Thirteen Months In, the White House Still Has Unfilled Spots

by Jim Geraghty

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why personnel and staffing-up remains a problem for the Trump administration even after 13 months, Americans for Prosperity unleashes $4 million in advertising hitting Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly for not supporting tax cuts, and an important book tackling America’s “crisis of responsibility” and self-destructive love affair with the mentality of victimhood.

Happy Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras and the eve of Lent)! Tomorrow marks Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, which is an inconvenient combination. “Happy Valentine’s Day, honey, I got you a heart-shaped box of chocolates. Too bad we’re fasting today.” If you think that’s odd, just wait 40 days, when Easter Sunday is on April Fool’s Day.

Why the Trump Administration Still Has Personnel Troubles

Yes, the security-clearance process takes a while, but . . . it’s mid-February in the second year of the Trump administration. Shouldn’t at least the folks who arrived with Trump have completed background checks by now? Today the New York Times calculates that the White House has had a 34 percent turnover rate — way higher than any previous administration, and a sign that there are probably new folks in jobs who are still awaiting their background checks to be completed.

Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser with a broad foreign policy portfolio that requires access to some of the intelligence community’s most closely guarded secrets, still has not succeeded in securing a permanent security clearance. The delay has left him operating on an interim status that allows him access to classified material while the F.B.I. continues working on his full background investigation . . . 

Officials with previous administrations said it is not uncommon for the full background checks to take as long as eight months or a year, in part because of a long backlog in vetting the backgrounds of people needing clearance across the federal government.

Last week, CNN reported that “30 to 40 White House officials and administration political appointees are still operating without full security clearances.” The point of the background check process is primarily to protect national security, but it also helps avoid embarrassments like the one surrounding Rob Porter and his dismissal. The president is being ill-served by this sluggish process.

If you live in Washington long enough, eventually your friends and neighbors start listing you as possible references and contacts in their security-clearance-renewal process. You get a call and some nice person from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s National Background Investigations Bureau shows up at your door, and asks you a bunch of reasonable questions (“Have you ever seen or heard any indication this person has a drinking problem?” “Anything that you think might make this person vulnerable to blackmail?”) and a few somewhat silly ones (“Have you ever seen or heard anything to suggest this person might want to overthrow the government?” “Is there any reason to think this person has loyalty to a foreign power or terrorist group?”). If you have no criminal record and no glaring red flags like gambling debts, the process should move pretty smoothly.

Most presidents come to Washington with a “kitchen cabinet,” a thick Rolodex of people interested in working for the federal government and a slew of loyal staffers who have worked in the federal government before, and who probably already went through initial background checks for previous jobs. Trump is an outsider; it’s worth remembering that of his initial close advisers — Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn, Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks — none of them had worked in any civilian government job before, never mind the federal government. In the cabinet, Rex Tillerson, Steven Mnuchin, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Wilbur Ross are in their first government jobs.

There are advantages to being an outsider, but there are disadvantages as well. A traditional Republican presidency has a slew of potential high-level staffers; a government-in-waiting in conservative think tanks — the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, perhaps the Cato Institute — places full of policy wonks who eat, sleep, and breathe conservative ideas and policies and how to enact them. Trump has selected a few folks from those places, but there really isn’t a large, well-regarded, high profile populist think tank aiming to transform the “Trumpist” philosophy into policy. “Personnel is policy,” as they said in the Reagan administration, and this may be one more reason why Trump’s policies are turning out more traditionally conservative-libertarian than populist.

Some Trump fans might prefer the thought of successful businessmen staffing up the Trump administration, but successful businessmen generally don’t like the thought of leaving their businesses to be undersecretaries for a few years and make a government salary. There is still a  slew of high-level appointed positions still awaiting a nominee in Trump’s second year: fifty-nine positions at the State Department with no nominee (including lots of ambassadorships), seven at the Department of Defense, ten at the Department of Energy, four at Homeland Security, 16 at the Department of Justice, ten at the Department of Transportation, and 15 at the Department of the Treasury. There’s no nominee for the director of the Counterterrorism Center in the office of the DNI, and we’re short one FCC commissioner, two FEC commissioners, a White House director of drug control policy, a White House director of science and technology policy, and two governors of the Federal Reserve.

