A realistically good Trump cabinet
So, I’ve been ruminating for the last year and a half over the 2016 presidential election, posting thoughts on all of the major party (and a few minor party) candidates as warranted. And now that the election is finally over, there’s just one more thing that needs to be taken care of before the new administration takes over — a cabinet. So I figured I’d take a shot at assembling a realistic-looking cabinet that we might see under President-elect Donald Trump.
There are a few things that have to be mentioned. First, Trump is going to reward loyalists. He’s going to appoint people that supported him. That’s not unique to him, it’s been done forever. Second, Trump wants to hire extensively from the business community. And third, he needs some of the best people he can find to surround him in order to counteract his lack of experience in government (something I’m sure even he himself would admit in private even if he’ll never say it in front of the camera).
Impressively, among the options I fleshed out before publishing this, I’m already 3-for-3 on actual selections (trust me on this). I don’t think this will continue indefinitely, but the process does seem to be taking the right people for the right jobs in my view so far.
Chief of Staff —Reince Priebus Obviously, this got done already, and it was done the right way. Priebus, for all of his foibles in the last several years, knows how Washington operates. He’s a creature of politics and the way the game works, and for a president without any hands-on experience in the political world, Trump needed a point-man for advancing his policies and Priebus was at least the temperate choice. The other option that was put forward was Steve Bannon, and America basically dodged a bullet there. Yes, he’s still an advisor and “chief strategist,” but as awful as his alt-rightists are, they’re A) not nearly as bad as they’ve been made out to be by Hillary Clinton’s “fear the alt-right” speech, and B) hopefully less influential with Bannon as a strategist than he would have been as Chief of Staff. Bannon was always going to play a role in the Trump White House, that’s just true. He joined the Trump campaign at its nadir and ended up riding it to victory. Priebus should at least be able to be a moderating influence on Bannon’s voice. And it should be noted, this isn’t the first time an out-of-the-mainstream ideologue has served in such a role. Valerie Jarrett has been in basically the same position since Barack Obama became president, and she has long been subject to similar concerns from the right as Bannon provokes from the left.
State — Zalmay Khalilzad The best choice for the nation’s top diplomat would solve a number of Trump’s problems heading into his administration, but unfortunately it’s pretty unlikely that Trump will go that route. Khalilzad would buck the trend of failed or soon-to-be failed presidential candidates to be named Secretary of State, although to hear the news report things, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani seem likely to continue that trend. The nation’s diplomacy is of such importance that the position shouldn’t be treated as some kind of mere sinecure as many other cabinet posts are, or as State has been treated over the last eight years. Khalilzad was America’s ambassador to Afghanistan (he was born and raised there), then Iraq, then the United Nations. There may be no more well rounded diplomat in recent American history. Plus, he was a fairly early Trump supporter and would be the highest ranking Muslim in American history, even if he would not qualify to have a place in the order of succession. He’s simply the best of all worlds for Trump — a qualified candidate who supported him and would help blunt accusations of Islamophobia. Forced to choose between Giuliani, Romney, Gingrich, and former UN Ambassador John Bolton, I’d probably choose Giuliani solely on the global respect he gained after 9/11, but on little else. Romney would at least contribute to what Doris Kearns Goodwin called “a cabinet of rivals” when describing the cabinet Lincoln assembled in 1861, which also wouldn’t be so bad. Gingrich should have been out of the game years ago and Bolton would be a case of throwing a molotov cocktail onto the simmering pot that is Washington politics right now, especially given that he doesn’t seem to have learned any of the most important diplomatic lessons of the post-9/11 era. I’ve seen Khalilzad’s name attached to State in a few places, but he’s got almost zero buzz and this is, unfortunately, the least likely of these to actually come true, which will be a shame. He works on practically every single level one could want in a SecState.
Treasury—Steven Mnuchin It seems like a fait accompli that Trump’s campaign finance chairman will take on the role of Treasury Secretary and it’s a very likely spot for him to start his collection of business leaders in his cabinet. I don’t know a whole lot about Mnuchin other than that he’s a partner at Goldman Sachs, a fact that probably makes an awful lot of people uncomfortable, including a lot of Republicans considering the zeal with which they attacked Hillary Clinton over the fact that she gave a speech to Goldman Sachs for a quarter of a million dollars. I did like the concept of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty here, but Trump’s recent decision to scrub all lobbyists from his transition team makes the idea of a guy who’s been a lobbyist for the last four years pretty unlikely. I like Jeb Hensarling here as well, especially given his experience as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, but I think if we’re looking at this realistically, a businessman like Trump is going to want a businessman like Mnuchin with his hand on monetary policy. Especially since it doesn’t appear that there’s going to be a candidate for this position that would either be willing or able to make drastic changes in tax and IRS architecture, we’ll probably end up settling for a Treasury Secretary that will focus more on breaking down some of the more restrictive elements placed on the stock markets by the previous administration.
