Why Trump's White House Seems To Be Having So Much Trouble With The Vetting Process
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
No matter who wins in 2020, staffing an administration is a big challenge. It's been especially rocky for this White House. Yesterday Patrick Shanahan withdrew as President Trump's nominee to be defense secretary after details emerged about violence in his family's past. Last year, White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned over past allegations of domestic abuse. Ronnie Jackson withdrew his nomination to be veterans affairs secretary over allegations that he abused his power as White House doctor. And there are others.
Often these issues show up during the vetting process before the president makes a nomination. David Gergen joins us now to discuss why this White House seems to be having so much trouble with the process. He has been an adviser to four presidents of both parties. Welcome back to the program.
DAVID GERGEN: Thank you. It's good to be here.
SHAPIRO: Is this happening more often than in a typical administration?
GERGEN: Yes, far more often. And I'm not sure we fully understand why. In this particular - the latest case, the president said he was not informed until 24 hours before Shanahan pulled out. That was just hard to believe. It's either that reflects gross incompetence on the part of his team in not telling him, or he's lying about it and/or some combination thereof. But we don't know the answer to that.
What we do know is there has been a pattern of withdrawals from nominations that were not fully vetted, or some things popped up at the last minute. You know, both the person nominated that the president wanted to be Army secretary and the person he wanted to be Navy secretary were both knocked out by disclosures that had not come up in the early vetting.
SHAPIRO: So who's supposed to find this stuff out in the early vetting? Whose responsibility is it?
GERGEN: There are two institutions that are responsible, take primary lead for it - nominees who require Senate confirmation. One first and foremost is the White House working in conjunction with the Internal Revenue Service, working as well with the FBI to do a thorough financial, legal and personal conduct - and that includes domestic violence - kind of search. While that is underway - and it can take a number of weeks - the Senate itself takes up a background check. And so it's almost shocking that the senators are saying they didn't know.
SHAPIRO: Every administration has some level of dysfunction. But in a White House that is running somewhat more smoothly than this one, how would this work when it's a well-oiled machine or something close to it?
GERGEN: Well, I was involved in a similar case back in the Clinton presidency when we were examining someone for a high position in national security and seemed like a very fine candidate. But then we began to learn things about his past that were troubling. Red flags started to go up. And we went to the president and said, Mr. President, there are some real problems here; these are very problematic. And the nominations then just disappeared.
SHAPIRO: So the public didn't know about it at that point.
GERGEN: The public didn't know and still doesn't know, and I don't think it's fair to the individual. His name was never put into play. I think his privacy should be protected since he wasn't seeking a job; he didn't - wasn't nominated. Here's the thing that also mystifies me because there's so much about this is strange. You would think that candidate himself, knowing how the system works, knowing that there's going to be deep scrutiny - you would think that the potential nominee would go to the chief of staff of the White House and say, we need to talk, and volunteer the information so there can be no misunderstandings along the way instead of having a situation here where people just sat on the information clearly some people knew.
SHAPIRO: To take a step back for a moment, this administration has more turnover than any in recent memory for reasons having nothing...
SHAPIRO: ...To do with vetting. So given that people...
GERGEN: I agree.
SHAPIRO: ...Are coming and going at a remarkable pace regardless, does it matter if this issue adds to the churn?
GERGEN: Yes, it does matter, especially in national security because other nations - they send their ambassadors to Washington. They send top people to understand and confide back in the home office about what's going on in the United States. What are they going to do next? Can we rely upon them for this or that? And when you have a basically revolving door of people running things - we've had 44, I think The Washington Post count is now, of major, high-level people who have left the administration the first 2 1/2 years.
But it's particularly troublesome when it's a domestic position. But when it's a national security position and the doors are revolving, it really causes confusion. And people in other embassies or chancellors around the world - they don't know who to talk to, and that creates a lot of gaps. And you can have real misunderstandings in the context of national security decision making.
SHAPIRO: David Gergen worked for four presidents of both parties, and he is now co-director of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and a CNN senior political analyst. Thank you for joining us today.
GERGEN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.