It’s not easy to get Donald Trump off one of his tears: ripping up treaties, hating his attorney general, insulting black athletes.
But Democrats with the tacit agreement of Republicans have quietly delayed one of Trump’s more reckless ideas to the point where it is all but dead: appointing his pilot, John Dunkin, who hasn’t had much to do since Trump started flying Air Force One, to run the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA isn’t a task force created to reward Trump’s cronies. The friendly skies would be less so if it weren’t for the FAA with its 45,000 employees regulating millions of flights moving 756 million passengers annually without an airline crash in nearly a decade.
Trump put Dunkin’s name on the table in a meeting at the White House with members of the pertinent aviation committees from Capitol Hill on February 14. Dunkin is a fine pilot. He and Trump agree on inconsequential aviation matters: that jets should not be allowed to fly over Mar a Lago; no plane should be grounded for not having the right paperwork, and that it was wrong of the FAA to remove Trump’s name from navigational points in Florida.
And they see eye-to-eye on consequential ones: Trump said Dunkin agreed with him that the the FAA was bungling NextGen, the multi-billion dollar overhaul of air traffic control and on splitting the agency into two pieces with air traffic control going private.
An aide to one of the attendees said that even among members who support privatization there was no cheerleading for the pilot. “Neither Republicans or Democrats wanted Trump’s pilot but knew to be low-key about it or he would do something ridiculous like actually nominate him the next day.”
Despite the ‘he’s done it again’ eye-rolling, there was no loud jumping on Trump for putting his private pilot forward or slapping him on the back for doing so. Sen. John Thune, whose committee will vote on any nomination, teetered on a fence for the length of an interview with Politico. “He’s got good qualifications and all that,” but there were “other good people... [who] would be good in that position.”
That’s a lot of “goods” to parse but no endorsement. Still no one was shouting the obvious: That it would be ludicrous to put a former commercial pilot who’s been in charge of a Boeing 757, a small Cessna and three helicopters to be head of the FAA, which controls 25 million flights out of 500 airports, working 365 days a year. So the Senate has sat on its hands and when Obama appointee Michael Huerta’s term ended, assistant administrator Daniel Elwell, quietly became acting administrator. There were other attractive candidates, in particular a recently retired airline executive and a transportation official from the George W. Bush White House, but it would not be worth waking a sleeping bear over. No agency wants to become the Post Office.
In the retreat of Dunkin, there’s a model for managing Trump—don’t back him into a corner by being combative; be neutral or slightly positive while freezing the ball—which might have been used to good effect on other appointments. Under attack, the president stuck with giving Don Jr.’s wedding planner, Lisa Patton, a position dispensing billions of dollars in housing grants, and, for that matter, placing her boss, Dr. Ben Carson, at the top of Housing and Urban Development when the surgeon’s only qualifications were having lived in a house in a city.
Slow-walking Dunkin gave the White House time to see how bad things could get. Trump likes the one he’s with, from the guy who flies him to the one who takes his blood pressure. Trump wanted to reward his personal physician, Dr. Ronnie Jackson, who declared him in such good shape he could live to be a hundred, by trying to promote him to run the vast Veterans Administration. That nomination got ugly, making Trump staff look either powerless to stop his poor choices or complicit in the debacle before it ended with Jackson’s withdrawal.
In the category of wrong person for the job, AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers, another Trump pet, is going to face a trial getting through the Senate. He was nominated last October to become Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its famous branch, the National Weather Service. Myers—who sells his own competing data—has been on a 30-year crusade to stop the weather service from giving away the priceless predictions made by its taxpayer-funded satellites, weather balloons, low-flying planes, and hurricane hunters.
Dunkin only got as far as courtesy meetings on the Hill; Myers is harder to ignore because he got through committee. But it’s been nearly a year that Myers has been languishing, hurricane season is coming and the Dunkin approach could work. Don’t declare a nominee to be a mistake by a hapless president prone to reckless actions. Put a caretaker in place until enough time passes by that Trump’s no longer invested. Leave the nominee hanging and take advantage of Trump’s short attention span and lack of loyalty.
Trump is now captain of a much larger aircraft, giving a salute to the military crew flying him around the world on Air Force One. He’ll make it his own when he ditches the iconic blue and white colors for a bolder red, white and blue from his personal palette. And yes, a bigger bed. Dunkin and his Cessna will be but a distant memory. He doesn’t owe them a thing.