Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The secretary of education is rarely a household name in any administration. And when one is, it often isn’t a good sign.
Betsy DeVos kicked off her time in the public eye by requiring a tie-breaking vote for confirmation – delivered by none other than Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States – because she exhibited such a lack of understanding of basic education issues.
Even in a Republican-controlled Senate, in a position that is not typically the basis for a partisan confirmation fight, she couldn’t get through without help.
To put this in perspective, Arne Duncan, the former secretary of education under President Barack Obama, was confirmed by a voice vote in the Senate, meaning he had enough support from both sides of the aisle that it didn’t even warrant a recorded vote.
At Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders posed a straightforward question: “My question is, and I do not want to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican party, that you would be sitting here today?”
The simple answer to the question is obviously “no.”
To be fair, she is far from the only billionaire who has ever been nominated to serve in a presidential cabinet, and is not even the only billionaire in Donald Trump’s own cabinet. While her complete disconnect from the challenges facing the working families whose interests she is supposed to understand is alarming, it is not her wealth that is her real problem.
And there is no question that there are partisan and policy divides on education issues – from core requirements to school vouchers. On these, DeVos holds traditional Republican positions. And if she could explain them – or show she had a clue as to why she held them, and understood what the root education challenges are – she would simply be a mediocre, but little-known, member of the Trump cabinet.
On Sunday, however, she appeared on “60 Minutes” for an interview with Leslie Stahl, during which it became evident to everyone watching that she had not done much homework since her razor-thin confirmation.
It is difficult to narrow it down to the most disastrous moments in the interview, but in a matter of just 13 minutes she managed to:
– use her home state of Michigan as an example of one where school reform is working – before acknowledging, after Stahl’s questioning, that “I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better”
– admit she has not visited failing schools, despite arguing that allowing parents to take kids out of the failing schools would miraculously make the remaining students and schools perform better. She told Stahl, “I have not – I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.” To which Stahl remarked, “Maybe you should.”
“Maybe I should. Yes,” DeVos replied.
– wrongly and irresponsibly come close to equating the number of false accusations of sexual assault with the number of sexual assaults. Stahl asked her explicitly: “are you in any way, do you think, suggesting that the number of false accusations are as high as the number of actual rapes or assaults?” DeVos brightly made the following bizarre statement: “Well, one sexual assault is one too many, and one falsely accused individual is one too many.”
When she was given an out to clean this up, she found a way to make it worse.
Stahl asked: “Yeah, but are they the same?”
“I don’t know,” replied DeVos. “I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”
In my experience as the former communications director at the White House, I can confirm that nearly every cabinet member has at least one (if not more) disastrous television interview because they are either unprepared, or make news the administration is not yet prepared to make public. But rarely does that prompt dismissal.
But firing Betsy DeVos isn’t about one interview, it is about the compilation of her performance and behavior in her short tenure. From her comments just weeks into her tenure when she called historically black colleges and universities, “pioneers of school choice” to her early defense of guns in schools that referenced the need to defend against grizzly bears, she has never shown herself to be up to the task.
Given the news of Rex Tillerson’s departure today, it is clear Donald Trump is craving a return to the “Apprentice”-like board room moments of telling people on his team, “You’re Fired,” instead of letting controversy force his hand.
If he needs to scratch that itch again soon, he should look no farther than Betsy DeVos. And it may just draw the kind of bipartisan applause he’s been looking for.