Defense — Kelly Ayotte It’s not uncommon for the cabinet to be an alternate route to the top for politicos whose rising star has been dashed by electoral defeat, but usually, it has to be one of the positions that attracts the most media attention for it to work. That means it really needs to be more than just another sinecure position for it to mean anything. Ayotte missed out on re-election in New Hampshire by the razor-thinnest of razor-thin margins against a very popular incumbent Governor, a loss that certainly hurts but doesn’t necessarily have to end her political career. Fortunately, she has enough of the right elements to make a superior choice for Secretary of Defense: during her term in the Senate, she served on the Armed Forces Committee, and her husband is an Iraq War veteran. Toss in the fact that she would become a ground-breaking selection as the first woman to head up the Pentagon, especially during a time of transition within the Armed Forces, and it’s hard to find a better candidate, both politically and strategically, than Ayotte. She paid a political price by sticking by earlier statements on Trump, the least the president-elect could do would be to toss her a lifeline. I’d seen Michael Flynn’s name tossed around most frequently with this position, but there’s a very good reason why there’s a statutory requirement for SecDef to have been a civilian for at least seven years: it reinforces the absolute necessity that the military be subordinate to civilian control in all ways. Each branch of the military has three civilians (the President, the Secretary of Defense, and their branch’s secretary) at the very top of their chain of command, above even the highest generals of the Joint Chiefs. That is crucial for our constitutional republic to function the way it has for over 200 years. Flynn can be an important contributor in other areas, but Congress should not change the rules in this situation. That also goes for James Mattis, a retired Marine general who I have the utmost respect for but also would require a waiver.
Attorney General — Jeff Sessions Again, already selected, but a selection that was more or less the right choice. As one of the earliest Trump supporters among elected officials (and from a safe state for Republicans), the word on the street was that Sessions was not only guaranteed to be on Trump’s cabinet, but that he basically has his choice among several high-profile positions. I’d seen it said that he wanted to be Secretary of Defense (and he does have military experience and time served on the Senate Armed Forces Committee), but he may be best suited to lead the Department of Justice, especially when Rudy Giuliani was no longer a candidate as he intimated earlier this week (he was my initial top choice for DOJ). Sessions is a former US Attorney in Alabama’s Southern District, not quite as high-profile as Giuliani’s Southern District of New York or Chris Christie’s District of New Jersey experience, but given the other offices that Sessions was linked to and the practical surety that he would serve in some role in the Trump cabinet, Attorney General is probably where he fits best. With Giuliani apparently out of the running and Christie again in Bridgegate hell and apparently in Trump’s doghouse, Sessions is probably the best reasonable candidate here. The other intriguing option was in former Trump enemy Ted Cruz, who has now entered the discussion, but I couldn’t see Cruz being the choice if Sessions decided he wanted to be the AG.
Interior — Sarah Palin She’s one of the most polarizing figures in national politics outside of the two major party candidates. She also played an outsized role in Trump gaining acceptance during the Republican primaries with social conservatives and whatever’s left of the Tea Party despite his “New York values” as Cruz put it. Word is that, like Sessions, a cabinet post is hers if she wants one, and it appears she does want one. She’s far too polarizing (or generally ineligible) for any of the positions above or even some of the more notable positions below, but Interior could actually be a place where she would not only thrive, but have an opportunity to resuscitate her image if that’s something that appeals to her. Back in 2008, while was still the wildly popular Governor of Alaska widely unknown in the lower 48, I was a big proponent of her for Vice-President well before she became the actual choice. Then she became the choice, she was savaged by the media, her popularity in Alaska plummeted, and she pretty much went out of her way to live up to every single little sling ever fired at her by the left and the media alike until she was essentially nothing more than a redneck caricature. But before she went from being an unknown to being a divisive figure in such a short amount of time, she was popular in Alaska precisely because she was willing to stand up to the oil companies whose influence was (and is) pervasive in Alaskan government. Alaskans also seem to generally have a culture that seeks to strike a serious balance between energy exploration and environmental protection, something that would be desirable in a Republican Interior department. If she can get back to the type of politics that made her an appealing VP choice in 2008 as Interior Secretary, it’ll make her an outstanding option for an otherwise invisible position in the Cabinet. And if she decides she wants to stay “Redneck Barbie,” it’s (again) a fairly invisible position in the Cabinet. The other options seem to mostly be oil executives like Forrest Lucas (Lucas Oil) and Harold Hamm, who pioneered fracking in North Dakota. Palin’s potential for environmental and energy balance is probably a better bet.
