Forty minutes between campaign stops and a Filet-o-Fish sandwich from McDonald’s cemented Don Benton’s place in Donald Trump’s orbit.
After the election, Benton followed Trump to Washington DC, where he was installed at the Environmental Protection Agency. There, tensions flared.
Weeks into the job, reports of discord emerged between Benton and Scott Pruitt, the EPA’s new administrator. Benton apparently “piped up so frequently during policy discussions” that Pruitt disinvited him from meetings, the Washington Post reported.
Amid reports of clashes, Trump this week found a new assignment for him.
The White House announced in a statement this week that Trump would nominate Benton to lead the Selective Service System, a small federal agency whose chief responsibility is registering men between the ages of 18 and 25 for the unlikely event of a military draft.
Benton was dispatched to the EPA as a senior White House adviser, part of Trump’s “shadow cabinet” of political appointees hired to help execute the president’s agenda at agencies across the federal government.
According to public records obtained by ProPublica that identify more than 400 of the roughly 520 people Trump brought into Washington, the coterie of advisers includes obscure former campaign staff, lobbyists and far-right conservatives.
The so-called “beachhead teams” include a self-described guerrilla warfare expert who had a brush with fame on a reality TV show for inventing a survivalist bow-and-arrow kit, a former campaign adviser who wrote that Democrats contributed to the “ethnic cleansing” of America’s white, working class, and an Iowa political operative who reportedly brought into the fold Carter Page, who is under investigation over his alleged connections to Russia.
Trump has been slow to fill the hundreds of positions that require approval by the US Senate. As a result, the officials wield an outsized importance in implementing the administration’s agenda.
Of the 553 executive branch positions that require Senate confirmation, only 22 have been approved, while 24 others have been “formally nominated”, according to data from the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group devoted to making government more efficient.
During the campaign, Benton traveled on Trump’s plane in May 2016 as the candidate shuttled between rallies in Washington state. In an interview with the Seattle Times, Benton said the pair spent 40 minutes together and shared a lunch from McDonald’s.
“I had a Filet-O-Fish and he had a Big Mac,” Benton said.
Benton acquired the job at the EPA after heading Trump’s Washington campaign. Trump lost the state to the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, by almost 16 points, a slightly wider margin than in 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the state by 15 points.
According to the Post report from March, Benton was installed to keep an eye on Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma who sued the agency more than a dozen times before the US Senate confirmed him to run it.
But Benton reportedly drove Pruitt “batty”, chiming in frequently to offer unsolicited advice during policy discussions – a situation one anonymous official likened to an episode of Veep, the HBO comedy series about a dysfunctional administration.