As the Senate moves to vote on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Education, our politics writers sat down to discuss whether she is the least qualified of all his nominees and appointees, and if others of that cohort present larger threats to the country. Below, our writers’ picks for worst, second worst, and third worst (and, in one case, a grudging top-three least-bad list).
Jonathan Chait’s picks
1. Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser: Narrowing the Trump cabinet down to the worst of the worst of the worst is a triage operation that requires one to strip away normal policy considerations and focus on the single priority, “Are we all going to die because of this guy?” The figure who scores highest on this metric is surely National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — fake-news aficionado, rabid conspiracy theorist, Russophile, avowed hater of any information that questions his prior beliefs, and fan of trans-national far-right white nationalists.
2. Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor: Self-explanatory. Crazed Breitbartian ethno-nationalist who is reportedly dominating the National Security Council and has previously expressed a “Leninist” desire to bring the entire system down — a distinctly worrying strategic orientation for the chief strategist of the president of the United States.
3. Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator: Climate-science-questioning chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose modal approach to public office is to sign his name to documents written on his behalf by the fossil-fuel industry. Much less likely than other members of Trump’s team to destroy all human life within four years, but much more likely to do so within a few centuries.
Honorable mention: Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State: There’s an 80 percent chance Tillerson is fine, or possibly even good, at his job. Twenty percent chance he is working for Vladimir Putin. On a prorated basis, Tillerson is adequate, but with high variation.
Ed Kilgore’s picks
1. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Attorney General: The Justice Department and its prosecutors have, for good or ill, vast discretion in enforcing federal laws. There is every indication that as attorney general Sessions would turn the priorities of his department upside-down, prosecuting imaginary voter fraud instead of real voter suppression, hounding immigrants and other powerless people instead of protecting them, and in general operating as the leading edge of a Trump Revolution in law and policy. The idea that Sessions, often called the intellectual godfather of Trumpism, and for a long time the only member of Congress who supported Trump’s candidacy, would be independent of the 45th president is laughable. The bigger question may be whether Trump will be independent of Sessions.
2. Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator: In Scott Pruitt, the EPA would have an administrator whose familiarity with the agency is mostly derived from attacking its regulatory efforts in court. He’s also (at best) a borderline climate-science denier with close ties to the fossil-fuel industries whose interests are fundamentally at odds with the national and global interest in, well, survival. I would elevate him on the worst list mainly because of the irreplaceable role of the EPA in protecting the environment.
3. Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education: Another fox in the hen house. She ranks third only because the federal role in education is too limited to enable her to fulfill her career-long goal of replacing “government schools” (as her husband and closest associate likes to call them) with publicly funded private and, especially, religious education. There’s only so much damage she can do.
Eric Levitz’s picks
1. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Granted, Ben Carson’s oversight of Housing and Urban Development is unlikely to produce nuclear war or ecological collapse. He is not the worst cabinet nominee from a consequentialist perspective. But he is the worst in the sense of being the most wholly unjustifiable. One week before Trump nominated Carson, Carson’s personal assistant announced that the retired neurosurgeon was not interested in any cabinet post — because he feared that his lack of qualifications for such an appointment “could cripple the presidency.” This was not an expression of irrational insecurity. Carson has no experience in managing a government bureaucracy, let alone in the field of urban development. Nor is there reason to think his genius for surgery is transferable to other realms. This is a man who believes that there is a broad scientific consensus that aliens built the pyramids — but that this consensus is wrong, because the biblical Joseph built the pyramids with help from God. (He also believes that they built said pyramids not as tombs, but as vessels for storing grain. He also believes that multivitamins can cure cancer, and efforts to track patterns of racial discrimination in housing are akin to “communism.”) Jeff Sessions is a heinous choice for attorney general. Still, his nomination is defensible, if you stipulate certain ideological premises. But regardless of one’s views of federal housing policy, there is no good argument for why Ben Carson should oversee it.
2. Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services: He is the anti-Carson: A pick whose badness stems from his competence. As a former physician — and author of many of the House GOP’s health-care proposals — Price is wholly qualified for the position of secretary of Health and Human Services. He is deeply committed to increasing the number of Americans who die from curable illness. Price is a leading proponent of cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and making health insurance more expensive for people with preexisting conditions. He is an ideologue who is highly capable of arguing for — and implementing — his right-wing agenda. Plus, he’s corrupt: The congressman bought discounted stock in an Australian medical device company, then pushed legislation that would increase the value of his shares.
3. Andy Puzder, Secretary of Labor: Andy Puzder’s nomination to the Labor department is an audacious betrayal of the “forgotten” working men and women whom Trump promised to fight for. In his professional life, Puzder is a fast-food CEO, whose restaurants have been serial violators of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In his public life, he’s been an avowed opponent of minimum-wage increases and a champion of replacing workers with robots. The decline of organized labor in the Midwest was an underappreciated cause of Trump’s victory, and Puzder is all but certain to use his new post to further weaken the labor movement. His appointment is a threat to workers in the immediate term, and to the prospects of progressive governance in the long.
Rebecca Traister’s Picks for Trump's Best Three
1. Nikki Haley, Ambassador to the U.N.: I don’t like this game because I realized that it was not possible for me to pick the worst. Trump’s cabinet picks are each chilling in unique ways; to pick the worst feels like suggesting that the destruction of the planet is somehow worse than the rollback of our human rights or that either of those is worse than the eradication of our public-education system. All I could manage was a shortened list of least-bad cabinet picks. The least bad, as far as I could determine, was Nikki Haley, chosen by Trump to be ambassador to the U.N.. She qualified as least bad because as governor, she took the Confederate flag down in South Carolina, which was a small and overdue act, but nonetheless courageous for a southern Republican. Also, while the job of U.N. ambassador is important, it can cause — and again, I’m speaking comparatively here — the least amount of damage to the republic or the Earth. Of course, when she gave her first speech, she talked about “taking names” of those “who don’t have our backs,” a speech that gravely mitigated her “least bad” status in my head.
2. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense: The second least bad, I guess, is James Mattis for Defense, because he doesn’t believe in torture. Which is a piteously low bar. And the fact that Mattis clears it is meaningless anyway since Trump is obviously not consulting him on anything, including the Muslim ban.
3. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State: There is not a third-least-bad cabinet pick. I mean, I heard that Rex Tillerson might not hate gay people. Congratulations to Rex; he must be a real mensch. Too bad he has no foreign-policy experience and is a lifelong oil-industry baron with extensive business interests in Russia.
*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
*This article has been updated throughout.