Agriculture — Rick Perry Republicans tend to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to picking Ag secretaries, because their bench in the Midwestern and Great Plains states where they practically universally hail from is pretty deep. Before he spent just over 14 years as the chief executive of the second-largest state in the Union, Perry spent nearly all of the 1990s as the elected Agriculture Commissioner of the Lone Star State and graduated Texas A&M (as in “Agricultural and Mechanical”) with a degree in Animal Science. He’d follow Tom Vilsack, himself a two-term Governor of Iowa before becoming Ag Secretary for the entirety of the Obama presidency. So Perry not only fits the bill very well for the technical aspects of the job, he’d also bring his long term of executive experience into the Trump cabinet the same way Vilsack did for eight years for Obama. Perry also fits with some of the apparent reconciliation that Trump seems to be willing to engage in given his discussions with Cruz and Romney. Perry once called Trump “cancer” to conservatism, but eventually backed Trump and was given a plum speaking role at the RNC in Cleveland, so whatever friction there was between the two is certainly gone at this point, making Perry an ideal candidate for this position.
Commerce — Herman Cain Another selection that fits for being partially from the world of politics and partially from the world of business, Cain was a GOP presidential candidate in 2012 who was briefly a front-runner for the nomination. He’s got plenty of financial experience as a long-time business executive in the food and chain restaurant industry which culminated in a 10-year run as the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, along with a seven-year stretch as a high-ranking official in the Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve. Cain has been a Trump cheerleader practically since the beginning, and his inclusion as Commerce Secretary would tap into both of his experiential backgrounds while also adding to a demographically diverse cabinet (almost a requirement in today’s political climate) as an African-American. I don’t think Trump cares even a little bit about checking off boxes for having racial and gender parity in his cabinet, but as it turns out simply taking some of the better names available more or less accomplishes that anyway. Another decent and possibly also likely choice from the business world that I hear of regularly is billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, a longtime Democrat who supported Trump’s campaign early on.
Labor — Victoria Lipnic Honestly, the only name that keeps coming up when it comes to Labor Secretary in the Trump cabinet. There are always one or two relatively unknown names that end up in the cabinet, and Lipnic’s resume certainly highlights her as a solid choice for the ‘policy wonk’ position on the Cabinet. A member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since 2010, she was also an Assistant Secretary of Labor for much of the Bush administration and highly touted four years ago as a possible Labor Secretary for Mitt Romney, and even after that, she was still appointed to the EEOC by President Obama. That’s some good cross-aisle support right there. Absent any other serious candidates coming out of the woodwork, the job is probably hers as long as she’s amenable to it, and there’s nothing to suggest that she wouldn’t be.
Health and Human Services — Bobby Jindal Initially, I had this as a great position for Ben Carson, and one which I thought the brilliant neurosurgeon would excel at even while he was running for president, a job at which I thought he would likely not excel (neurosurgery and extemporaneous speaking, as it turns out, are not one in the same). But with Carson removing himself from consideration for any position on the Trump cabinet, there’s still another outstanding candidate from among the GOP primary field that ought to get some serious consideration. Jindal was more or less put in control of healthcare in Louisiana just two years after graduating Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, a weighty position for a man of just 24 years old. Since then, he has been in position after position of increasing weight: President of the University of Louisiana by 28, Assistant HHS Secretary by 30, congressman at age 34, Governor of Louisiana at age 36. There have been a lot of knocks on Jindal over the years over a number of issues from many different directions, but few can dispute that the man has a superb intellect and has an outstanding amount of experience in the healthcare field. With repeal and replacement of Obamacare a high priority for not only Trump but congressional Republicans as well, Jindal is well placed to see any kind of transition through an HHS department that will, out of necessity, see a significant amount of cultural turnover should Trump push forward with Obamacare repeal. At age 46, Jindal has already done more with his political career than many accomplish in a lifetime. Service in a presidential cabinet seems like the natural next step after his presidential aspirations were dashed in 2016, but he also simply represents the person best positioned to carry out effective changes within HHS under Trump. One drawback is, of course, that he ran against Trump and then endorsed Marco Rubio after pulling out, but he did eventually offer his support, and his abilities are certainly not something at which Trump should turn up his nose.
