The travails of the fact-challenged Trump administration have underscored an urgent need to recruit more people with a valuable though unheralded talent — the art of clarification.
Scarcely a day goes by when some grim-faced staffer doesn’t emerge from the shadows with a mission to “clarify” something dumb, clueless or flat-out wrong that was spoken by a top official. The Big Orange Trumpster himself keeps his clarifiers scrambling to explain his latest spluttering tweet or self-contradicting pronouncement.
Now the dubious limelight settles again upon Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose unfamiliarity with real life in public schools has proved embarrassing in the past.
It was DeVos who famously speculated in her confirmation hearings that a Wyoming school “probably” kept a gun on site “to protect from potential grizzlies.” Only a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence saved her from being rejected by the Senate.
Guns were also the issue last week when DeVos told a congressional panel that a safety commission formed by the White House after the Parkland massacre would not be studying the role of firearms in school violence.
“That’s not part of the commission’s charge, per se,” DeVos said, when asked about it by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
“So, we’ll look at gun violence in schools, but not look at guns? An interesting concept,” Leahy replied drily.
In fact, when the White House established the school safety commission, one area it singled out for examination was stricter age restrictions on the purchase of assault rifles of the type used by the 19-year-old shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Either DeVos didn’t bother to read the White House statement, forgot what it said or just decided to go rogue. Whatever the explanation, a clarification of her comments was hastily composed.
The thankless task fell to spokesperson Liz Hill, who said that, “The secretary and the commission continue to look at all issues the president asked the commission to study and are focused on making recommendations that the agencies, states and local communities can implement.”
Then this: “It’s important to note that the commission cannot create or amend current gun laws — that is the Congress’ job.”
Poor Liz. Everybody knows that the commission can’t write any laws. It exists only to make recommendations, as she’d noted in her previous exhalation.
The school safety panel, which includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is also assigned to study the possible impact of violent video games, movies and the media coverage of mass shootings.
Other points of discussion are increasing funds for school mental-health resources, bolstering the security infrastructure and revising disciplinary procedures for troubled students.
On those issues — as on gun availability — the commission was expected to come up with a list of suggestions. That’s why so many people were surprised to hear DeVos basically blow off the firearms debate.
Like Trump, she’s eager to placate the NRA by blaming anything except porous gun laws for the epidemic of classroom slaughters. The year isn’t even half over, and already there have been 17 school shootings resulting in 31 fatalities in the United States.
A native of Michigan, DeVos has Florida connections that might make someone else in her position more sensitive to the victims and survivors of mass shootings. She’s married to an Amway heir whose family owns the Orlando Magic, which plays basketball in a city that was shattered by the Pulse nightclub rampage.
The DeVoses also have a winter home a few counties north of Parkland, in a private gated development where one is more likely to be struck by an errant polo ball than a bullet. Still, the place felt the shockwaves from Stoneman Douglas.
The day after DeVos said the federal school safety commission wouldn’t be considering the issue of firearms, Deputy Education Secretary Mike Zais appeared on behalf of DeVos at a meeting of parents, students and activists.
According to the Washington Post, Zais further “attempted to clarify” the task of the White House panel. He stated it “will be looking at specific age limits for the purchase of specific kinds of weapons, and we will be examining legal procedures for the confiscation from people with identified mental health issues.”
Which totally contradicts what DeVos, his boss, said 24 hours earlier.
The lesson here for foggy Cabinet members is to get on the same page as your staff — and perhaps read the page you’re on.
Meanwhile, the credibility of Trump’s school safety commission is shot to hell, and no amount of clarifying and re-clarifying can save it.