process was such a disaster and such a shit-show and there were so many unqualified people coming through that the issues with [future HUD Secretary Ben] Carson don’t really stick out to me,” one vetter told Axios. “You know, I’m like, ‘Oh gentle Ben is unqualified and thinks that pyramids store grain or whatever. Great. At least he’s not beating his wife and his wife’s not appearing on Oprah.’”

It’s all very fun reading, if a little gratuitous: Everything in politics, after all, looks worse when the sausage-making comes to light. Still, it underscores a point everyone who’s been paying attention has known for years: Contra the protestations of the faithful, the Trump administration is certainly no less swampy and Establishment-y than anybody else.

But perhaps the most remarkable and delightful tidbit isn’t in the documents at all, but in the White House’s response to the Axios leak. Get a load of this statement from White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley:

President Trump has assembled an incredible team throughout the federal government who—in spite of 93% negative news coverage—has accomplished undeniable successes… President Trump has done more to improve the lives of the American people in two years—than past presidents have done in eight—and no disgruntled, establishment, D.C. swamp creature’s cowardly leaks can change that.

Think about that for a minute. Immediately after the 2016 election, the Trump White House apparently ranked the RNC among the heroes and patriots—one hopes so, at least, given they handed over pretty much full vetting responsibilities to them for the officials who would run the government from then on. Some documents get leaked to Axios, however, and a remarkable transformation takes place: Suddenly the vetters are disgruntled, establishment, swamp-dwelling cowards. We relied on them to make sure nobody too crazy ruled your lives; you can’t trust a word they say!

Speaking personally, I wouldn’t take it too hard if I were an RNC vetter. For the most part, Trumpworld has short memories and absolutely no sense of shame. All you have to do is put the hat back on. You, even you, can become a hero and a patriot once more.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.