There are a number of ways to describe the characteristics of the cabinet President-elect Donald Trump seems to be putting together. He’s got a lot of CEOs (four including Rex Tillerson at State) and former generals (three at last count). He seems to be for the most part choosing appointees who please — or at least do not displease — conventionally conservative Republicans. And there’s remarkably little government experience in the group as a whole, unless military experience is considered fully relevant.
But perhaps the most disturbing feature of the Trump cabinet so far is the number of appointees who do not believe in the core missions of the agencies they are being asked to run. Indeed, they seem designed to sabotage any effort to fulfill those missions.
We will have a pretty dramatic example in former Texas governor Rick Perry, whom Trump has tapped as his secretary of Energy. Perry famously proposed to eliminate that department (and two others) during his first run for president in 2012, and even more famously could not remember its name in a candidate debate that probably doomed his White House aspirations. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t repeat that same pledge in his subsequent presidential run, though his underlying hostility to any energy policy deeper than “Drill, baby, drill” did not seem to change.
Other Trump cabinet picks are equally conspicuous in their near-hatred for the historic roles of the entities they may soon supervise.
Perhaps by the time of his confirmation hearings, EPA Administrator–designee Scott Pruitt may be able to think of a single EPA regulation he favors. But it will take some hard work and ingenuity to find it. His official biography as Oklahoma’s attorney general boasts that this fossil-fuel enthusiast is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” The venerable Sierra Club described his appointment as “like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.”
Labor Secretary–designee Andrew Puzder, CEO of the company that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardees fast-food chains, will if confirmed have the rare distinction of rapidly moving from being a prime target of a federal agency’s regulatory efforts to becoming its chief. He has opposed higher minimum wages, the expanded overtime pay rules promulgated by the Obama administration, and (of course) making companies that operate through franchises accountable for the labor practices of franchisees. The department he has been tapped to lead found that more than half of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. locations had wage violations, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis this year.
Trump’s choice for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is part of a husband-wife billionaire team that has devoted its time for decades to the cause of making public funds available to private schools via vouchers or to minimally regulated charter schools. It says a lot that some education advocates are reassuring themselves that the damage she could do to public schools will be contained by the relatively limited role of the federal government in K-12 education.
It would not be accurate to say putative attorney general Jeff Sessions would just as soon shut down the U.S. Department of Justice. But it is true that in many respects he will execute a 180-degree turn in the policies and priorities of his department, much like Puzder can be expected to do. Sessions is almost certain, for example, to stop prosecuting recently proliferating incidents of state and local government voting-rights violations and instead ramp up prosecution of the phantom menace of “voter fraud.”
The appointment that is perhaps hardest to explain (other than as perpetuation of the job involved as a “diversity hire”) is Dr. Ben Carson at HUD. He has zero experience in this field. But he has manifested a strong hostility to federal anti-poverty efforts, which makes him another potential warrior against his own employees.
It is easy to say Trump has decided to make these sort of “screw you” appointments because he and/or his voters hate Washington generally, or hate do-gooder “liberal” agencies especially. But he could have used appointments to “enemy agencies” to build bridges to potentially hostile constituencies — or even to supply patronage.
Why is he waging war on big elements of the Executive branch of government that is now his own turf? That will only become clear when his administration’s full agenda is rolled out. Quite likely he plans big cuts in federal programs and/or changes of direction in the energy, environmental, labor, housing, and legal-affairs areas, and wants people in his cabinet who will cheer the evisceration of their jurisdictions instead of lobbying him to reverse it. An alternative theory is that he doesn’t much care about some of these agencies and is giving them over to people with powerfully bad intentions as a reward or inducement for loyalty. And as is the case with many new presidents, Trump could grow tired of his initial team and remake it before long.
As it stands, he’s going to need to make sure his cabinet members have funding for their own food tasters. Instead of a creative “team of rivals,” Trump seems to have decided on a destructive team of saboteurs.