"I'm going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people," Donald Trump said in 2015. "We want top of the line professionals."
Oddly enough, that doesn't seem to have been what happened.
In fact, President Trump seems to have gone out of his way to surround himself with the worst people — a collection of grifters, liars, swindlers, resume padders, domestic abusers, and just hard-core, unadulterated jerkwads.
I'm sure there are some very fine people who work for President Trump. But there's a reason we keep hearing stories like that of Rob Porter, the president's staff secretary who was accused by both his ex-wives of domestic violence — and still got that very sensitive job, which includes being a kind of traffic cop for every document that crosses the president's desk, despite the fact that those ex-wives told the FBI about Porter's behavior when they were interviewed as part of his background check.
The Porter scandal exposes personnel problems that go beyond Porter himself. As CNN reported, "Senior aides to President Donald Trump knew for months about allegations of domestic abuse levied against top White House staffer Rob Porter by his ex-wives, even as Porter's stock in the West Wing continued to rise." That included Chief of Staff John Kelly, who knew that the allegations were the reason Porter's security clearance was being held up (the White House has yet to explain how Porter could possibly have performed the staff secretary job without a security clearance).
And Kelly is quite a piece of work himself. In recent months he has slandered a congresswoman, said that the Civil War happened because of "a lack of an ability to compromise," and said DREAMers who didn't sign up for DACA "were too lazy to get off their asses."
Kelly also publicly testified to Rob Porter's stellar character after the domestic violence accusations surfaced. Perhaps he had just gotten used to such charges, because they've become something of a theme in this administration. Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon was accused by his then-wife of beating her. Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager, was charged by Florida police with battery after he manhandled a female reporter who tried to ask the candidate a question (the charges were later dropped). Andrew Puzder, Trump's first choice to be secretary of labor, was accused by his wife of beating her (she later withdrew the charge as part of a child custody agreement).
And then there's Trump himself. Not only did over a dozen women accuse him of various kinds of sexual assault and misconduct, his first wife Ivana said in a deposition during their divorce proceedings that after her plastic surgeon gave Trump a hair treatment he felt was botched, he raped her in a rage (she too later changed her description of the incident).
Even setting aside domestic violence, the number of shady characters in Trump's orbit is truly remarkable. There's Paul Manafort, the alleged money-launderer who ran his campaign. There's Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who was working as a paid agent of a foreign government while in Trump's employ and lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. There's Tom Price, who left the administration after his profligate use of private planes at taxpayer expense was revealed. There's Sebastian Gorka, whatever the hell he was.
These days, when you read that a federal official "requested the Department of Interior (DOI) make $32,000 worth of design and construction upgrades to an agency-owned housing unit in an attempt to profit from renting out the space as if it were his personal residence," or hear that another Interior official bought a bunch of stock in a company that gets contracts from his department right after he got confirmed, or see that Trump's choice to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is buying and selling tobacco stocks, you aren't surprised at all. This is Trump's Washington, where everyone's trying to get a taste.
Of course, you can't blame the president directly for every misdeed of every one of his appointees. Given the thousands of people who work for the president, there's bound to be some bad apples. But to see why this administration is so filled with the worst people, you can compare it to Trump's predecessor. Barack Obama's administration was one of the most scandal-free in history, and why was that? The first reason is that just about every Democrat in Washington wanted to work for Obama. The administration had no trouble filling any job; the question was which of the many qualified candidates they'd decide to choose. As a result, they could actually populate the White House and agencies with what Trump would call "the best people."
The situation today is radically different. Washington is full of competent, experienced Republicans who are unwilling to forever sully their reputations by working for this president. To paraphrase something Trump once said about Mexico, when the GOP sends people to work in the Trump White House, they aren't sending their best — because the best are smart enough to realize that they want to have a career after Trump is gone. So you wind up with people who are inexperienced, incompetent, or free of the moral qualms any sensible person would have about becoming a Trump aide.
Which brings us to the second and perhaps more important reason: The president's own strengths and weaknesses will be reflected in the people he attracts. If you admire Trump, you'll want to work for him. And what kind of person actually admires Trump? It can't be someone who values honesty, who thinks you have to treat people with respect and integrity, who thinks there's some higher purpose in life than getting yours and screwing over anyone who gets in your way.
If you go to work for Trump, you know beforehand that it's probably going to require you to compromise whatever principles you have. Which naturally means that people who have no principles in the first place are going to be the ones most eager to sign up.