President Trump’s choice to replace his fired National Security Adviser has declined the job, citing family and financial obligations that he said would be difficult for him to meet if he assumed the 24/7 responsibilities that go with managing the White House’s Situation Room.
Privately, though, retired Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward is said to have demurred because of the evident chaos in the White House, notwithstanding Trump’s insistence in a rambling press conference on Thursday that it is running like a “fine-tuned machine.” Speaking to friends, the former Navy SEAL with 40-years of service called the offer a “shit sandwich,” after learning, among other things, that he would not be allowed to appoint his own staff and would have to accept former NSA staffer and Fox News contributor, K. T. McFarland as his deputy.
It seems fair to ask whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would have said yes to his nomination if he had known in advance that he, too, wouldn’t be allowed his choice of a second-in-command. Former State Department official Elliott Abrams was denied the post of deputy secretary of state, reportedly after Trump learned that Abrams had been critical of him during the election.
You get the sense that this is going to keep happening: That well-qualified candidates for hugely important positions in the executive branch, like Harward, are going to look at offers from Trump’s team and take a hard pass. In fact, it’s an open question as to whether or not it has already been happening, just behind the scenes.
The Trump administration has more than 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions that it needs to fill. The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service have teamed up to track the nominations of the 696 “key” executive branch positions. It has now been exactly 100 days since Trump woke up on November 9 as the president-elect and his team has publicly announced nominations for just 44 of them. (The job Harward turned down wasn’t even subject to the Senate confirmation process, though given his history there is little doubt he would have been speedily confirmed.)
The White House has been very obviously unable to fill the key job of communications director, leaving embattled Press Secretary Sean Spicer to try to juggle those responsibilities as well as his own.
Some people saw this coming. Barely a week after the election, Eliot A. Cohen, who served in the George W. Bush administration as a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009, was waving off conservatives considering a job with the Trump administration.
He had originally encouraged people to try to serve, but to keep a pre-written resignation letter in their desks. However, after contacts with the transition team in the days after the election, he revised his opinion.
“The President-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty.... By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless,” he wrote in a scathing Post op-ed.
“Conservative political types should not volunteer to serve in this administration, at least for now,” he continued. “They would probably have to make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible.”
In the meanwhile, he urged, “Do what you can do in other venues, and remember that this too will pass, and someday a more normal kind of administration will either emerge or replace this one. Your country still needs you — just not yet.”
It’s beginning to look as though more than a few people are taking Cohen’s advice.