Bad Hires Are Always Bad News

(Bloomberg View) -- Back when then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was in trouble for taking charter flights and sticking taxpayers with the bill, I considered the various ways President Donald Trump and the Republican Party were acting with respect to that kind of misbehavior and concluded: "Don't expect this to be the last, or the worst, episode of this kind during the Trump administration."

Just at the cabinet level, there's been an eight-year administration's worth of scandals in 15 months. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin is gone at least in part for a trip scandal. Steve Mnuchin at Treasury and Ryan Zinke at Interior have so far survived similar episodes. Ben Carson got in trouble for buying expensive office furniture. And the man of the moment, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, has done all of the above and more and more and more. I may have forgotten some. 

I attributed all of this to three aspects of Trump's approach to the presidency: the poor example he set on ethics; the lack of loyalty he inspires (and therefore the impulse to cash in overrides any impulse to keep the president from looking bad); and his lack of management skills, which means that no one expects careful supervision of their behavior. 

On further reflection, I think I missed a few reasons to expect what I called "corner-cutting at best and outright corruption at worst."

The president, by all accounts, hires based on who flatters him best and who (in his view) looks the part. That's a good formula for hiring hacks who are awful at their jobs; it's also a terrible way to avoid crooks and cheats. 

I probably also should have put more emphasis on the passivity of the Republican Congress. While it's true that there's been some public pushback and perhaps more in private, it's still the case that the strongest signal Republicans in Congress have sent is that they'll look the other way. 

And one more important thing. Regardless of the actual level of misbehavior, it's not surprising that a president's nominees who oppose the basic mission of their departments and agencies will be plagued with leaks of whatever misdeeds they're guilty of -- or even leaks of marginally iffy behavior that just looks bad. In my view, there's nothing unethical in, say, a secretary of Housing and Urban Development who opposes the basic functions of the department. But there's a real and predictable cost: The bureaucrats within almost all agencies want to fulfill what the agency is set up to do and what they've been doing for years. Yes, that's a status quo bias in the system, and we can discuss just how big a problem that is; some will argue that elected officials should be allowed to remake policy across the board, while others believe that a little status quo bias isn't so bad. Either way, it's no surprise that various petty misbehaviors by these folks make their way to the news media -- and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone in the administration, including the president. 

Expect the revelations to continue, and don't be surprised if it keeps getting worse.

1. Molly Reynolds on Trump's filibuster complaints.

2. Robert Jervis and Mira Rapp-Hooper on Korea.

3. Fred Kaplan on Trump and Syria.

4. My Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson on Republican attacks on Nancy Pelosi

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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