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June 26, 2019

CAFE Insider Newsletter #29: To Test A Man’s Character, Give Him Power

Dear Reader,

Hiring is the most important thing any institution does. For any institution to survive and thrive and perpetuate its values, hiring the right people matters more than anything else. That is true of a bank, a college, a car company, or a cabinet. I mention the cabinet because of this week’s scoop by the news outlet Axios, which came into possession of thousands of pages of leaked vetting documents for top positions in the Trump administration. These are memos and other materials relating to political background checks of aspirants to the cabinet in 2016. It turns out there were a lot of red flags.

A leading contender for EPA Administrator, for example, was Scott Pruitt. The documents leaked to Axios indicate a red flag for Pruitt. For what? For his “coziness with big energy companies.” He was nominated anyway, and his entire tenure at the EPA was one of woe. After about 16 months in office, he was fired. Why? Because of his chumminess with lobbyists. (If I were texting this note to you, I might have inserted an “lol” here.)

Other red flags turned out to be fairly accurate harbingers of danger as well, though some identified issues are dumbfounding. Notably, what counted as a red flag for General David Petraeus was not that he had pled guilty to the misdemeanor of mishandling classified information, but that he was against torture. That is a particular head-scratcher. In any event, he was not appointed to anything.

Every institution makes mistakes in hiring and vetting, even the most careful and competent ones. It is the nature of things. There is, of course, so much to screen for. Not just expertise, but also values. Not just smarts, but also integrity. Not just credentials, but also judgment.

How to ensure that a public servant is joining government in the spirit of genuine service rather than self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, or self-regard?

It’s hard. It is hard to know a person’s heart, hard to predict the strength of their spine especially if their spine has not yet been tested. It is easier to evaluate resumes, assess credentials, check the usual boxes.

Maybe an even more vital question is this: How to be satisfied that the person understands and values restraint not just aggressiveness, even fears a bit the power of office rather than revels in it? That is an important question in need of answering for every general and every commander-in-chief. The more unfettered power granted by the position, the more need to locate some sense of reluctance to use it. This does not mean fecklessness or hand-wringing or timidity. It means, rather, a mature and sober and ever-present understanding of the consequences of using such power. That is strength, not weakness.

How the suddenly powerful will wield their newfound authority is a central question for all citizens. It goes to something profound. Harvard Business School Dean, Nitin Nohria, raises the point often. In his 2011 Dean’s address, he said this:

The best insight I have gained into character is a quote from Abraham Lincoln I came across when I was teaching in the MBA Program. Lincoln was asked: “What’s the best test of a person’s character?” He noted that the response most people gave to that question is adversity — that people’s true selves are revealed when times are difficult, or when they are faced with a particularly daunting challenge. In his experience, however, the true measure was power. What are the choices people make when they are in positions of influence? It is deeply important to get this right.

Nohria was referring to this quote often attributed to Lincoln (although its true origin is somewhat hazy): “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

In a small but important way, we honored this Lincolnian principle during the course of our own process of hiring criminal prosecutors at SDNY. After all, every rookie prosecutor joining us would have terrific power to upend lives and livelihoods. Every subpoena and search warrant, every complaint and indictment, has weight and consequence for real people and those close to them. One wants to know how they will understand the obligation to do right and the risk of doing wrong. Good grades and fancy degrees tell you nothing about that.

By the time a young lawyer got to me, he or she had gone through multiple rounds of interviews; their references had been grilled; their qualifications debated; their abilities dissected. By the time they got to me, I knew they were smart and diligent and hardworking.

What is left, then, is to make one final effort to assess their understanding of the power they will have. So, I would ask every applicant a simple question, a version of which I myself was asked two decades earlier. It went something like this: “If you get this job, how will you feel knowing that by definition, if you are doing your job properly, you will be the proximate cause for separating many, many human beings from their liberty?” It’s a stark question and intentionally so. It’s not a legal question, but a human one.

Usually there is a pause and a thoughtful reply. Usually the applicant turns over the question, understands the weight of what is being asked, says some variation of a mature and responsible answer: “Well I’m sure it will be difficult sometimes. That is nothing to relish. I’m not sure how I will feel. I’ve never done it. But if it is the right thing to do and we’ve followed the law and if justice requires it, I think I will be able to handle it.” The words are less important than the tone. After years of vetting people, you hope you know how to evaluate the honesty of the answer and the sincerity of the answerer.

Other times – not often but also not never – the reply would come too quick. A question like that requires a beat. Or two or three. Sometimes the answer is thoughtless or deliberately aimed at giving a response the applicant mistakenly thinks is the pleasing one: “Why would I have any problem with that? It is what it is. If they did the crime, then I’ve done my job. I won’t lose any sleep.” That reply may technically pass muster; but the spirit of the answer, the speed of it, the absence of conflict and remorse and reluctance behind the eyes and in the voice sows doubt. It sows doubt about whether that person has the right character to handle power. They think they are showing strength and steel; what they are showing is indifference. And indifference is the enemy of justice.

When we got an answer like that, you know what we did? We didn’t hire that person. No matter how smart or credentialed or talented. Such a hire was simply not worth the risk.

