snl walter white trump cabinet bryan cranston_00002609.jpg
snl walter white trump cabinet bryan cranston_00002609.jpg
Now playing
01:11
'SNL' mocks Trump cabinet picks
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Now playing
01:08
Video shows child getting caught under Peloton treadmill
CNN
Now playing
02:56
Watch Anderson Cooper belly laugh with Cheri Oteri
Brooke Baldwin last show goodbye CNN newsroom vpx_00000217.png
CNN
Brooke Baldwin last show goodbye CNN newsroom vpx_00000217.png
Now playing
03:56
'Get a little uncomfortable': See Brooke Baldwin's last words on air
Now playing
05:18
Anderson Cooper explains how he overcomes being shy
US Navy
Now playing
01:28
Pentagon confirms UFO video is real, taken by Navy pilot
Now playing
02:35
WWII veteran: End of the war was 'the biggest thrill of my life'
Now playing
01:24
How Kyra Sedgwick got the cops called on Tom Cruise
Fancy Feast/Purina
Now playing
01:06
Cat food company makes a cookbook ... for humans
Google Earth's new timelapse feature
Google
Google Earth's new timelapse feature
Now playing
01:09
Google Earth's new Timelapse feature shows 40 years of climate change in just seconds
Twitter | @brady9dream
Now playing
02:10
Pet owners pitch their pups to be dog brew's 'Chief Tasting Officer'
FOX/"The Masked Singer"
Now playing
01:23
'The Masked Singer' reveals identity of The Orca
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07:  A visual representation of the digital Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin on December 07, 2017 in London, England. Cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Lightcoin have seen unprecedented growth in 2017, despite remaining extremely volatile. While digital currencies across the board have divided opinion between financial institutions, and now have a market cap of around 175 Billion USD, the crypto sector coninues to grow, as it continues to see wider mainstreem adoption. The price of one Bitcoin passed 15,000 USD across many exchanges today taking it higher than previous all time highs.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07: A visual representation of the digital Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin on December 07, 2017 in London, England. Cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Lightcoin have seen unprecedented growth in 2017, despite remaining extremely volatile. While digital currencies across the board have divided opinion between financial institutions, and now have a market cap of around 175 Billion USD, the crypto sector coninues to grow, as it continues to see wider mainstreem adoption. The price of one Bitcoin passed 15,000 USD across many exchanges today taking it higher than previous all time highs. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:10
Bitcoin has an energy problem
The new all-electric Mercedes-EQS
Mercedes-Benz AG
The new all-electric Mercedes-EQS
Now playing
01:05
See the new all-electric EQS luxury sedan from Mercedes
Now playing
01:32
Scientists turned spiderwebs into music and it sounds like a nightmare
This image was taken during the first drive of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars on March 4, 2021. The team has spent the weeks since landing checking out the rover to prepare for surface operations.
JPL-Caltech/NASA
This image was taken during the first drive of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars on March 4, 2021. The team has spent the weeks since landing checking out the rover to prepare for surface operations.
Now playing
02:17
NASA releases stunning new images from Mars

Story highlights

Meg Jacobs says Donald Trump didn't invent the idea of putting government foes in charge of agencies whose mission they oppose

Ronald Reagan did it extensively -- with mixed results, she writes

Editor’s Note: Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, “Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s” (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book’s research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.

(CNN) —  

In the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump focused more on politics than policy, but his few policy speeches suggested the direction he would go in if he won the White House. In May, from North Dakota, Trump delivered a major energy speech. If you listened to the whole thing, you would not only have heard that wind turbines are a big environmental hazard because they kill millions of birds, but you would have also fully anticipated that he would pick someone like Scott Pruitt, a committed opponent of the agency, as its head.

Meg Jacobs
Courtesy Meg Jacobs
Meg Jacobs

At that press conference, Trump denounced the Environmental Protection Agency’s “totalitarian tactics” and promised to slash its “onslaught of regulations.” Standing by his side was Harold Hamm, an oil and gas billionaire who supported Pruitt in his campaign for Oklahoma’s attorney general and for this Cabinet post.

Trump said American fossil fuel would make America great again. Now, with his plans to scrap clean power, build pipelines and cancel the Paris accord, and with the help of someone like Pruitt, he will put that to the test.

