Blindspots and turncoats: How Trump’s mostly white casting has backfired

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One of the President’s favorite pastimes is complaining about his staff to friends and he has griped recently that those working for him currently are doing little to improve his political standing, according to a person who has spoken to him. He has erupted at his campaign manager, grumbled bitterly about his Pentagon chief and upbraided senior White House aides over damaging leaks, people familiar with the matter say.

Yet as he nears the end of his first term, the issues which have plagued Trump’s hiring choices and caused him persistent headaches don’t show any signs of abating. And it’s far from clear he has any intention of abandoning his method for choosing who works for him.

Instead, Trump has installed his longtime body man in the top hiring role at the White House with a mandate to hire only those who demonstrate the utmost loyalty. And he has lashed out at former senior officials — who he himself hired for the federal government’s top positions — after they very publicly declared him unfit.

The long list of Trump administration officials turned critics
The latest was Bolton, whose book “The Room Where it Happened” exploded Wednesday with a series of allegations that Trump attempted to leverage American foreign policy for political gain. In an interview with ABC News, Bolton said Trump wasn’t suited to being president. Trump later declared Bolton a “disgruntled boring fool who only wanted to go to war.”

The splashy breakup between Trump and his onetime top adviser would have been made more stunning if virtually the same thing hadn’t happened repeatedly over the past two years.

Two weeks ago, when onetime Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement Trump was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people,” Trump declared him the “world’s most overrated general.”

After Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, backed up Mattis’ views, Trump wrote him off as “way over his head.” Onetime Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reportedly called Trump a “moron” when he was still working for him, is “dumb as a rock,” Trump has claimed. And Jeff Sessions, the attorney general Trump came to despise for his recusal from the Russia investigation, was never “mentally qualified.”

That Trump hired all of those men in the first place only illustrates the hot-and-cold nature of his staffing principles, which former officials and people close to the President say relies on a few key criteria:

  • Loyalty, which Trump has defined not only as an absence of past criticism but also a willingness to defend him in virtually any circumstance, preferably on television. Through its new hiring chief, former body man John McEntee, the White House is now asking job applicants questions such as what part of Trump’s campaign message “most appealed” to them and whether they’ve ever commented on Trump on television.
  • Look, which for Trump has most often meant what an administration might look like on camera, including a spate of generals, which he believed looked distinguished. Trump has also commented on male aides’ hair when he believes it to be an asset and has said the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, appears sophisticated when presenting information.
  • Approval from friends, including those he surveys at his private clubs in Florida and New Jersey when faced with a forthcoming hiring choice. The opinion of his wife, children and son-in-law have also weighed heavily in Trump’s hiring decisions.
  • Chemistry, which according to former aides sometimes means a willingness to listen to Trump speak at length without interrupting too much.

More often than not, the result of the formula has been the hiring of men, mostly white, who form the majority of Trump’s inner-circle and fill many senior roles in government. But as Trump has learned again and again, many of those men — most of whom haven’t acted in staff positions for decades and have become accustomed to being the boss — come with expectations and egos to match.

In his book, Bolton describes Trump and his top aides repeatedly asking him to join the administration in some capacity because, they believed, he might lend conservative credibility to an otherwise inexperienced team.

But during the transition, Bolton describes being confused at the driving motivations behind Trump’s hiring, which he calls “unconventional and erratic” without following any ideological pattern.

“Were there common, consistent attributes and accomplishments Trump sought? Obviously not, and observers should have asked: What is the real principle governing Trump’s personnel-selection process?” Bolton writes, adding later on: “I don’t really believe my looks played a role in Trump’s thinking. And if they did, God help the country. Attractive women, however, fall into a different category when it comes to Trump.”

Potential hires’ appearances have always weighed heavily on Trump’s decisions and he has been open about touting the “central casting” appeal of everyone from Mattis to Vice President Mike Pence to his two Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Yet Trump’s casting has rarely included black people, a shortfall whose real-world consequences became obvious this week. Amid coast-to-coast outcry on systemic racism and police brutality, Trump scheduled a campaign rally in Tulsa, the site of some of the worst racist violence in American history, on Juneteenth, the historic anniversary of enslaved people in Texas learning they were free two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It was a date and place that made little sense at a moment of national racial reckoning. But few members of Trump’s staff recognized the discordance, or were willing to raise the issue with him.

Trump claims he deserves credit for making Juneteenth 'very famous'
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump said he surveyed people in his orbit about the date and found no one who knew what it meant. He said he finally learned of its significance not from one of his own aides but from a black Secret Service agent. He later moved the rally by a day, a rare retreat.
“I did something good. I made it famous. I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, it’s an important time. But nobody had heard of it,” Trump told the newspaper. “Very few people have heard of it. Actually, a young African-American Secret Service agent knew what it was. I had political people who had no idea.”

Trump’s response to protests and outcry surrounding the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of white police officers has highlighted, for some, the lack of black voices who are able to guide him. When Trump posed with a bible in front of a church whose basement had been set on fire, he was surrounded only by white advisers, a picture that several White House officials later privately acknowledged was a mistake.

Trump does have some black aides that are involved in crafting the White House’s message and policies, including domestic policy adviser Ja’Ron Smith and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who this week said he was working to educate Trump on the reasons why some professional athletes kneel during the national anthem.

But as protests broke out across the country, many of Trump’s advisers privately acknowledged he wasn’t hearing from enough black voices to understand why people were upset. And while some of his closest white aides relayed second-hand their black friends’ experiences with racism, it took more than a week for Trump to convene a formal meeting with African Americans to discuss the issues at hand.

“I’m not sure that the planners on his inner circle team thought about June 19, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and race riots. Unless you’re doing a historical check, you probably don’t get those dots connected,” Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate and an ally of Trump’s, said this week on CBS. “But I have always said, my staff in Washington is an incredibly diverse staff, and diversity on our staffs helps us avoid some of the pitfalls.”

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