Gary Cohn resigning as national economic adviser is bad for the adult quotient in the West Wing, as well as for the Dow Jones.
But just as big a worry as who’s leaving is who’s staying. Although not the shiny object that Cohn (or Hope Hicks, Rob Porter, or Steve Bannon), cabinet secretaries who would be long gone in any other administration are hanging on, redecorating (see HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 desk while removing anti-discrimination language from his agency’s mission), flying flags over their headquarters to signal they are in charge while turning over public lands to oil drillers excepting his home state of Montana (Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke), and increasing security details with a new $25,000 safe room lest anyone hear him endangering clean water (EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt).
While each has violated norms in his own way, one thing unites them: the president is not insisting they leave because they haven’t violated his standard. And that standard is: If you don’t beat your wife with a picture that proves it, or dump all over Trump and his family in a best-selling book, you are doing a helluva job.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, though, is a special case. Trump would love to fire him, yet he persists, enduring despite the worst insults Trump can think up and spell correctly. Over the weekend, I heard Sessions tell a friend from Alabama that it will take a lot more than Trump’s taunts—specifically “a bullet between the eyes”—to remove him. This may be a relief even to many Democrats who know that any replacement would likely be so much worse. (The Justice Department refused to comment when asked about the Sessions remark.)
A bullet might not be enough to unseat Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin by dint of multiple Inspector General’s reports detailing dismal performance and ethical violations. Shulkin took a lengthy trip to Europe with as much touring as official business and with his wife along for the ride at taxpayer expense. When his explanation that the trip was approved because he was getting an award, the invitation he offered to prove it was forged. He both claimed the VA was hacked and fired his chief of staff, who did the forging at his instruction. He explained tickets to Wimbledon by claiming they were given to the couple by a “family friend,” who it turned out was no such thing.
The latest IG report reveals that Shulkin, the one Obama appointee Trump liked enough to keep, is continuing to run the VA into the ground. Blaming complacency and inattention, the IG found “systemic” failures resulting in a lack of medical supplies, including prosthetic limbs and surgical implants, dirty conditions, chronic understaffing, and 1,300 boxes of veteran’s health information sitting in a hospital basement, a warehouse, and a trash bin. Shulkin is still in his job, despite being pressed to leave by two top aides and a fellow Republican, Rep. Mike Coffman, who heads the panel overseeing the VA. Shulkin’s response has been a pledge to root out dissidents and to hire his own public relations firm. They may well have advised him not to show up on the dais despite being listed in the official program at last weekend’s Gridiron dinner, a spring ritual where official Washington and those who cover them dine together without a food taster. The Daily Beast reported last week that there is another IG report in the works, this one on Shulkin using staff for personal errands.
Who did show up at the Gridiron was EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Almost no one approached him during the break despite his insistence that he’s so recognizable it’s not safe for him to fly coach. In one day that cost the taxpayer $14,434 when Pruitt commandeered a government jet to fly from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, about $300 otherwise, and a one-hour trip from Washington to New York at $1,641.43 rather than about $400. First class domestic is not always enough. He got a waiver to fly on Air Emirates, to protect him from angry Italians on a one-way trip from Milan, an airline known for its cocktail lounge, full beds and hot showers.
Like Shulkin, Pruitt is paranoid, diverting agents from environmental crimes to expanding his security detail to round-the-clock unprecedented size, and sweeping his office for bugs. On Tuesday, Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Thomas Carper sent a letter to Pruitt demanding an explanation by March 21 for how he justified awarding that contract to a business in which a member of his current security detail has a financial interest. That’s reminiscent of another no-bid contract award to the Republican opposition research firm Definers Public Affairs last December to search out "resistance figures" opposed to his agenda.
This pales next to what he’s costing the planet. "I think there's assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. . . it's fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100." What about the temperature on Wednesday in New York bringing with it snow thunderstorms, a new phenomenon. Pruitt quotes the Bible to defend exploiting the earth, saying that God expects it and hopes it will benefit business. Rescinding the regulation prohibiting the coal industry from dumping their runoff directly into streams benefits mine owners, not mine workers who live nearby.
Trump is sanguine about Cohn leaving even as he carves out exceptions to the trade war. Trump doesn’t follow his annoying globalist but he does follow the markets. On Tuesday, Trump, who knew Cohn was leaving, said he didn’t mind losing people and that, in fact, he had a few other positions “he’d like to change.”
He could begin with Shulkin and Pruitt; let another adult, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, stay on; and move on to Carson, who admits running HUD is harder than brain surgery. Trump likes setting records and losing those three for starters would keep up his current one for turnover—43 percent in his first year, with fewer than half of the 12 positions closest to him still occupied by his initial choices, according to the Brookings Institution. If, as Trump said Tuesday, people are clamoring to join his staff, he will hardly have time to miss them. We certainly won’t.