Housing and Urban Development — Carl Paladino This one is actually not so much a name that’s even been mentioned, at least not seriously, but Paladino checks practically every box so well and then some that I can’t fail to support the idea. First off, he’s a very notable and politically active developer in the Buffalo area. GOP nominee for Governor of New York in 2010. He was a co-chair of Trump’s quixotic home-state campaign and backed Trump from very early on. So he has the related private industry and Trump loyalty boxes perfect. He’d almost certainly end HUD’s seven-year harassment of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (who actually has been suggested as HUD Secretary) over affordable housing for minorities in one of the richest and whitest counties in the nation. And perhaps best of all, it would be a serious thumb in the eye to a person who despises and is equally despised by Trump, Paladino, and Astorino: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was HUD Secretary under Bill Clinton. It also leaves Astorino free to challenge Cuomo a second time in 2018, and it gets Paladino out of New York. It may simply be a part of being a political animal in Albany, but I don’t see who really loses in this situation other than a sitting governor whose office is under investigation by the federal government. Paladino is kind of a loose cannon, but it’s one of the most milquetoast cabinet positions out there that I can’t see it as being that big of a deal. Hell, they made the HUD Secretary “designated survivor” in the TV drama of the same name for that very reason.
Transportation — John Mica This seems like a pretty straightforward selection. 12-term Florida congressman defeated for re-election this year due in large part to court-ordered redistricting who is a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and he’s interested in the position to boot. He’s generally considered an enemy of mass transit advocates and supports the boost to highway infrastructure that Trump has made one of his touchstones for domestic policy, possibly in upwards of $1 trillion in overall spending. One of the only real foreseeable issues is that DOT has been a common landing spot for the “token” opposition party Cabinet member in first terms. GW Bush appointed Democrat Norman Mineta to DOT in 2001, while Obama made Republican Ray LaHood Transportation Secretary in 2009 (the current “token” is Bob McDonald, VA Secretary). For a position that will likely push additional government spending likely far beyond any other executive department, this might be a potential landing point for a Democrat in the Trump cabinet alongside Commerce if Ross is the choice.
Energy — Harold Hamm With environment being a key element of the Interior Department, Hamm certainly fits better with the Energy Department as a pioneer in the hydrofracking industry. To be extremely fair, the Obama administration has been very accommodating to exploration through fracking, so Hamm’s appointment wouldn’t represent some kind of energy breakthrough for energy development, but his resume in helping to broaden the nation’s energy resources through innovative methods would at least represent a broad step in the right direction. He probably wouldn’t help move the nation closer to the “all of the above” energy strategy that we’ve desperately needed, a strategy that would foster both traditional (fossil fuels and nuclear energy) and clean (wind, solar, etc.) energy growth. Traditionally, it seems that when Republicans are in power, clean energy is ignored in favor of fossil fuel exploration, and the reverse is true for Democrats. With Hamm at Energy, at least the spirit of innovation, while still connected with oil concerns, is in a position to affect policy.
Education—Michelle Rhee It’s hard to come up with a name to head a department that Trump wants to either gut or eliminate altogether (a common suggestion by Republican candidates and presidents going back to Reagan), but assuming that he does neither, a paradigm-shifting choice is probably appropriate. When Eva Moskowitz’s name popped up for about 24 hours this week, I thought she would make for an outstanding candidate if she was willing to take the job, even though she’s nominally a Democrat. The CEO of Success Academy, a network of charter schools in New York City, she has fought the good fight on school choice for years against firmly entrenched government bureaucrats across the political spectrum in the nation’s largest city. Now that Moskowitz has declined to be considered, Rhee may be the next best thing, assuming her position as the head of the StudentsFirst organization doesn’t make her a “lobbyist” in the eyes of the Trump transition team. The former head of public schools in Washington, DC, Rhee is a dedicated proponent of charter schools just as Moskowitz is in New York. It’s a selection that would probably delight opponents of Common Core and proponents of additional local control of schools, both of which are positions that share cause with those on the right that prefer to see the Department of Education either cut back drastically or shuttered completely. I don’t think we’re going to see the end of the department any time soon (bureaucracy is incredibly difficult to pare down like that), but Rhee would probably at least be a solid signal that Washington is ready to soften the death grip it has held on K-12 education for decades.
