In 2005, President George W. Bush stunned his supporters by nominating his White House counsel and former personal lawyer, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. While Miers was beloved by staffers inside the White House, even right-wing commentators considered Bush's decision reckless.
"However nice, helpful, prompt and tidy she is, Harriet Miers isn't qualified to play a Supreme Court justice on 'The West Wing' let alone be a real one," Ann Coulter wrote at the time.
Meanwhile, Democrats attacked the pick as an example of cronyism.
After what Bush later called "three terrible weeks," Miers phoned the president. It was late at night and Bush was working in his office in the Treaty Room. Miers told Bush she wanted him to withdraw her nomination.
"I put my friend in an impossible situation," Bush later recounted in his memoir, "Decision Points."
"If I had it to do over again, I would not have thrown Harriet to the wolves of Washington."
Bush soon chose Samuel Alito, who had elite legal credentials. Conservatives cheered the pick, and though Alito still had a rough confirmation process, the Senate confirmed him.
The Miers debacle has served ever since as a cautionary tale for presidents. The main lessons were that presidents should pick personnel for top positions who were a) at least minimally qualified and b) not viewed as cronies.
As with so many lessons of previous presidencies, the Miers episode seems quaint in the age of President Donald Trump. Trump has appointed his daughter and son-in-law to senior positions in the West Wing. His picks for top cabinet positions have been sent to the Senate with little or no vetting, putting Congress more firmly in charge of a scrubbing process to which the White House previously paid a great deal of attention.
The Presidential Personnel Office, which is in charge of recruiting potential administration officials, has been hobbled by inexperience and incompetence. In a devastating investigation, The Washington Post recently reported that the leadership of the office, rife with cronyism, includes "a college dropout with arrests for drunken driving and bad checks and a Marine Corps reservist with arrests for assault, disorderly conduct, fleeing an officer and underage drinking."
So few could have been surprised that Trump chose Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to run the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs. Like Miers, Jackson was well-liked by White House staffers. Like Miers, both the right and the left found the pick shocking and embarrassing.
Given the impulsiveness of the decision, it was predictable that Jackson, the subject of apparently no White House vetting, would run into trouble in the Senate. On Monday, a hearing on his nomination was canceled amid vague allegations of professional misconduct and it became apparent Jackson's nomination was in grave danger.
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump delivered what may have been the final blow. In a rambling stream-of-consciousness answer to a question about Jackson's status, Trump, as he often does, narrated the drama over his VA pick as if he wasn't the president who nominated him.
"I said to Dr. Jackson, 'What do you need it for?'" Trump told reporters. "So we'll see what happens. I don't want to put a man through who's not a political person. I don't want to put a man through a process like this. It's too ugly and too disgusting. So we'll see what happens. He'll make a decision."
All of this was Trump's fault: he picked someone without the proper experience or vetting. Then, when the decision blew up, he shrugged and wondered in public why his nominee would want to be put through such a process in the first place. He spoke like a bystander who had nothing to do with it.
If Jackson withdraws, as seems likely, the difference between how Bush and Trump handled their missteps is instructive. Bush stuck with her until she withdrew on her own, never hinting in public that he had made a mistake. (Miers stayed in her job at the White House for more than another year.) He later took responsibility for putting her through the ordeal. Bush's sin was extreme loyalty to a personal friend.
With the Jackson pick, Trump has managed to be simultaneously reckless, thoughtless and disloyal, by publicly undermining his friend at the first hint of trouble.
To borrow Bush's analogy, it's as if Trump fed someone to a pack of wolves and then asked him why he wanted to be eaten alive in the first place.
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