My best,



SANTA FE, NM – JULY 4, 2018: A man and woman wearing patriotic ‘stars and stipes’ shirts enjoy a Fourth of July holiday celebration in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Attention Stay Tuned Listeners: CAFE is planning a special Fourth of July episode for next week, and we need your help! Instead of asking Preet questions, he has a question for all of you! In 15 seconds or less, tell us: What does patriotism mean to you?  

Record a voice memo right on your phone and email it to [email protected].

Or you can call us at 669-247-7338 to leave a voice mail.

We’ll feature some of your answers and Preet and his guest will share their thoughts on next week’s episode. So stay tuned.


Preet recently joined David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, on his podcast The Dave Chang Show. Their conversation covered, among other topics, Preet’s approach to leadership and management of organizations. As Preet told David:

The most important part of being a leader of any sort…is to figure out who the best people are and where they belong. Put them in the right position. You have these nine great baseball players. Who’s going to pitch? Who’s going to hit?…I consulted a lot with a lot of people every time we made a personnel decision, or every time we made a decision on who to put on what case. Sometimes you have to balance out teams….You can’t put your three most aggressive prosecutors on a case or investigation and think that that’s necessarily going to go well. You want to have a balance. You want to have some aggressive people. You want to have some cautious people. A combination of those attitudes is more likely to get you to the right decision. [Edited and condensed for clarity]

Listen to the full interview here.


WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 26: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt takes his seat prior to his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the 2019 Fiscal Year EPA budget at the Capitol on April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The focus of nearly a dozen federal inquiries into his travel expenses, security practices and other issues, Pruitt was on the Hill to testify about his agency’s FY2019 budget proposal. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s vetting approach contrasts starkly with how prior administrations filled their cabinets. An orderly transition from the outgoing administration to the incoming administration is critical to maintaining the working affairs of the federal government. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended, authorizes the necessary funding for the transition, such as suitable office space, staff compensation, and communications services, among other expenses. In 2010, the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Actauthorized additional support to eligible candidates for pre-election transition planning. These laws underscore how the vetting process should be meticulous and thorough given the high stakes of appointing ill-suited administration members.

During his campaign, Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” of career politicians with special interests. A trove of vetting documents recently leaked to Axios shows how the administration hastily filled its positions, with several candidates raising red flags that foreshadowed future scandals. Check out the highlightsof what the documents reveal.

It’s also a good time to revisit Preet’s Stay Tuned interview with Michael Lewis, author of The Fifth Risk, an inside account of the Trump administration’s transition and its ostensible ignorance of the inner workings of the federal government. In the book, Lewis writes:

The US government employed 2 million people, 70% of them one way or another in national security. It managed a portfolio of risks that no private person or corporation was able to manage. Some of the risks were easy to imagine: a financial crisis, a hurricane, a terrorist attack. Most were not: the risk, say, that some prescription drug proves to be both so addictive and so accessible that each year it kills more Americans than were killed in action by the peak of the Vietnam war. Many of the risks that fell into the government’s lap felt so remote as to be unreal: that a cyberattack left half the country without electricity, or that some airborne virus wiped out millions, or that economic inequality reached the point where it triggered a violent revolution. Maybe the least visible risks were of things not happening that, with better government, might have happened. A cure for cancer, for instance.
Enter the presidential transition. A bad transition took this entire portfolio of catastrophic risks – the biggest portfolio of such risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world – and made all the bad things more likely to happen and the good things less likely to happen.

You can read the full excerpt here.

If you were in the position to hire a cabinet official, what would you want to know about them? Let us know by replying to this email or writing to us at [email protected].


Rachel Barkow is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. She is a professor at the New York University School of Law and the author of Prisoner of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration.

In this sneak peek at the interview, Barkow explains why prosecutors need to think about the conditions of confinement:

I think it’s part of a prosecutor’s mission to promote public safety…If you’re going to go into court and you’re going to ask for someone to be sentenced for some period of time. I think it’s part of your job as a prosecutor to ask, ‘Why am I asking for that period of time? What’s going to happen to that person during that length of time that I’m requesting?’ And if you think that you’re sending someone to a facility or they’re going to be made worse, then it’s perverse to ask for a longer stay in that place that is bad.

Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode. It drops this Thursday, June 27.


Safety always comes first! The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is an independent government agency that addresses unreasonable risks of injury, develops uniform safety standards, and conducts research into product-related illness and injury. Follow @USCPSC to stay apprised of recalls, safety alerts and related data. They have a quirky sense of humor to boot.


If you haven’t already, listen to the latest episode of CAFE Insider podcast: “Unsafe, Unsanitary, Untenable,” Preet and Anne break down the Justice Department’s argument against giving soap and toothbrushes to detained migrant children, the White House’s position that Hope Hicks has “absolute immunity” from testifying, and more.

*Please note, you may now manually add your unique Insider Podcast feed to your favorite podcast app. Here are the instructions.


Get your Stay Tuned merch!  Insiders get a a special 20% discount on their first purchase. Use code: INSIDER20.

That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

— The CAFE Team

Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, and Vinay Basti