John Ratcliffe now joins the ranks of others who have been named by President Trump to high (and not-so-high) office only to have their appointments yanked back. On Friday, Trump reversed course and said he wouldn’t nominate the Republican congressman from Texas to serve as director of national intelligence.
Ratcliffe joins a group of never-wases that includes Dr. Ronnie Jackson, who withdrew his name from consideration as secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department; Heather Nauert, initially tapped to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and two controversial would-be members of the Federal Reserve Board, former presidential candidate Herman Cain and economics journalist Stephen Moore. It’s a large enough group to cater a pity party at the Trump hotel in Washington.
What the failed nominations had in common was that criticisms were made or questions were asked that either hadn’t come to Trump’s attention before he made his choice or didn’t strike him as problematic.
Ratcliffe, who plucked himself from obscurity with his recent dressing-down of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, was criticized for having extremely thin credentials and for what some said was resume-padding. A Washington Post story Thursday cast doubt on Ratcliffe’s claim that as a federal prosecutor he “arrested over 300 illegal immigrants on a single day.”
Trump expressed no dissatisfaction with Ratcliffe on Friday when he announced that the nomination wouldn’t go forward. Rather, Trump tweeted: “Our great Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe is being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media. Rather than going through months of slander and libel, I explained to John how miserable it would be for him and his family to deal with these people. ... John has therefore decided to stay in Congress where he has done such an outstanding job representing the people of Texas, and our Country. “
Or, as Emily Litella used to say on “Saturday Night Live”: “Never mind.”
Two points can be made about this latest yanked nomination. One is obvious but still important: Trump is terrible at choosing appointees, and he doesn’t seem to have absorbed the lessons of his own past personnel disasters.
But there is another point to be made: that it’s perfectly appropriate for nominations to be pulled back on the basis of information that comes to light later or because of unexpected controversy.
Presidents far more competent than Trump — not a hard bar to clear — have withdrawn high-profile nominees. Jimmy Carter named former JFK speechwriter Theodore Sorensen to head the CIA in 1977, but controversy arose over the fact that Sorensen had registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector and had been accused of mishandling classified information. Sorensen showed up for his Senate confirmation hearing but announced that he was withdrawing.
In 2005, President George W. Bush announced that he would nominate his White House counsel Harriet Miers to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. But Miers withdrew after conservatives expressed concern about whether she would be a reliable vote in abortion cases and (perhaps more important) White House aides were concerned about how she had answered questions in mock confirmation hearings.
After Miers withdrew, Bush nominated Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was both conventionally well-qualified for the court and a known conservative.
Even presidents more careful than Trump make mistakes that they should be willing to correct without fear of losing political face. The problem is that Trump isn’t a good president, and bungled nominations aren’t a rare exception but a common occurrence.