With Donald Trump still seven weeks from taking office, his ongoing selection of high-level appointees could provide an indication of how his presidency will operate. Thus far, one thing is clear: His presidency will resemble his campaign — continuously surprising and run from the gut instincts of the New York billionaire rather than from ideology.
How much of what he promised will he accomplish, or even attempt? Will there be a wall along the Southern border, new trade deals, a quick end to the Islamic State and Obamacare? Is he picking a Cabinet that can accomplish all that — or even wants to? It’s really unclear.
Trump has chosen financiers and industrialists who chafe at rules rather than the regulators who impose them. There are few retreads from prior administrations. And some of his choices have strong ideological stances, though he has few himself. The picks have been disparate, raising as many questions as they answer.
Will this be the government Trump promised, or the one wanted by Republicans like Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a conservative ideologue?
Trump electrified his followers by upending the Republican Party. But many of his picks, starting with Pence, are straight from GOP central casting, firm right-wingers who supported other establishment candidates early on.
Billionaire Betsy DeVos, nominated to run education, is a pal of Pence’s who supported Jeb Bush. Like Pence, she supports school choice, charter schools and voucher programs. Her work overhauling Michigan schools has been widely criticized.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whom Trump has tapped to be UN ambassador, is also a Pence pick and mainstream conservative, albeit one who brings diversity through her Indian heritage. But she has little formal experience with international affairs and also spoke sharply against Trump in her support of Marco Rubio.
Tom Price, the Health and Human Services appointee, is a physician and member of Congress from Georgia. A leading Obamacare opponent, he has a detailed plan to replace it. But Price also wants to slash Medicare and Social Security, policies Trump opposed.
Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions, a U.S. senator from Alabama, was an early Trump surrogate, but it’s unclear why. He’s been a culture warrior for decades whose policies are likely to draw the most opposition from Democrats. At what point will Trump tire of the controversies and divisiveness that result?
Will Trump “drain the swamp,” of the insiders who’ve run it for so long?
It looks like he’s mostly swapping alligators for crocodiles. Trump seems to prefer nominees who, like him, buy influence rather than selling it. That’s the case with the men he’s chosen for fiscal and trade positions, players who jumped on his bandwagon early and rode it adamantly. Wall Street financier Steven Mnuchin, the choice for Treasury secretary, was Trump’s campaign finance chairman. The former Goldman Sachs executive is a markets whiz, but beyond supporting lower taxes and less regulation, he has said little about policy. Commerce selection Wilbur Ross, a multibillionaire investor, is known for defending Trump’s demands to rewrite trade deals with China and other nations. His post isn’t a major one, but his direct influence on Trump’s economic policies is expected to be outsized.
What will the nation’s stance on terrorism and defense be?
Here, Trump’s plan is clear. National security, defense, intelligence and the military will be controlled by hawks who support a muscular military presence and an activist line against terrorism, as promised. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the choice for national security adviser, was an early Trump advocate who argues that Islamic terrorism is an existential threat to the United States. Gen. James Mattis, tapped for secretary of defense, is a warrior general and a hard-liner against Iran and “political Islam.” And Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, the Central Intelligence Agency pick, has supported the bulk collection of data on U.S. citizens, extreme interrogation by CIA officers and secret prisons to keep the nation safe.
That safety is one of the four central tenets Trump promised during his run. The other three are greatness, employment and unity. If he and his appointees can bring economic prosperity and safety and security, he’ll likely be judged a success.
Is he assembling the right senior staff to accomplish those goals? Conventional wisdom says the answer is no, that this group is going to row in a dozen different directions toward vastly oppositional goals, a potential disaster.
But that was also the conventional wisdom on the team Trump assembled to get him elected. And on that basis, this Cabinet, mostly very accomplished in their own lives, could be effective.
What’s unclear is whether these outspoken Cabinet members will drive their own agendas, follow Trump’s marching orders, convert him to their way of thinking — or hear him say, “You’re fired!”