Trump’s Cabinet Priorities

I find myself being told a lot of things about how to interpret the goings on with the incoming Donald Trump administration. Supporters of the President Elect seem to universally deny any alarming characteristics of appointees for the new government.

Donald Trump asserted on many occasions how great the government would be under his leadership. It would be the most efficient, the most effective, the most ethical government we have seen in our lifetimes. I really don’t think anyone believed he had an explicit blueprint for this greatest government in history, but I do think that his supporters believed that he wants his government to be the best ever. I personally believe he wants that, but unlike his supporters, I don’t believe that he has an awareness of what that looks like.

As an executive, you can’t micromanage. I would never accuse the President Elect of being a micromanager. I think he does understand that you have to hire leaders who will take your vision and make it their vision and translate it into an organization or P&L that will run efficiently and execute on the goals you supply. The President of the United States runs a bureaucracy so vast that it would be hard to imagine that any president would have a detailed vision for each department. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do important things, but it does mean that at different times various agencies need different amounts of attention.

Trump’s government agencies likely fall into a couple of categories. The primary agencies are front-and-center in Trump’s mind. In these cases, his advisors have helped him to identify appointees who conform to some of the broad messages of his campaign. Then there are the second tier (to him) agencies that he is filling, some with loyal supporters, and some with individuals preferred by his advisors. I suspect that these agencies aren’t well understood by Trump in terms of their scope or mission. Mind you, this is all inference based on my perception of the appointees at this point. I have no visibility into the process.

Primary Appointees:

Appointees in the first tier include General Mattis, who may well turn out to be an excellent Secretary of Defense. What I like best about him so far is the reports that he is rejecting transition team candidates to pentagon jobs. This report has been disputed in a recent Breitbart story, but if true, it supports the popular characterization of this man as a competent person who will support the president, but won’t bend too easily under pressure from the administration.

Rex Tillerson, State – Former ExxonMobil CEO. This is possibly the best or worst appointee he could have chosen for this post. On the plus side, Tillerson has cut ties with ExxonMobil and was praised by the head of the Office of Government Ethics for his divestment of his personal assets. I won’t agree with Tillerson on many things, but he took his nomination seriously. On the down side, while he lead a major energy company, they skirted sanctions on Iran by trading through an company owned by ExxonMobil. His ties to Russia are even more troubling. I didn’t like his confirmation hearings because of the unsurprising way he avoided questions about climate change. I actually think he is potentially vulnerable to disclosures about what Exxon’s own scientists reported to their leadership about the effects of fossil fuel consumption on the climate. Regardless of my personal thoughts, I do believe that Trump meant it when he appointed him. It wasn’t arbitrary; it wasn’t cynical; it was serious and Tillerson is a serious appointee.

Jeff Sessions, Attorney General. This appointment, like Tillerson, appears to provide backing for his campaign promises. His pro-police, law-and-order-president persona is reinforced by Sessions. In keeping with this persona, Jeff Sessions appears from his confirmation hearings to be concerned about investigations into patterns of abuse in police departments across the country. Sessions seems extremely reluctant to entertain the possibility that some police departments may foster biases that result in problems in how the law is applied to minorities. He appears to believe that the accusations and the investigations are the primary problem that creates tension between the police and the community as opposed to any actual bias. Again, this is a serious appointment and it was on purpose. I just think it is very divisive.

Steven Mnunchin

Next comes the influx from Goldman Sachs. At least 5 alumni from this investment bank are stationed at the highest levels of the Trump cabinet. They are not arbitrary appointees, however, they are such an incredible cliché that it is hard to take Trump’s “drain the swamp” battle cry with any seriousness in light of these appointees. Didn’t he criticize Hillary for being too chummy with the investment banks?

Andrew Pudzer, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which is the company that franchises Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box outlets among others. As Secretary of Labor, this man will take on the responsibility of representing the workers of the United States. CKE restaurants employs about 20, 000 people not including the employees of the individual franchises. I think this one is a wild card. It seems cynical despite Puzder’s credentials. Before now, nobody would have considered him a champion of labor. He is poised to undo many of the labor protections that have made his own career more challenging in recent years. Interestingly, his stated opposition to the ACA is that because people have to pay health insurance premiums, they have less money to buy hamburgers. There may be a small amount of irony here, in that buying fewer Carl’s Jr. burgers may help keep you out of the healthcare system in the first place.

Thank’s for Your Support:

Dr. Ben Carson

The process that went into appointing the head of Housing and Urban Development is a mystery. I have no idea where it came from. By appointing Dr. Ben Carson, a campaign supporter, instead of a person with demonstrated leadership in urban development, urban planning or housing policy, he sends a different kind of message about this agency than for the previous examples. My most prominent concern about this appointment is that Carson isn’t really a natural leader. As a surgeon, his people management skills are virtually unimportant, but as the leader of a major government agency, they are. By my estimation, this appointment isn’t obviously cynical, but it isn’t serious.

Linda McMahon

Similarly, Linda McMahon has been offered a role, it would seem, primarily for her early support of Donald Trump’s campaign. She reportedly donated $7 million in two separate donations to “super PACs” supporting Trump. Sure, she is the chief executive of a successful business, but it isn’t clear what he expects her to do as the head of the Small Business Administration. She is more qualified than Dr. Ben Carson to run a large bureaucracy. Her company employs about 800 people, whereas the Small Business Administration employs about 3,200 people. I am sure she is sharp as a tack, but because of the size of these donations, this looks like a bald faced political favor.

It might be worth noting that the of the top 5 contributors to President Obama’s 2012 campaign, nobody gave nearly that much, and none of them were given a cabinet position.

All in the Family

Leveraging Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner is questionable with respect to anti-nepotism regulations on the books, but for me, it merely shows a broader lack of imagination. Kushner is in a role that may create a number of conflicts of interest as well. As with Donald Trump, he is not divesting from his businesses and is not putting assets in a blind trust. He will be involved in high-level discussions that concern foreign and domestic policies that can not help put affect the business interests of Jared Kushner. If it weren’t for Kushner being directly in the cabinet, even having his wife Ivanka, in her west wing office would be problematic.

In Trump’s first press conference, he told the world that since the election, he was offered a $2 Billion deal that he declined. I am not sure why we were supposed to feel good about that. It occurs to me that our failure to praise Donald Trump for the absolute minimum amount of decorum required of the office might create resentment. If we don’t collectively say “thank you for not selling the presidency for $2 Billion”, could this devolve into a spiral of cynicism that leads to him accepting future opportunities? I certainly hope not. Will Jared Kushner be offered similar opportunities? Will they be turned down? Our visibility into those dealings will not be as transparent as I would like, but I do hope that investigative journalism stays healthy over the next several years.

These have been just a few notable examples. There are confirmation hearing in progress for appointees that require them, and I’ll probably have more to say as time progresses. I try not to rehash old news and I’ve already called out DeVos who appears to be anti-public education, Pruitt, who appears to be anti-environment and Perry, who suggested that the agency he will be leading should be eliminated.

It is safe to say that I’ll be writing about these and other appointees over the next several months and years.

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