Late Monday night, when many Americans were in bed, President Donald Trump quietly announced his intention to nominate former Washington state senator Don Benton (R) to be director of the Selective Service System, which operates the nation’s military draft.
This was when the problems first came to light.
They started with a White House statement that lauded Benton’s environmental record, and the three years he spent leading the Environmental Services Department in Clark County, Washington.
From the White House:
During his tenure [Benton], reduced the cost of removing hazardous waste from the waste stream while doubling citizen participation and tripling the tonnage of hazardous waste removed. Mr. Benton was also responsible for Clark County certifying more Green Schools than in any other county in Washington State.
Of the 204 words in the announcement, there wasn’t one mention of the military, the draft, or anything related to what the Selective Service System actually does. Nor were there any references to qualifications or experiences that prepare Benton to manage the millions of records in the draft system, or the agency’s roughly $25 million budget.
It was as if the White House had written the statement for a completely different job than the one Benton was being given. Turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
The Accidental Nominee
Benton had originally been expected to fill a top position at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he was part of the Trump “landing team” during the presidential transition.
This was before Benton began to infuriate his boss, the newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Benton’s habit of interrupting policy discussions to make bizarre comments became so maddening, according to The Washington Post, that senior staff began keeping him out of policy meetings.
If the Senate confirms him, Benton, would become the first director in the history of the Selective Service who has not served in any branch of the military.
All of which posed a dilemma for the president: On one hand, Benton was an early Trump supporter and the chair of Trump’s Washington state campaign. Given how few Republican legislators were early Trump supporters, there was a real desire to reward each one. On the other hand, the agency where Benton was actually qualified to work, the EPA, did not want to hire him.
So Trump’s solution was to give Benton oversight of the military draft.
Benton did not respond to detailed questions from The Huffington Post about his background and qualifications, nor did a White House spokeswoman.
Following publication of this article, Benton, a sales consultant by trade, was sworn in Thursday afternoon, according to the Selective Service System website. The agency didn’t announce Benton’s swearing in or respond to questions Thursday evening from The Huffington Post.
Benton becomes the first director in the history of the Selective Service who has never served in the military.
“This is a completely inappropriate appointment for that position,” said Richard Painter, who the chief ethics lawyer for former Republican President George W. Bush.
“We need to convince young men to register for the draft, and to step up if they’re needed to fight. And who is it who’s asking them to do that? Someone who’s never served, and for whom this is a throwaway political patronage job.”
Benton was embroiled in a series of controversies as a Washington state senator. As the Trump administration struggles to fill more than 450 senior government positions, its combination of inexperience and political patronage risks creating a government where patently under-qualified people are given oversight of critical federal functions. Benton’s case is a prime example.
The White House insists the chief reason Benton is qualified to run the Selective Service is his experience in business. “Benton started his first company when he was 17 years old, and has built and sold several companies since,” according to his White House biography.
But HuffPost was unable to find any evidence that Benton started a company at 17, or that he has ever sold any companies. That doesn’t mean he didn’t, but if he did, he did it awfully quietly.
Moreover, a wide-ranging HuffPost review of public records, past interviews, marketing materials, biographies and corporate disclosures reveals that Benton’s career has been marked by lawsuits, ethics problems, public feuds and allegations of cronyism.
As a member of the Washington state senate for two decades, Benton was known for getting into vicious arguments with his fellow senators, some of which resulted in formal complaints.
A brief stint as state GOP chairman in 2000 lasted only eight months, during which Benton, who was already under pressure for allegedly mishandling party funds, fired the committee staff and changed the locks at party headquarters. Benton’s fellow Republicans ultimately voted to replace him.
In 2012, he threatened to file a $1 million libel suit against a challenger who pointed out that Benton had missed nearly 300 Senate votes in his four-year term.
In 2014, he accused a fellow senator of behaving like “a trashy, trampy-mouthed little girl.” The senator also said that Benton followed her around the Senate floor yelling, “You are weird and … weird! Weird, weird, weird. Just so weird!”
At the time of the incident, Benton had a job as director of the Clark County Environmental Services Department. But this position, too, was mired in controversy.
Political allies had given Benton the job, despite his having no background in environmental policy. After three tumultuous years, the department was dissolved in May of 2016. Six months later, Benton sued Clark County for $2 million.
Through it all, his marketing firm, The Benton Group, continued to peddle motivational seminars to sales teams at local TV stations.
Luckily for Benton, by the time his job for the county environmental services department was eliminated last year, he’d already found a new patron: Trump.
The president had first met Benton that spring, during Trump’s only campaign stop in deep blue Washington state. The two men reportedly bonded over a meal of McDonald’s. “I had Filet-O-Fish and he had a Big Mac,” Benton later said.
Soon after, Trump hired Benton to be his campaign director in Washington state, a doomed mission (Trump lost by 15 points).
Over the next few months, Benton charged the Trump campaign more than $135,000 in fees and reimbursements, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records. This included rent paid for by the Trump campaign, along with money paid to Benton’s son, his wife, Mary, and his sales training company, The Benton Group.
Benton’s company also goes by the name National Advertising Consultants as well as National Consulting Services Inc. Over the years, Benton has frequently used these entities as brokers for his own campaign ads in Washington state. In these cases, Benton pays himself the standard 15 percent commission.
Here Is Where It Stops Being Funny
The last time the draft was used was toward the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, and today, the U.S. armed forces are staffed entirely with volunteers. But in an interview with HuffPost, Painter warned against taking the nation’s current all-volunteer army for granted.
“If we’re going to abolish the draft, let’s abolish it,” he said. “But if we’re not, we need to assume that it could still be used, and that men’s lives are going to be at stake here.”
This is why, for Painter, Benton’s record is particularly worrisome. “We cannot have someone at the top who is not of the utmost integrity,” he said. “Because you effectively get to decide who gets drafted and who doesn’t.”
Painter also dismissed the notion that, given the agency’s relatively small size, the job of directing it was less important than other jobs, and thus easier for Trump to give to one of his cronies.
“There are plenty of jobs in the Pentagon that would only be activated in the event of a nuclear attack, but those jobs would never be considered less important than others,” he said.
In addition to questions about Benton’s ethics and his temperament, experts noted that there are also more basic concerns about his ability to run the agency, which employs 400 full and part-time workers with a budget of roughly $25 million.
“If you have a job that’s relevant to the military, like this one, it’s important to ask, ‘what kind of experience does the nominee have to do this kind of work?” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. “And what kind of experience does this nominee have managing a system with tens of millions of individual records?”
HuffPost put these questions to both Benton and a White House spokeswoman, but neither responded.
For Howard, what’s troubling about this nomination isn’t simply Benton. It’s the entire administration’s attitude towards ethics, hiring, and experience.
“The lack of certain qualifications, which would have been prohibitive to job seekers in previous administrations, are not prohibitive in this one,” he said.
As for the White House’s bizarre announcement about Benton’s experience cleaning up hazardous waste, Howard chalked it up to mismanagement in the White House press office. Still, he said, “these are taxpayer funded positions, so it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be up to the standards of public disclosure. This is nuts and bolts stuff.”
Painter was less forgiving. “If this administration doesn’t understand the difference between disposing of hazardous waste and determining the fate of young men’s lives, then they’ve got bigger problems to deal with than this one nominee,” he said.