Saturday, August 3, 2019

It is not journalists' job to vet political nominees, but...?

A television-esque logo spells out NEWS
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The position of U.S. national intelligence director is open, following the resignation of Daniel Coats.

(Lots of positions are open.)

A CNN infographic showing that nearly 40% of key Senate-confirmable positions are vacant, two years into the Trump administration.

John Ratcliffe withdrew his name from consideration for U.S. national intelligence director on August 2, 2019, only five days after Trump nominated him. An article in The Guardian about why Trump picked Ratcliffe:

Ratcliffe is a frequent Trump defender who fiercely questioned the former special counsel Robert Mueller during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

Even as Mueller laid bare concerns that Russia was working to interfere with US elections again, Ratcliffe remained focused on the possibility that US intelligence agencies had overly relied on unverified opposition research in investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Unfortunately for Ratcliffe, he had embellished his credentials. According to Vox: He had "frequently boasted about overseeing the arrest of 300 illegal immigrants in one day at a poultry plant in 2008," but the operation was much smaller and his role was negligible, as the Washington Post revealed. He claimed that "he personally convicted terrorists accused of funneling money to Hamas," but he did not prosecute that case, as the New York Times revealed. He also claimed that President George W. Bush had appointed him as “chief of anti-terrorism and national security in the Eastern District of Texas,” despite that position being nonexistent.

Furthermore, as the Daily Beast reported, "a company that forced the shutdown of a critical government cybersecurity office" is "Ratcliffe’s third-largest campaign donor in the 2019-2020 cycle." That company had retaliated against a whistleblower; Ratcliffe sided with the company.

Announcing his withdrawal, Ratcliffe suggested in a tweet that the concerns with his nomination were "purely political and partisan." (Although it seems not.)

On August 2, CNN's Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta tweeted: "A full vet was not done on Ratcliffe, source familiar with the DNI selection process says. The source compared Ratcliffe to selection of Dr. Ronny Jackson for VA Secretary: both men were selected by Trump after performing to his liking on TV. But they weren’t properly vetted."

Trump, interviewed August 2 about the matter, made contradictory comments to reporters. First, he said that he had recommended to Ratcliffe that he withdraw his name to avoid unfair media scrutiny, and that the reporting on Ratcliffe was "fake."

“I could see that the press was treating him — I thought — very unfairly. He’s an outstanding man. And I asked him, I said: ‘Do you want to go through this for two or three months, or would you want me to, maybe, do something else?’ And he thought about it. I said, ‘It’s going to be rough.’ I could see exactly where the press is going. (Fake news!) He’s a fine man, he’s a fine man...I think he was just treated very badly, very harshly by the press. And he really had a decision to make. ‘Do you want to go through this for — it could be months.’ And I said, ‘I think I see exactly what they’re trying to do.’ Nobody understands the press. But I think I understand them as well as anybody. And I didn’t think it was fair." (see video)

Then, in the same interview, Trump informed the press that it is in fact their job to "vet" his political picks. (In the clip below, he says this seven times.)

“You vet for me. I like when you vet. No, no, you vet. I think the White House has a great vetting process. Uh, you vet for me. When I give a name, I give it out to the press, and you vet for me. A lot of times you do a very good job. Not always. I think — if you look at it, if you take a look at it — the vetting process for the White House is very good. But you’re part of the vetting process, you know? I give out a name to the press, and you vet for me. We save a lot of money that way. But in the case of John, I really believe that he was being treated very harshly and very unfairly.” (see video)

This is obviously not true; for all kinds of reasons, an administration's vetting of its own a political pick should occur internally before a nomination is made public for the press to examine. There are several thousand political appointees in the United States, about 1,200 of which require Senate confirmation. Journalists may not have security clearances or insider access to the information they need to vet each person rapidly. Even if they have the needed access, they are paid by private media companies whose goal is to sell newspapers and ad space, and their bosses may not want them to write those stories. And, even if they are able to research a nominee and are given the green-light by their employer to spend time on it, it damages their neutrality to do work that may be seen as helping a political party. That is to say, the journalist is not employed by the political party, and if the political party does not have its act together, it's the journalist's mission simply to report that news, not to help the party clean up. This should be obvious. A journalist can break a story about a stunningly good or bad pick that is "newsworthy," but they are not empowered to do the elementary vetting, should not have to do it, and probably should not do it, full stop.

And what happens when a journalist does find information on a nominee? How are they supposed to communicate that to the President? By publishing the story and waiting for the President to happen to see it on TV? In other words, by hoping that enough of a circus will be made that someone will eventually be forced to do something about it?