Veterans Affairs — Scott Brown Much as with Transportation, it’s kind of odd that an executive department that would be the focus of such a big part of Trump’s domestic policy proposals (namely, the complete overhaul of the Veterans Administration, especially in healthcare) is getting so little attention on who will be running the show. The name that has been most closely associated with the position doesn’t even seem to be anything more than a natural selection: Jeff Miller is a retiring eight-term congressman (who happened to succeed Joe Scarborough in Congress) who has chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee for the last six years, a bit of an oddity given that Miller himself is not a veteran, which is usually a prerequisite but he does at least represent the western Florida panhandle, which is home of one of the biggest naval air stations in the country (NAS Pensacola), so there’s the base familiarity with veterans’ issues, and six years of legislative leadership in the area now to go with it. He wouldn’t be a bad choice, but given the level of attention that Trump gave to the problems at the VA, a stronger name with a veteran’s resume would be a bit more impactful. Brown is a former Massachusetts senator who spent 35 years as an officer in the Army National Guard, which included a deployment to Afghanistan. He left the uniformed service in 2014 as a Colonel, and while he was a US Senator, he served on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, giving him a legislative understanding as well. Either man would probably do a decent job, but Brown has the personal background as a veteran and the name recognition (his special election victory in 2010 was a political earthquake) to signal that revamping the VA will be an important goal of the Trump administration.
Homeland Security — Rudy Giuliani The optics are solid: a department created in the aftermath of 9/11, to be run by the former official perhaps more heralded for his actions during that crisis than any other. There’s no question that Trump is going to pick an absolute loyalist for this spot because of the nature of DHS and its potential role for carrying out the most visible and loudest of his platform elements: immigration. In that sense, the two most reckless choices that have been offered for this position from a number of outlets are outgoing Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Milwaukee County (WI) Sheriff David Clarke. Both of these men are no-nonsense law and order tough-guy hardliners who have offered up plenty of red-meat for the right wing over the last decade in the area of policing and corrections. They are not politicians. Whatever one thinks about the issues surrounding race relations with the police and illegal immigration, those things need a more nuanced hand on the till than either of them are probably even capable of offering. Giuliani is likely to end up on this cabinet in one form or another, and since he won’t be the Attorney General (probably the place where his talents would be best utilized), being DHS Secretary is likely the best place for him to land, not only for Trump to get the most out of him, but also to ensure that DHS is led by a person who has at least had to offer measured responses, even if those responses haven’t always been appreciated on a bipartisan level. The bottom line is that DHS is going to be responsible for “building the wall,” any deportation schemes, and any direct national response to police brutality scandals outside of the courtroom. When the other options are complete firebrands, Giuliani is certainly a far better option regardless of the actual direction that the administration ends up taking on these issues.
There are a number of “cabinet level positions” that also need to be filled, and while I’m not going to touch on all of them, there are a few choices I’d like to mention in passing.
National Security Adviser — Michael Flynn While Flynn, who retired from the Army as a three-star general in 2014, was not a good fit for a Cabinet-level position as Secretary of Defense, he makes an obvious choice to be Trump’s national security adviser based on his position heading up the Trump campaign on military and national security affairs, easily one of the most visible former military leaders who was a Trump supporter from early on. There are some serious concerns with Flynn, especially the apparent closeness he has with Vladimir Putin and Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but this one definitely has to be filed under “obvious.” When one declares that elections have consequences, those who have been closest to the victors for longest, like Bannon and Flynn, are going to be put in some position, like it or not. At least when one looks at where Trump has placed the two, considering that they could have been given even higher positions in the executive, it’s a good balance between rewarding allies while not going overboard. Both of these men have had Trump’s ear for some time, it’s not like winning the election was going to change that. Hopefully, other cabinet members will be able to temper the worst of their influences.
United Nations Ambassador — Richard Grenell It would be a solid sign of how far the right has come on acceptance of the LGBT community for Grenell to become the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the Senate to a cabinet-level position. After all, it was just four years ago that Grenell, a long-time veteran of our nation’s diplomatic efforts at the UN, was hounded out of a position as Mitt Romney’s spokesperson by social conservatives outraged over the idea of Romney’s point of contact with the press being gay. Fast forward, and we saw Peter Thiel getting a standing ovation at the RNC this past summer, not to mention the same reaction a warm promise from Trump during his acceptance speech to protect the LGBT community. Grenell’s appointment would be a reinforcement of that promise, but he goes far beyond any token status. His resume is loaded with the kind of understanding on US-UN relations that any good UN ambassador should have before essentially becoming the third-most important voice of American to the world (behind the President and Secretary of State).
Trade Representative — Peter Thiel I admit it. I only want to see this just to see how many heads explode.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully this was insightful.