As the Trump transition team geared up to fill the incoming president’s Cabinet in the weeks following his election, it identified a host of red flags for people like Scott Pruitt ( “coziness with big energy companies”), Gary Cohn (“an abrasive, curt, and intimidating style”), and Rex Tillerson (“Russia ties go deep”). Trump hired them all anyway.
The transition team’s concerns are included on vetting forms leaked to Axios on HBO. The documents were put together by the Republican National Committee, which took over the job of vetting would-be appointees after Chris Christie was fired by the Trump transition team just days after the election. The team of vetters was young, inexperienced, and overwhelmed by a ragtag bunch of contenders for top government positions.
“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 RNC 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.’”
The leaked documents reveal early concerns about administration officials who’ve since left the government. There were former EPA administrator Pruitt’s ethical issues, and the swampy relationship between former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and the health-care industry. Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of State, was said to have “deep” ties to Russia, and Ryan Zinke, the scandal-ridden former Interior secretary, was flagged for a history of “misusing taxpayer funds for personal travel.”
Some of those vetted never made it to the Trump administration, but they still might. Among them are Kris Kobach, whose vetting documents raised potential connections to white supremacy, and Fox News host Laura Ingraham, whose documents include the heading “Nazi Salute Controversy.” Kobach was in the running for Homeland Security secretary in late 2016, and Ingraham’s name was floated for White House press secretary.
As a part of their vetting, the miserable RNC staffers gathered statements critical of Trump from potential appointees. They found many, Axios reports:
Nikki Haley, who became Trump’s U.N. ambassador, had a note that she’d said Trump is everything “we teach our kids not to do in kindergarten.”
Ryan Zinke, who became Interior Secretary, had described Trump as “un-defendable.”
Rick Perry, Energy Secretary, had voluminous vetting concerns: “Perry described Trumpism as a ‘toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition,’” the vetters noted.
Prior criticim of Trump is not a good reason to keep someone out of the administration. But some of the other concerns raised probably were. For example, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has family and business conflicts of interest, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has deep ties to foreign business, and Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney once paid his mother-in-law $13,886 for work on his campaign. They were all hired anyway.
There is some indication that the vetting documents did turn up information that prevented hires though. The file on retired Army general David Petraeus, who was considered for secretary of State, includes a red flag that says “Petraeus Is Opposed To Torture.” He never joined the administration.