The picks are designed to move the gears of Washington, but come from a stable of DC power brokers
Chao and Price join earlier picks that drew from the Beltway
President-elect Donald Trump is turning to a reliable stable of Republican and business world power brokers to fill out his administration, signaling he’s looking to push his agenda using the political apparatus he famously pledged to dismantle.
Trump picked his top fundraiser and former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin to the Treasury Department, pulling from a Wall Street world he once criticized as having “total control” over his campaign opponents. Wilbur Ross, a billionaire businessman, will be his Commerce secretary. Tuesday’s announcements of Georgia Rep. Tom Price to run the Department of Health and Human Services and Elaine Chao to lead the Department of Transportation added two more Washington movers and shakers to the Trump Cabinet.
Trump pledged in his campaign to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but has also repeatedly said that he will look to people who understand the capital to help him govern. His selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a former congressman, as vice president and chairman of his transition and choosing long-time political powerbrokers like GOP fundraiser Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education is part of that pattern.
Grassroots supporters of Trump acknowledge fulfilling his legislative agenda requires Washington know-how.
“I think that what our people in Tea Party Patriots are seeing right now is that he’s pulling from people who are committed to the promises he made on the campaign trail, and as far as ‘draining the swamp’ actually goes, I think the first thing and biggest thing to making that happen is to keep that contract with the American voter and turn that into a legislative reality,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the grassroots conservative Tea Party Patriots group.
Democrats were happy to point out the irony of Trump nominating a Wall Street stalwart as his Treasury secretary.
“So much for draining the swamp. Nominating Steve Mnuchin to be Treasury Secretary – a billionaire hedge fund manager and Goldman Sachs alumnus who preyed on homeowners struggling during the recession – is a slap in the face to voters who hoped he would shake up Washington,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Adam Hodge in a statement. “Trump is already heading into office as the most corrupt, conflicted, and unpopular president-elect in history, and now he’s breaking his signature promise to the voters who elected him.”
When Trump’s transition team was stocked with lobbyists and former lobbyists, Pence took over as chairman and instituted a policy that anyone working on the transition would have to cut ties with lobbying in the policy arena they were working on for the administration. But that only extends so far. Trump’s Cabinet picks are stacked with insiders.
Price has been a fierce critic of Obamacare and will likely help lead the administration’s efforts to fulfill its promise to repeal and replace the signature health care law. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Price a “very close friend” in a radio interview Tuesday.
Chao was secretary of Labor during the George W. Bush administration. She’s also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a major force behind his political career.
A transition source says Chao was a no-brainer for the administration when she expressed interest, and having a proven leader at the Department of Transportation will be key as Trump pursues a massive infrastructure building plan.
Chao and Price join earlier picks that drew from Washington.
One of Trump’s first nominees was Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general, a longtime senator and a staunch anti-immigration, border hawk. As attorney general, Sessions would oversee the enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, as well as civil liberties moversight.
Trump tapped retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as national security adviser. While Flynn had a long record in the Department of Defense, he was also pushed out for his reportedly combative leadership style, and has often been at odds with mainstream defense thinking.
Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo has been named for the post of CIA director. Pompeo is a favorite of conservatives, and was a harsh critic of Hillary Clinton on the House Benghazi Committee. He has called for strengthening America’s surveillance apparatus, which was reformed after the revelations of Edward Snowden.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been named White House chief of staff – a key post in getting policy through Congress and coordinating the administration’s agenda. He’s a longtime friend of Ryan, and knows Republican officials well.
But even when Trump goes outside the Beltway, the names are familiar within the GOP.
Education secretary nominee DeVos is a Michigan-based school choice activist and major Republican donor. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is Trump’s nominee for the ambassador to the UN. Mnuchin and Ross both come from the world of investing and big money.
“There’s a balance here,” said Mike Shields, a CNN commentator and former GOP chief of staff who serves as president of the Congressional Leadership Fund. “This is a President-elect who is known for writing a book that is called ‘The Art of the Deal,’ and he is going to seek deals. And sometimes amongst conservatives, striking a deal can sound like a bad term.”
But, Shields added: “No matter who he brings in, he himself is such an outsider, he’s going to bring an outsider perspective to every decision he makes.”
Former Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who now works for lobbying and law firm DLA Piper, said Trump has picked people who can get things done – the most important thing to getting policy in place.
“I think what he’s done so far shows two things. Number one: He has picked people that know how the system works and are willing to make the commitment to him and his policies to make sure the trains run on time and the train stays on the track, and I think that’s very important, particularly for someone who ran as an outsider,” Chambliss said. “Secondly, I think most importantly, he’s picking talent.”
Many picks are still to come, experts point out, and could further indicate Trump’s thinking. His national security team is still only partially installed, with the State Department and Department of Defense still in flux. Haley, Pompeo and Flynn all have different shades of conservativism, and whether Trump fosters a diverse group on national security or tries to make more of a coherent thread remains to be seen.
Democratic strategist and Obama administration alum David Axelrod, who is also a CNN commentator, said there’s no way to staff an administration without people who have DC experience.
“The fact of the matter is he had no cadre of experienced advisers, so it was axiomatic that he was going to draw on some familiar Washington names,” Axelrod said. “The fact that Mike Pence is leading the transition makes that more true, because he is a creature of Washington in many ways.”
This story has been updated.