Feuds, disciplinary actions and lawsuits seem to follow Don Benton around. In an incredible tale of failing up, this former Washington state senator is now off to help President Trump oversee the nation’s 15,000-employee environmental agency. What could go wrong?
Last week I suggested folks stop listening to what Donald Trump says, because he uses words as weapons of mass distraction. Instead, focus only on what he does.
Right on cue, the past week has been dominated by trivial nonsense about crowd size or Trump’s thin-skinned conspiracy that he was somehow cheated out of millions of votes.
It’s hard not to be dazzled by narcissism so bright. But I implore you, Trump has also started to take actions that promise to have real and lasting impact on the core functioning of the government, without drawing anywhere near the scrutiny.
An example that hits closest to the Pacific Northwest: On Monday it was revealed that Trump is assembling a “shadow Cabinet” of right-hand men to oversee his new plans for various sprawling government agencies.
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And his choice for the nation’s clean air, water and wetland-protection agency is a textbook case of party-patronage cronyism.
Trump tapped Don Benton, a former state senator from Vancouver and Trump’s Northwest campaign manager, to be his senior liaison to the Environmental Protection Agency. What’s shocking about this isn’t Benton’s anti-green views. It’s that he has an almost perfect track record of failure and interpersonal conflict, often resulting in legal or disciplinary action, at every public position he’s held.
As state GOP chairman 16 years ago, Benton lasted only eight months. His first action was changing the locks at party headquarters to bar the staff he had just fired. Under fire for financial decisions, members of his own board later called on him to resign. He was voted out by party members.
As a state senator, he got in juvenile, belligerent scraps. He threatened a $1 million libel suit against a campaign opponent who had pointed out, accurately, how many votes Benton had missed.
Another time, he filed a workplace complaint against Sen. Ann Rivers, a fellow Republican, on the grounds he felt “physically threatened” by her. A lengthy administrative review found both senators had cussed out the other, but it was Benton whose actions had interfered with Rivers’ work performance.
He called her “a trashy trampy-mouthed little girl.” One time he followed her around on the Senate floor, as she was trying to get away from him, saying, according to Rivers: ‘You are weird and … weird! Weird, weird, weird. Just so weird!’ ”
Weird is right. Far more predictable, though, is that his very next job, for Clark County, ended in yet more recriminations and a lawsuit. The county eliminated Benton’s position last year, and last month, Benton filed a $2 million suit to cover mental-health and stress counseling, needed, he says, after being mistreated on the job.
I could go on, but you get the pattern. With the insults, grievance-mongering and litigiousness, he’s Trump’s mini-me. Now he’s in a position of influence over a federal agency with 15,000 employees. What could go wrong?
Trump was crystal clear during the campaign that he wanted to drill, baby, drill, bring back coal and slash green regulations. He did win, remember? So moving on these policies is what he should be expected to do.
But what ought to be troubling to everyone is the embrace of incompetence. Putting conflict-causing hacks in charge doesn’t lead to leaner, more effective government. It leads to bad government. Just imagine all the public resources consumed so far refereeing and litigating Benton’s various disputes.
Lou Brancaccio, the editor of The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver who also writes a political column there, has been scrutinizing Benton’s high jinks in Clark County for years. Here was his brutal summation when Benton retired from the state Senate:
“No question, the county will be much better off without Benton as a senator. Or as the county’s director of environmental services. Now we have to see how the rest of the cards play out.”
Well, how they played is Benton went all-in and then drew an inside straight, a royal one, all the way to the top of national environmental policy. That’s one bad beat for the country.