Exclusive: Leaked Trump vetting docs

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Nearly 100 internal Trump transition vetting documents leaked to "Axios on HBO" identify a host of "red flags" about officials who went on to get some of the most powerful jobs in the U.S. government. 

Why it matters: The massive trove, and the story behind it, sheds light on the slap-dash way President Trump filled his cabinet and administration, and foreshadowed future scandals that beset his government.

Some highlights:

  • Scott Pruitt, who ultimately lost his job as EPA Administrator because of serial ethical abuses and clubbiness with lobbyists, had a section in his vetting form titled "allegations of coziness with big energy companies."
  • Tom Price, who ultimately resigned as Health and Human Services Secretary after Trump lost confidence in him in part for stories about his use of chartered flights, had sections in his dossier flagging "criticisms of management ability" and "Dysfunction And Division Has Haunted Price's Leadership Of The House Budget Committee."
  • Mick Mulvaney, who became Trump's Budget Director and is now his acting chief of staff, has a striking assortment of "red flags," including his assessment that Trump "is not a very good person."
  • The Trump transition team was so worried about Rudy Giuliani, in line for Secretary of State, that they created a separate 25-page document titled "Rudy Giuliani Business Ties Research Dossier" with copious accounting of his "foreign entanglements."
  • One red flag for Gen. David Petraeus, who was under consideration for Secretary of State and National Security Adviser: "Petraeus Is Opposed to Torture."

Behind the scenes: In the chaotic weeks after Trump's surprise election victory, Trump fired Chris Christie as the head of his transition. The team that took over — which V.P. Mike Pence helmed — outsourced the political vetting of would-be top officials to the Republican National Committee.

  • We obtained the political vetting forms that Trump and his senior aides were given for Ben Carson, Dan Coats, Betsy DeVos, Gary Cohn, Don McGahn, Elaine Chao, John Kelly, James Mattis, John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, Robert Lighthizer, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, and many others.
  • President-elect Trump reviewed many of these documents at Trump Tower and Bedminster before his interviews, according to a source who saw him eyeball them.
  • Traditionally, any would-be top official faces three types of vetting: an FBI background check, a scrub for financial conflicts of interest from the Office of Government Ethics, and a deep dive from the president-elect's political team, which veteran Washington lawyers often handle.
  • We obtained many of the political vetting forms. According to sources on the RNC vetting team, senior Trump officials asked them to do an initial "scrub" of the public record before Trump met the contenders. But in many cases — for example the misguided choice of Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary — this RNC "scrub" of public sources was the only substantial vetting in Trump's possession when he announced his picks.
  • The documents show what Trump’s vetting shop worried about in assessing candidates for the most important jobs in government.

The RNC researchers identified some striking "Red Flags."

  • The first red flag for Rex Tillerson, who became Trump’s first Secretary of State, was about Russia. "Tillerson's Russia ties go deep," it read.
  • One red flag for Fox News host Laura Ingraham, considered for White House press secretary: "Ingraham said people should wear diapers instead of sharing bathrooms with transgender people."
  • One heading in the document about Kris Kobach, in the running for Homeland Security Secretary, listed "white supremacy" as a vulnerability. It cited accusations from past political opponents that he had ties to white supremacist groups.
  • Vetters had unique concerns about Gary Cohn. "Some Say Cohn Has An Abrasive, Curt, And Intimidating Style," they wrote, citing a Bloomberg piece. "He Would Sometimes Hike Up One Leg And Plant His Foot On A Trader's Desk, His Thigh Close To The Employee's Face, And Ask How Markets Were Doing."

Some of the contenders were strikingly swampy — even by the RNC vetters' standards.

  • Seema Verma, who Trump appointed as the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, had this paragraph near the top of her vetting form: "Verma was simultaneously advising Indiana ($3.5 million in contracts) on issues impacting how it would spend Medicaid funds while she was also being paid by a client that received Medicaid funds. Ethics experts have called the arrangement a conflict of interest that potentially put Indiana taxpayers at risk."
  • Sonny Perdue, Trump's pick for Agriculture Secretary, had a vetting form with sections labeled "Business conflicts of interest" and "Family conflicts of interest." It noted that "Perdue is the owner of Houston Fertilizer and Grain, a company that has received contracts from the Department of Agriculture."

The documents point to Trump’s willingness to meet with — and sometimes hire — people who had harshly criticized him. The vetting team often put these denigrations at the top of the documents. A source with direct knowledge told me many of these documents were handed to Trump; he knew about the insults, and picked the insulters anyway.

  • Nikki Haley, who became Trump's U.N. ambassador, had a note that she'd said Trump is everything "we teach our kids not to do in kindergarten."
  • Ryan Zinke, who became Interior Secretary, had described Trump as "un-defendable."
  • Rick Perry, Energy Secretary, had voluminous vetting concerns: "Perry described Trumpism as a 'toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition,'" the vetters noted.

The RNC vetted some left field contenders. Nobody we spoke to, including senior members of the transition, could remember what job Hollywood talent agent Ari Emanuel was vetted for. (A suggested question for Emanuel in his interview: "Will you have any personal issues during times when the Trump administration faces partisan criticism from Democrats, including your brother Rahm or President Obama?")

  • Two sources who were doing the vetting at the RNC told me they often didn't know what jobs they were vetting people for.

Our process: We are publishing a selection of these vetting documents. Below you can read the forms we obtained for the people who got jobs in the Trump administration, as well as a small group who didn't get jobs but whose vetting dossiers are noteworthy.

  • We redacted personal details that weren't newsworthy, information from spurious sources, and material the vetting team described as rumors about contenders’ personal lives, and contact and identification information. All the unredacted information is from public sources.
  • We've reached out for comment to the White House, the Republican National Committee, and each person whose vetting form we are publishing. You can see the responses here, and we publish the RNC's full statement in a separate article that has behind-the-scenes details about their work.

White House response: "President Trump has assembled an incredible team throughout the federal government who — in spite of 93% negative news coverage — has accomplished undeniable successes like tax cuts, record employment levels, a booming economy...rebuilding the military and crushing ISIS," said principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley.

  • "President Trump has done more to improve the lives of the American people in two years — than past presidents have done in eight — and no disgruntled, establishment, D.C. swamp creature's cowardly leaks can change that."

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