that happened

The Time Trump Held a White House Cabinet Casting Call

Name a more iconic duo. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

With Mike Pence disqualified from serving as Donald Trump’s running mate in 2024 on account of having a shred of decency, the former president is conducting a search for his replacement even though he hasn’t even confirmed he’s running again. According to Politico, his decision will reportedly be based on two key factors: “unquestioned loyalty and an embrace of the former president’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.”

The current hunt for a veep is a far cry from our showman-in-chief’s typical hiring process. Case in point: Five years ago, Trump injected some reality-TV competition into the normally careful and secretive search for Cabinet members. For months, a cavalcade of down-on-their-luck GOP pols, Fox News personalities, and billionaires eager to destroy the administrative state proceeded through the doors of various Trump properties to … seriously audition for a job? Offer advice? Get their name in the press? The reasons for their audience with the president-elect were often unclear, but it was obvious Trump relished in the speculation the meetings generated.

Yes, the winter of 2016–17 was a wild, terrifying time, when Kanye West being offered a role in the new administration didn’t seem entirely impossible. Let’s take a look back at that Great Cabinet Casting Call to appreciate just how much things have changed.

Candidates had to have “the look.”

When selecting his first batch of Cabinet officials, Trump was focused largely on aesthetics, as his friend Chris Ruddy told the Washington Post at the time.

“He likes people who present themselves very well, and he’s very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it’s a very important medium for public policy,” said Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media. “Don’t forget, he’s a showbiz guy. He was at the pinnacle of showbiz, and he thinks about showbiz. He sees this as a business that relates to the public.”

Trump didn’t just privately ponder how candidates might look standing next to him in the Oval as he showed off big stacks of blank paper. He had contenders pose with him while entering and exiting his property in New Jersey as if the door to the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster were America’s 10 Downing Street. On November 20, 2016, Trump received a dozen visitors in one day including then–Kansas secretary of State Kris Kobach, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, then–New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, BET co-founder Robert Johnson, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and retired Marine Corps general John Kelly.

Donald Trump gives Kris Kobach a very presidential greeting. Photo: Getty Images

Trump’s focus on “the look” cut both ways. He praised James Mattis, his pick for secretary of Defense, as “the closest thing to General George Patton that we have.” That comment could have been based on Trump’s careful analysis of the retired Marine general’s military record, but Mattis also actually looks like Patton star George C. Scott. And during his inaugural luncheon, Trump gave a shout out to “my generals,” remarking, “These are central casting. If I’m doing a movie, I’d pick you, general. General Mattis.” (He wasn’t so hot on Mattis just a couple of years later.)

Bold facial hair could do a man in, though, per the Post:

Several of Trump’s associates said they thought that John R. Bolton’s brush-like mustache was one of the factors that handicapped the bombastic former United Nations ambassador in the sweepstakes for secretary of state.

“Donald was not going to like that mustache,” said one associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “I can’t think of anyone that’s really close to Donald that has a beard that he likes.”

Blind loyalty to Trump was optional.

While total fealty to Trump seems to be the key qualification for joining his inner circle these days, that wasn’t the case five years ago. Hell, you could have declared Trump “a phony” and “a fraud” in an impassioned speech meant to deny him the Republican presidential nomination and still find yourself under serious consideration for a top Cabinet position — if you had that certain je ne sais quoi. “Trump was drawn to Tillerson and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney for secretary of state because of their presence and the way they command a room when they walk in,” the Post reported, referring in that first instance to his eventual choice, then–ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

It always seemed possible Trump’s consideration of Romney was an elaborate prank meant to produce humiliating images of the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. (In which case, mission accomplished.)

You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half. Photo: Getty Images

But Romney was far from the only Cabinet contender to have spoken out against the president-elect. In 2019, Axios published nearly 100 internal Trump-transition vetting documents, which Trump was reportedly seen reviewing before his marathon interview sessions at Trump Tower and Bedminster. The documents, which were hastily cobbled together by Republican National Committee researchers, highlighted “red flags” about each candidate. In the case of Kobach, who was considered for Homeland Security secretary, this meant “white supremacy,” but the far more common (and far less chilling) infraction cited was smack-talking Trump in the primaries. Axios rounded up some of the top insults from people whom Trump went on to hire:

• Nikki Haley, who became Trump’s U.N. ambassador, had a note that she’d said Trump is everything “we teach our kids not to do in kindergarten.”

• Ryan Zinke, who became Interior Secretary, had described Trump as “un-defendable.”

• Rick Perry, Energy Secretary, had voluminous vetting concerns: “Perry described Trumpism as a ‘toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition,’” the vetters noted.

There were plenty of wild cards.

The most out-of-the-box candidate mentioned in reporting on Trump’s current candidate search was former acting national security director Ric Grenell. Would an openly gay man be a surprising pick for the GOP vice presidential nominee? Sure, but Grenell was also a career diplomat who graduated from the Kennedy School and a former spokesman for the George W. Bush administration and Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

During the transition period, by contrast, Trump floated some truly wild possibilities — and even people intimately involved in the process seemed to have no idea what was happening. Representative Tulsi Gabbard had a meeting at Trump Tower in November 2016, and leaked vetting documents reveal she was considered for secretary of Veterans Affairs. (One tiny red flag: “Gabbard is a liberal Democrat, a backer of Bernie Sanders in the Democrat primary.”) She didn’t get the job, and Gabbard later claimed she had no idea she was even under consideration.

Hollywood talent agent Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm Emanuel and inspiration for Jeremy Piven’s character in Entourage, met with Trump at Bedminster and was considered for … something? Though RNC researchers wrote up a document on him, Axios reported in 2019, “Nobody we spoke to, including senior members of the transition, could remember what job … Emanuel was vetted for.”

And while Trump declared in January 2016 that “certainly there’d be a role in the administration” for Sarah Palin — which the former Alaska governor made very clear she was interested in — it remains unclear if she was ever under serious consideration. Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said during a November 2016 Fox News appearance, “I haven’t seen her as part of the Cabinet mix.” But according to reports at the time, Palin was under consideration for Energy or Veteran Affairs secretary, and she appeared on a leaked shortlist for Interior secretary. Just imagine how many juvenile photos we would have been subjected to if she’d actually landed in the Trump White House.

But the prospect that really kept people up at night was Secretary of State Rudy Giuliani. By mid-November 2016, sources claimed he was the “leading candidate” for the role … though in retrospect, those sources may have been “America’s Mayor” himself. Giuliani campaigned aggressively for the job, publicly disparaging rival Romney and declaring at one point, “My knowledge of foreign policy is as good, or better, than anybody they’re talking to.”

Giuliani’s antics proved too wild even for Trump. “Giuliani started doing interviews about himself, and that bothered people. You never want to be more controversial than the boss,” a Trump aide told Politico. In early December 2016, the transition announced that Giuliani had removed himself from consideration (though several reports at the time said he did not have a choice in the matter). Trump’s statement gently blowing off Giuliani turned out to be prophetic. “He is and continues to be a close personal friend, and as appropriate, I will call upon him for advice and can see an important place for him in the administration at a later date,” Trump said. While Giuliani only achieved the rank of personal attorney to the president, he certainly made his mark on Trump’s foreign policy for better or for worse (well, for worse).

Perhaps now that he’s had some time to reflect, Trump has realized you can’t put a price on loyalty (especially when you’re plotting nefarious activities). Or maybe the straightforwardness of his current casting call reflects a reality that is very different from five years ago. These days, almost everyone in Trump’s party worships — or at least pretends to worship — him.

Remember the Time Trump Held a Cabinet Casting Call