As you’ve probably heard, President Donald Trump has fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, replacing him with his personal physician, Ronny Jackson—the White House doctor who went out of his way a while back to tell us how amazingly healthy the president is.
Regardless of Jackson’s qualifications (he’s a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was also President Obama’s White House physician), this is yet another reminder of a president who likes to elevate friends and loyalists to important roles.
Dan Scavino started off as Trump’s golf caddy, and ended up an assistant to the president. Hope Hicks did PR for Ivanka’s fashion line before becoming White House communications director. At one point, Trump put his personal pilot on the shortlist to head the Federal Aviation Administration. And I don’t think I need to reiterate the fact that Trump’s advisers also include his daughter and son-in-law.
Call it the family business, relying on trusted loyalists, or rank nepotism, but this preference for the familiar goes on in other domains all the time. Late night host Jimmy Kimmel employs several family members and childhood friends to manage his show. Former Fox News boss Roger Ailes, I’m told, used to put his personal doctors and lawyers on TV as experts. I’m not sure this is ever a great idea (remember how Uncle Billy nearly ruined George Bailey’s business in It’s a Wonderful Life?). But at the presidential level, it strikes me as especially dubious.
I shouldn’t have to remind anybody of the potential ramifications. One could argue that the beginning of the end of the George W. Bush presidency was the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Michael Brown, the then-head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had very little experience in emergency services, but was personal friends with the then-FEMA head, Joe Allbaugh.
The last thing we need is to risk another “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” moment in the V.A. Haven’t these poor veterans been through enough already?
Trump likes to govern from the gut, but his hiring decisions of late seem to cut against what might have been a strength for him—his promise to “hire the best” people. The problem is the way Trump defines “the best.” It’s not people who have experience or expertise—qualities that might cause someone to occasionally think for themselves. It’s trusted loyalists.
This is yet another example of Banana Republican, not small-r republican governance. And it’s yet another example of how Donald Trump is seeking to purge his cabinet of independent thinkers, and surround himself with “yes” men who have demonstrated a willingness to play ball in this new world order.
This is clearly a trend that we had better get used to. Personally, I can’t wait until Dr. Harold Bornstein takes Ronny Jackson’s old job as White House physician. Season 3 is gonna be lit.
What does this say about Trump's long-standing attempts to portray himself as a friend of veterans? Giving a complicated, scandal-plagued agency over to man who may be a good doctor but has no experience in managing government bureaucracy seems risky.
And what damage might this do to conservatism? We may want to prove that privatization of government functions provides cost-savings and efficient administration, but if Trump makes the VA another grifting opportunity for his friends, that plays into the hands of the big government left.