“Only the best people” would be brought into his administration, President Trump vowed at the beginning of his term.
That empty promise has been proven as fallacious as everything else the president has said judging from the rapid turnover of disgraced or appalled officials who have left the Trump White House over the past two years.
It should come as no surprise then to read of the chaos and dysfunction in the Commerce Department under Secretary Wilbur Ross as detailed in a new article on Politico.
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The sorry state of affairs at the department responsible for creating jobs, promoting economic growth, encouraging sustainable development and blocking harmful trade practices of other nations is obvious from the article’s opening lines.
“Constant infighting among top officials. Sudden departures of senior staffers without explanation. A leader who is disengaged and prone to falling asleep in meetings,” the article begins.
The details of the Commerce Department at the “apex of dysfunction” is based on Politico‘s interviews with “four people with knowledge of the inner workings of the department” who claim that Secretary Ross spends the majority of his time trying to salvage his job by managing up to try to stay in Trump’s good graces while paying short shrift to the day to day business of the department he’s meant to manage and lead.
Commerce Department insiders describe the staff there as rudderless and adrift, calling the situation “a disaster.”
“With our ongoing trade wars and the census looming, Commerce needs functional leadership to be effective, and right now they just don’t have it,” said Theo LeCompte, a former top Commerce official in the Obama administration who stays in touch with his former colleagues.
Wilbur Ross apparently is an infrequent presence at the Commerce Department headquarters, preferring to spend time at the White House toadying up to the president rather than managing his employees and building morale. The secretary is said to rarely hold regularly scheduled senior staff meetings, a situation attributed to Ross’ lack of stamina by department insiders.
“Because he tends to fall asleep in meetings, they try not to put him in a position where that could happen so they’re very careful and conscious about how they schedule certain meetings,” said a former outside adviser to the Commerce Department. “There’s a small window where he’s able to focus and pay attention and not fall asleep.”
Naturally, a spokesperson for Ross denied the damaging details of the secretary’s work habits.
“Secretary Ross is a tireless worker who is the sole decision-maker at the department,” said Commerce press secretary Kevin Manning. “He routinely works 12-hour days and travels often, with visits to seven countries and eight states in the last three months to advance the president’s agenda.”
That’s quite a claim for the stamina of the 81-year-old Ross, who. truth be told, doesn’t appear to be a day over 80.
The press flack’s reports of the secretary’s vitality are belied by internal sources that report that top Commerce officials have been trying to prevent Ross from being called to testify at congressional oversight hearings.
“There’s a great deal of effort to shield him from testifying ever again,” said one of the sources.
“There was a great deal of concern to not have him testify expressed from the White House,” this person said, characterizing the instructions as: “‘Don’t do this, people. Don’t do this, he’s probably not the right guy to go there.’”
With Ross heavily embroiled in the controversy over the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census and in ethics scandals due to his failure to fully divest himself of stock holdings he had promised to sell to prevent conflicts of interest, the confidence he retains in Trump’s estimation has been called into serious question.
Meanwhile, without the benefit of conspicuous management of Commerce Department staff, a rift between professional career officials and political appointees has festered, with the Trump-appointed staff shutting doors in the faces of the professional staff to keep them out of meetings.
“There’s great frustration among people who really want to use their skills and talents to help this country and are being marginalized by a White House who doesn’t need to ask any questions because it already thinks it has the answers,” said Roger Fisk, a Commerce official in the Obama administration. “All of that expertise is just lying dormant hiding in plain sight.”
The dysfunction at the Commerce Department is indicative of the overall incompetence of the Trump administration. The self-fulfilling prophecy of anti-big government conservatives who mismanage the departments they are meant to lead in order to prove their thesis that our entire federal system of government is broken — and should be defunded to provide more tax cuts for wealthy oligarchs — is being played out throughout Trump’s regime.
Yet another reason to ensure that his tenure is cut as short as possible.
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Original reporting by Daniel Lippman at Politico.