Since the Trump administration's lack of process causes internal chaos as well as an external media circus, it probably doesn't "save a lot of money" for taxpayers. First of all, the most elementary type of vetting begins at the top and is free: The leader picks a candidate by a method that reliably produces good candidates. So, for example, that would mean not choosing sycophants who have passed a couple years' worth of loyalty tests. Instead it could involve one of the following: going by usual procedures for promoting people within the bureaus in which they've had their careers, which ensures that they have the relevant qualifications (which, in this case, might be Susan Gordon who, with thirty years' experience, would normally be considered the successor); asking an expert within the field to recommend another qualified person; or drawing from whatever relevant knowledge the President him/herself has on the subject to choose someone they know to be wise and ethical (assuming that they have filled any part of their social network with wise and ethical people). If the President's appointee is at least likely to be good, that's a first step that is totally free of charge. Second, if all appointees were expected to be reasonably qualified to begin with, then the Senate could more easily do its job when it came time to confirm them. Government employees and elected leaders should not have to pay attention to a media circus every time there is a bad appointee or have to rely on a series of newspaper articles to determine whether each appointee is remotely qualified. Third, not vetting only saves money if you aren't paying the people who normally do the vetting. Is he saying that previous administrations paid internal researchers and fact-checkers and that his administration doesn't even have those positions? If he's so interested in saving a million dollars on fact-checkers, why is the national debt increasing by trillions of dollars?

Trump's comment is further confusing (surely, deliberately so) insofar as he says that sometimes the press does a poor job vetting his candidates and that Ratcliffe's vetting was an instance of a poor job because the man was treated "harshly" and "unfairly," but he does not reveal any criteria by which he or anyone else can assess whether the press is going a good job. Who, indeed, would "watch the watchers"? Who evaluates the journalists, other than more journalists? If it is his prerogative to make that determination, isn't he implying that he is the final arbiter or truth? And on a more pragmatic note, isn't it likely that when the press critiques a nominee, Trump will withdraw his nominee reluctantly (claiming that the press opinion is wrong and that he withdraws the nominee only to avoid more circus)? In other words, the press may correctly identify problems, but there is no reason for Trump ever to admit he made a mistake, thus blaming the press as being "negative" and therefore "fake" when they are actually telling the truth? He is confessing the dynamic he has set up: he expects others to root out his errors, knowing that he will never have to directly admit to error, but can remain in an endless spiral of maligning those who accuse him of error while at the same time actually relying on those people to protect the integrity of government functioning by making an effort that he should have enabled his team to make in the first place.

Furthermore, if he really believes that the press often does a poor job at vetting his candidates (which, again, it bears repeating, is not actually their job), and if he believes that journalists are often untruthful, cruel, unfair, why doesn't he select better candidates to begin with and then submit the candidate for vetting internally before announcing his choice (as most other presidents have done) so that the process occurs in a way that he thinks is truthful and good? Given his incessant promotion of the idea that the press is "the enemy of the people," it's strange for him to say he relies on the press to determine the difference between good and bad. He undermines his own authoritarian motto there.

Brian Klaas reminds us of the importance of the position for which Ratcliffe had been nominated (U.S. national intelligence director):

Andrew Simpson writing in the DC Tribune:

"Trump nominated Ratcliffe because the Representative from Texas’ 4th District sits on both the House Judiciary and the House Intelligence Committees, and Trump watched him ask Robert Mueller questions all day the other day, in both hearings — the kind of questions Trump liked. Trump couldn’t have picked John Ratcliffe out of a lineup of brown-haired middle-aged guys if you promised him a lap dance from an illegal Swedish immigrant.

But the video [of Trump's interview about Ratcliffe's withdrawal] shows how Trump doesn’t take any of it seriously in any way whatsoever, telling reporters he gives a name of a nominee to the press “and you vet for me” — meaning he finds out at the same time as everyone in the general public whether the person he’s just nominated is a liar or a criminal or a wife-beater or a tax cheat. Trump doesn’t do homework, he just lets others figure things out and then decides how hard he wants to defend his choices."

It seems to be up to "the press" how to respond to this dynamic, which is difficult both because "the press" is not a monolith but is made of thousands of individual journalists and private companies and also because it's not in their typical job description to be in a dysfunctional relationship with someone who tells them what their job description is despite not having that authority and also being wrong. Despite those difficulties, it does fall upon the journalists to respond to the situation. Ideally, it would be up to a properly functioning government not to create this problem in the first place or to resolve it, but we do not have a properly functioning government.


On August 8, 2019, Trump tweeted that Sue Gordon is out (she will resign her position entirely in one week) and Joseph Maguire, current leader of the National Counterterrorism Center, will replace Dan Coats as acting director of intelligence. The next day, it was revealed that Dan Coats had interrupted a meeting to urge Gordon to resign.

During the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House in October 2020, the White House said neither it nor the CDC would be responsible for contact tracing from the Rose Garden event suspected to have started the outbreak. Instead, the White House indicated that the White House Medical Unit would be responsible for contact tracing, but the president's physician, Dr. Sean Conley, denied that he was involved with this. (Rachel Maddow discussed this on October 5.) Some contact tracing was being done by journalists.

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