Pruitt epitomizes a more general trend evident in Trump’s picks: the choice to name people who are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run.

That is clear in nominees such as Tom Price, the Georgia congressman who has fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to head of Health and Human Services; or Betsy DeVos, a committed proponent of defunding public education, as education secretary; or Andrew Puzder, fast-food chain magnate and opponent of raising minimum wages, to lead the Labor Department.

All have established records of fighting to gut regulations and have stated publicly their intentions to thwart what they see as the dangerous and damaging regulatory zeal of their respective agencies. Ben Carson, who has no experience with housing, will bring his conservative anti-welfare ideology to his position as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Saturday Night Live parodied Trump’s choices with a skit showing him picking Walter White, the meth-producing high school teacher of “Breaking Bad,” as the head of the DEA.)

This strategy of selecting appointees who have a fundamental hostility to the mission of the agency they will now head is not new.

The practice goes back to Ronald Reagan, who famously declared in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” On the campaign trail, Reagan had promised to eliminate the departments of education and energy. Once in office, he settled for appointments that would undermine these offices from within, a tactic he used for all his selections.

Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stalled on resolving class-action lawsuits charging racial discrimination in hiring. Attorney General Edwin Meese dropped the pursuit of voting rights violations and instead sought to undo what conservatives saw as the “reverse discrimination” of affirmative action laws.

Reagan named committed deregulators to head the FCC, FTC, and OSHA. While in office, the assistant secretary of HUD, Emanuel Savas, wrote a book called, “Privatizing the Public Sector: How to Shrink Government.” And William Bennett, as education secretary, pushed for a diminished federal role in education. James Edwards, the energy secretary who was the former governor of South Carolina and before that a dentist, promised to “work myself out of a job.”

And then there was the dynamic duo of James Watt as interior secretary and Anne Gorsuch as head of the EPA. Known for wearing fur coats, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and driving a gas-guzzler, Gorsuch promised to slash EPA regulations. She made clear what rules her staff should not enforce.

Watt did the same thing. A darling of the New Right, Watt tried to ban the July 4 performance of the Beach Boys on the National Mall. In regard to the nation’s resources, Watt said it would be open season. Known as the “unenforcer,” he proudly appeared on the Phil Donahue show boasting of his deregulatory success.

All these appointments were backstopped by the budget cuts of OMB’s David Stockman, which led to cuts of money and personnel at the agencies. HUD’s budget shrank by more than half, while EPA lost more than a quarter of its funds and nearly half its staff.

Trump looks like he is taking his cues straight from Reagan’s playbook. And even then some. The president-elect’s appointments are not simply an effort to reward supporters. A master of the media, Trump has managed to make the process riveting to a more general audience, extending the drama and bravado of his campaign.

His transition has been like the equivalent of “Celebrity Apprentice,” with the drama, humiliation and suspense of a season finale. The more outspoken the potential appointments are, the better.

But if Trump is taking his inspiration from Reagan, he should read ahead to the next chapter. In Reagan’s time, this kind of overt hostility led to a countermobilization. Environmental organizations saw their membership numbers skyrocket, these groups filed lawsuits to force compliance, they chased Watt and Gorsuch from office, forcing them to resign amid scandal, and they made their presence known in the following elections.

By the end of Reagan’s time in office, congressional liberals had restored much of EPA’s budget.

Get our free weekly newsletter

Maybe Trump already knows this history. So he is also likely to draw on the lesson from Bush II that what matters is not so much the person at the top but those behind-the-scenes second and third-tier appointments. Bush chose the moderate Christie Todd Whitman to head EPA, but the key person was Jeffrey Holmstead, an energy industry lobbyist who successfully weakened key pollution regulations and could play an off camera role in doing the same under Trump. These staffers know the rules – and they know how to undo them.

With his appointments, Trump is taking the government and policy in a decidedly rightward direction. If he cannot eliminate the Clean Air Act, for example, then he will look to Pruitt to dismantle it from within. By design, these kinds of appointments also undermine the legitimacy of government, using their positions as bully pulpits to further attack the credibility of government action.

It is possible that Trump will go too far. And it is likely that his appointments and their policies will face real pushback. Already, liberal organizations are seeing a rise in their fundraising and membership. But for now, in the battle to roll back government, Trump is the dismantler-in-chief and these are his generals.