At about 8 p.m. on a recent Friday night Vancouver’s Don Benton left his office at the Selective Service in Washington, D.C., where President Donald Trump put him in charge of overseeing the military draft, and headed toward the Metro.
It’s been months since the notorious firebrand has returned a phone call from The Columbian. But on that Friday night, he pulled out his phone.
The former Washington state senator started out the conversation in classic Benton fashion, slightly combative.
“I’m no longer an elected official, so there is a different set of rules (for) malicious intent,” he said, implying it would be easier to sue a reporter for libel.
As he talked, the noise of the subway was audible in the background.
Later he softened.
He’s sick of the narrative, he said.
“Try to be positive about a guy who has given 30 years of his life to service,” he urged.
Benton supported Trump early in his bid for president. He served as Trump’s state campaign chairman and the two reportedly once shared a meal at McDonald’s. Over a Filet-O-Fish, Benton apparently convinced Trump of his loyalty — a characteristic the president is believed to value highly — and since then has been rewarded.
Benton’s rising profile, however, has been accompanied by an intensified level of scrutiny. The Washington Post reported Benton irritated Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his deputies, offering unsolicited advice to the point he was shut out of some staff meetings. Shortly after the story appeared, Benton left his post as a senior White House adviser to the EPA — a job that came with a $179,700 annual salary — and was quietly sworn in to oversee the military draft agency. Shortly thereafter, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow dedicated a segment of her nightly show to Benton, delving into his colorful legislative history, including his public spat with Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, whom he said acted like a “trashy, trampy-mouthed little girl.”
In his phone call, Benton brushed off the national media’s attention.
Fake news, he said. He’s accustomed to newspapers lying about him, he added.
He’s keeping his head down, focused on his job at the Selective Service. Just like he did at the EPA, he said.
But the story, Benton said, is not about him.
“Newspapers and media attack successful conservatives; it comes with the territory,” Benton said. “What I’m doing here, it’s not about me. It’s never has been about me. It’s about helping the president succeed and the country succeed.”
Three months of service
When Benton’s appointment to the Selective Service became public, he was denounced as being the first person to oversee the draft with no military experience.
Iraq War veteran and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., raised concerns about Trump’s lack of vetting for his appointees and called out Benton’s appointment during a press conference. In a piece titled “Trump Taps Salesman To Run Military Draft,” the Huffington Post wrote about Benton’s string of professional controversies and also raised the issue of his lack of military experience.
But while speaking to a local right-wing online publication founded by his friend, former Clark County Councilor David Madore, Benton revealed he did serve in the military.
And indeed, records obtained by The Columbian show he was an active member of the U.S. Army for three months, from Dec. 2, 1975 to Feb. 3, 1976.
His records simply state he was “discharged” after enlisting and serving in the 7th Infantry Division in Fort Ord, Calif. And that makes him a military veteran.
“If he wrote his name on the dotted line and went to fulfill that obligation, he is considered a veteran because it’s basically writing a blank check to the U.S. Army,” said Sgt. Bret Perry, the center leader with the U.S. Army in Vancouver, adding it doesn’t matter if service is for one day or for the rest of one’s life.
Benton said he joined the military through a guaranteed enlistment program but the Army could no longer fulfill its end of the bargain. His contract promised training in a specific job skill. When the training wasn’t available, Benton quit and pursued college instead. He was honorably discharged, he said.
He dismissed more questions about his military experience, arguing it was irrelevant.
“The Selective Service is not a military program, it’s an independent agency … Managing is about your ability to manage people … It’s not about technical expertise; you hire people with technical expertise,” Benton said.
Experience for the job
It’s not the first time Benton’s background has been scrutinized in relation to his job title.
Benton’s background working for Clark County environmental services is featured prominently on his official biography on the Selective Service website. It is tailored more for his initial post in the Trump administration. There’s no mention of his stint in the military, but a paragraph is dedicated to his tenure as the director of the Clark County Department of Environmental Services.
His time at the county, like most posts Benton’s held, was mired in controversy.
He was selected to fill that job by two Republicans, Madore and Tom Mielke, with whom Benton served in the Legislature. The woman serving as the interim director at the time had a master’s degree and more than two years of relevant experience. Benton had no background in the environment or managing a county department, and his appointment fueled accusations of cronyism. But Benton maintained he was well-suited for the position.
But there, again, Benton said, look at the big picture.
“Whether it’s the environment or whatever, throw the microscope away and look at the broader perspective and you see, ‘Here’s a guy who gets things done and gets them done better and with less money,’ ” Benton said.
After he lost the job due to a county reorganization, he filed a lawsuit against the county. The suit is still pending.
“My success at the county, my three-year tenure, was wildly successful,” Benton said.
His official Selective Service biography highlights his efforts at “tripling the tonnage of hazardous waste removed from the waste stream” and reducing “expenditures dramatically while simultaneously doubling citizen participation in environmental programs.”
Benton dismissed any possible liberties taken with his official biography.
For example, the biography reads, he “was responsible for preserving more acres of critical habitat (in Clark County) in one year than any other year during the 30 years the (county) program has operated.”
It’s true that in 2015, while Benton was the director, more than 350 acres were preserved for steelhead habitat protection and other restoration and conservation projects. And although those acquisitions were mostly underway before Benton stepped into the role, he was the director when the deals closed.
But a simple scan of public records shows there were a handful of years — including 1990, with 433 acres; 1995, with 490 acres; 1998, with 402 acres; 2000, with 540 acres; and 2003 with 360 acres — where more acreage was preserved.
Mentioning this irked Benton.
“I see what you’re doing; you don’t care about facts. You want to twist the numbers so I wasn’t telling the truth. That’s what my staff reported to me,” Benton said.
Other questions about his background are petty and trivial, he said. He stands by each claim on his biography. And, he said, there are different ways to parse numbers.
During his tenure at Clark County, from 2013 to 2016, his biography states, he “achieved the certification of more Green Schools in Clark County than in any other county in Washington state.”
He did achieve that certification. Clark County also received it for several years preceding Benton and once again after his position at the county was eliminated, according to Meredith Lohr, executive director of the program.
Listen, Benton said, it’s time to stop focusing on the negatives: the public spats, the lawsuits, the controversies.
“I stand by every number and every claim that I’ve made in my (biography) and in every (biography) I’ve ever written,” he said, adding, “I’m proud of my accomplishments in life.”
He started listing them: he has a beautiful family, four children, including a son who is an Eagle Scout. He’s contributed hours of volunteer service to the community. He was a lawmaker for 20 years who carved out money for the YMCA swimming school and the Children’s Center in the capital budget. He worked across the aisle and had 50 bills signed into law by Democratic governors. One of his best friends, former state Sen. Margarita Prentice, is a Democrat. He helped lower the state’s college tuition rate. He cut the environmental services budget while improving the department.
“I’m proud of those things, so quit trying to make it out negative,” Benton said.
Benton declined to speak about Trump, other than to say he believes the president is doing an excellent job.
At the Selective Service, he has two overarching goals as director.
“If I can improve our readiness and improve registration, our tenure there will be successful and both of those are within the realm of possibility,” Benton said. “I have a very capable staff, dedicated to the mission.” Although the United States has an all-volunteer military force, Benton’s agency registers 18-year-olds for any possible future draft and creates a draft system.
The conversation wound down. It was getting late. Benton was presumably nearing his destination.
“When was the last time someone from Clark County reported directly to the president?” Benton asked. “If we could turn the tide a little, I’m happy to connect.”