"Shields and Brooks on Veterans Affairs ouster, census citizenship question" PBS NewsHour 3/30/2018
SUMMARY: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, questions about EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s Washington living arrangements, the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census, and the March for Our Lives.
Judy Woodruff (NewsHour): It was the third week in a row where President Trump fired a member of his administration. This week, it David Shulkin of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That and other news brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Gentlemen, more turnover. This time, it was the head of the Veterans Affairs Department.
David, it looked as if he and the President were getting along well, but then there was a dispute over how fast they should privatize, what the Veterans Affairs, what the VA does, and then there were questions about a trip he took to Europe with his wife last week. But he’s out.
David Brooks, New York Times: Yes.
Can you imagine working at a place where every week somebody goes? And this was a quiet week, but they still lost a Cabinet member. And it just speaks to how little sense of camaraderie and trust there is, because you never know who going to be there day to day and no assurance that so-and-so is staying is a real assurance.
I guess, to me, the most interesting thing is the replacement with Rear Admiral Jackson. And that’s sort of part of the key belief of populism, which Donald Trump I guess stands for, is that experience is more corrupting than it is educational, and that you need clean people from outside who are pure from partisan interests and from rotting in the swamp.
And we’re about to test that proposition, because, apparently, an extremely good man, but with no administrative ability, is being asked to run the second largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government. And as someone who has no administrative ability, but who hangs around people who do, it’s just a different style of thought.
And I have — I feel great sympathy for that guy coming into what’s going to be an extremely difficult job.
Judy Woodruff: And, in fact, we read that Dr. Ronny Jackson, the President’s personal — the White House physician, was reluctant, apparently, when this was first raised with him to take over the VA.
Mark Shields, syndicated columnist: That’s exactly it. He does come with very high, as David mentioned, personal recommendations.
Lisa Monaco, who was the deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House, called him not only a patriot, but a saint. And Dan Pfeiffer went on the record, Obama people did, about — and he had been there for under three Presidents.
So I think the personal credentials are pretty solid, and he — and the President likes him. And he did very well on television presenting the President’s medical report and telling with a straight face the President weighed 239 pounds.
Mark Shields: So that endeared him.
But I come back to the firing. And this is quite a unique administration in the terms of public service. I can recall, when Donald Trump was running, he said — and I looked it up again today — I know the best people, I know the best managers, I know the best steel makers, we’re going to have the best Cabinet.
I don’t know how many more it’s going to take. We’re on our third National Security Adviser at this point. But what really is so bizarre to me is that I have been around so long that I can remember when the Peace Corps was created. And there was one young man who put his career on hold.
And they said, why are you doing this? And he says, I have never done anything that was political or patriotic or unselfish, because nobody never asked me. And he said, President Kennedy asked me.
And, you know, that sense of public service, that it’s a high calling, that it’s for the common good, is totally absent from this President, from his lexicon, from his frame of reference.
Judy Woodruff: Well, and, you know, while we’re talking about personnel, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, David, appears to be in some hot water this week, because it turns out he was living in a room or renting a room near Capitol Hill last year and paying an unusually small rent, $50 a night, in an area where it’s more expensive than that.
And then there’s a story in The Washington Post today about unusually inexperienced and not — people who didn’t do a great job in the White House Personnel Office. So, just more questions.
David Brooks: Yes.
And this goes to the point Mark made and to the notion of norms. I have been talking to a lot of people who like the President — the President’s approval ratings are up again. He’s up to about 42 percent. And people are saying, I forget — I ignore all that tweeting. I just know the economy is doing well, and so I give him credit for that.
And there’s a validity to that argument. But there’s been a damage to the norms by which we govern ourselves, by the capacity of state, why we think about our government. He appoints people who he’s personally linked to, as if we’re in a royal system where a personal relationship to the king is all that matters.
And then with Pruitt, he takes this apartment which has some ties to the wife of a lobbyist. And it’s not that it’s the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the republic. It’s just that somebody who goes in with a mentality, I’m here to serve the people, I’m here to serve the country, it just doesn’t feel right to do that.
Alarm bells go off in your head of any normal person, oh, that’s going to look bad, that’s going to hurt my capacity to do my work.
And so the fact that the alarm bells suddenly didn’t go off suggests to me that the shift in capacity from private sector to public sector has not happened. They haven’t crossed the mental leap that Mark described, that you can be a corporate lawyer, you can do all that, and it’s perfectly fine, but when you do the public service, you’re entering a different realm.
You’re probably not going to get fly first class, which you’re already used to. There is just going to be sacrifices you’re going to have to make, but you do it because you feel it’s the right thing.
Judy Woodruff: It’s a different realm, Mark. And, typically, the vetting is tough to get these jobs in the administration.
Mark Shields: It is.
And the piece you mentioned in The Post pointed out that they started with a far smaller pool of talent. Most administrations start with 300,000 names. They had, I think, one-fourth of that when they came in.
And many have been shot down because they didn’t meet the loyalty test at one point or another. And, of course, the whole personnel staffing was absolutely blown up. It was done by Chris Christie. They had done, according to independent observers, a pretty darn good job, and then they just burned that. So they have been behind.
And most administrations, Republican and Democrat, at the Office of Personnel Management, put in professionals, I mean, really talented people. I have known a number of them myself. And, you know, that’s — because they recognize that personnel is policy in any administration.
You could have the greatest ideas and policy in the making, but unless you have able, committed people to execute those policies, it’s for naught. And that’s exactly what’s been the problem here.
David Brooks, you fail to understand, Trump actually thinks he is a king.