Some might argue a president shouldn’t need a small army of policy wonks to enact his agenda, but if you want to change how government operates, overcome the permanent bureaucracy, and are wary about a “deep state,” you had better get your own people in place. When the history of this administration is written, it is likely that one conclusion will be that they unnecessarily impeded themselves with their own disorganization.

Here Comes $4 Million in Ads Hitting McCaskill and Donnelly

Americans for Prosperity, part of the Koch brothers network, will launch a major ad campaign in Missouri and Indiana beginning Thursday, hitting Senators Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill over “broken promises on tax reform.”

AFP will spend $4 million in TV and digital ads.

“Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill promised tax reform for years but chose partisan politics over Indiana and Missouri families when they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide tax relief,” AFP President Tim Phillips said in a released statement. “Americans deserve better, which is why AFP is committed to ensuring citizens see the pro-growth benefits of tax reform despite dismissals and deception from ‘no’ votes like Donnelly and McCaskill.”

The ad hitting Donnelly can be seen here; the ad hitting McCaskill can be seen here.

Tackling America’s Crisis of Responsibility

There are a lot of wise words in David Bahnsen’s new book, Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It. But two of my favorite passages are this . . . 

At the heart of our responsibility crisis is an increasingly heated love affair with victimhood — we are addicted to blame. And all of us have lusted after it one way or another — conservatives and liberals, on the outside and on the inside, rural America and cosmopolitan America. We have all found different bogeymen to blame for the things that dissatisfy us, but they are bogeymen nonetheless. The Left caricaturizes financial fat cast and corporate executives while the Right demonizes journalists and politicos. Kernels of truth turn to wholesale excuses for passivity, inactivity, and apathy. All too often, our society has fixated on what has been done to us, whether real or imagined, while losing a healthy and rugged fixation on self-reliance and actualization.

And this:

Your view of yourself cannot be one of “me against the world.” Believing that your boss, spouse, customers or political leaders are all out to get you results in a life shaped by fear, not love — and certainly not joy. Might a spouse, boss, neighbor or politician actually have it in for you? It’s possible, I suppose. Yet even then, the productive response is not despair or defeatism, but courageous faithfulness. I’ve never seen someone who lives in a perpetual state of victimhood make good decisions. I’ve never seen defeatism result in anything but being defeated, or victimization create anything but a victim.

This is self-help in the best sense of the term, and a message Americans really need to hear right now.

Some sections reminded me of Tony Robbins, and I hope Bahnsen takes that as the praise it’s meant to be. I get the feeling Robbins is widely perceived as a salesman for a sort of blind happy-talk, which I don’t think is an accurate characterization at all. I haven’t shelled out for one of Robbins’ rah-rah seminars, but one of his books really shaped my thinking at a key point in my life.

Picture the winter of 2001-2002: My job stinks, my paychecks are bouncing, after 9/11 we’re all awaiting the next terror attack, anthrax was in the mail, the economy was sputtering and better jobs are scarce, and everything seemed dark and gloomy. I picked up Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within thinking that it was naïve happy talk, but thinking I’d prefer to be naïve and happy than realistic and glum all the time.

Ironically, the book didn’t offer unrealistic happy talk and instead served up the opposite. It was ebullient but firm straight talk, which is what I needed to hear: Improving your life is your responsibility and no one else’s. No one is going to just show up and make your life better for you. You have to decide how you want to change your life to get better results, and you have to stop blaming anyone else — not bosses, not parents, not “luck” or fate or God. You have to start looking at your problems as potential opportunities and you have to refocus your perspective on how you’ve been blessed, not how you’ve been cheated, hurt, shortchanged, or denied. I finally saw my frustrating wire-service job as a remarkable opportunity in disguise if I just approached it differently, and within a month, I had a front-page story in the Boston Globe; within a year, I had my first freelance articles on National Review Online. “Seek and ye shall find.” When you look for scapegoats and excuses, you find scapegoats and excuses; when you look for opportunities, you find opportunities.

Crisis of Responsibility is the kind of book you want to leave in public places so that random strangers will pick it up and be influenced by it.

ADDENDA: David Brooks, writing in the New York Times today: “The Trump era has produced a renaissance in conservative writing. National Review is a more interesting magazine now than at any time in its history.”

I’ll take the compliment, but let’s be honest, that’s a really high bar to clear.

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty