Day by contentious day, President-elect Donald Trump is building a White House Cabinet and staffing a new government. But if his first round of choices are any indication, he’s going forward without a blueprint – relying on instincts and personal relationships over any grand design scheme or ideology.
Trump’s nominees range from a treasury secretary who spent nearly two decades at Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street giant Trump the candidate frequently ripped as a den of corruption and cronyism, to a potential defense department chief who opposes the use of torture tactics his would-be boss called for during the campaign. His choices to lead the EPA and Department of Education support policies that would render their own agencies toothless or see them eliminated.
During the campaign, Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” – or keep the familiar Washington, DC, insiders outside the halls of federal power. But wealthy, connected donors and bankers are grabbing up influential positions in the new administration. Rather than lobbyists, Trump has been seeking to hire their bosses.
Here is a rundown of the nominees, some for Cabinet positions and others for administrative jobs, and how they mix with Trump’s public policy pledges.
Secretary of State
Trump: If he’s not a fan, then Trump certainly has nicer things to say about the Russian government, and its strongman President Vladimir Putin, than most in politics and the US government.
“The man has very strong control over his country,” Trump said admiringly in September, and often muses on improving bilateral relations with Moscow. And if that didn’t complicate matters enough, there’s now bipartisan concern, based on secret assessments provided by the CIA, that Russia sought to aid Trump and damage Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
Rex Tillerson: After flirting with Putin critic Mitt Romney for weeks, Trump shifted his affections toward ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom he selected on Tuesday. Tillerson has done extensive business with the Kremlin and was awarded the the Order of Friendship by the Russian president in 2013.
That came two years after the oil executive and Putin negotiated a mega-billion dollar deal that would have opened up Russia’s arctic ice fields to joint exploration. But new US sanctions, imposed in response to Moscow’s meddling in Crimea and Ukraine, froze the project indefinitely.
Romney’s relationship with the Russians is less chummy. He was skewered for it at the time, but the 2012 GOP presidential nominee called Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
That Tillerson, who is expected to face a serious confirmation fight, and Romney were ever in the running for the same job is odd and suggests Trump’s foreign policy is either inchoate, inscrutable – or both.
Secretary of Energy
Trump: A questionnaire circulated by his transition team set off concerns the new administration would target staffers who opposed Trump’s climate skepticism.
The document requests the names of department employees and contractors who have attended outside climate change meetings and any writings derived from those gatherings.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry: Like Trump, Perry is wishy-washy on climate questions. He is a supporter of the fossil fuel industry and pledged during his brief 2016 campaign to revive construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, but during his time as governor also invested in renewable energy projects.
Perry is no fan of the department he would run. He campaigned in 2012 on a promise to shutter it, along with Commerce and Education, though during a now infamous debate stage gaffe, could not – Oops! – recall its name.
Secretary of Treasury
Trump: “I know the guys at Goldman Sachs. They have total, total control over (Ted Cruz). Just like they have total control over Hillary Clinton,” he said during the campaign,
And in an election eve ad, a video clip of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein rolls as Trump, in a voiceover, talks of defeating “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
Steve Mnuchin: A former partner at Goldman Sachs, he worked at the company for 17 years before briefly joining a hedge fund and then buying a subprime lending company which would be questioned by regulators over predatory foreclosure practices. He has also worked with the liberal billionaire George Soros, a bogeyman to many on the right, who see his fingerprints – often without or in opposition to any evidence – on every protest of policy push. Soros, like Blankfein, also had a cameo in that final campaign video.
Secretary of Defense
Trump: Repeatedly pledged to bring back torture during stump speeches, in which he described a stark but vague plan of action against ISIS.
In February, Trump said: “Torture works. OK, folks? You know, I have these guys – “Torture doesn’t work!” – believe me, it works. And waterboarding is your minor form. Some people say it’s not actually torture. Let’s assume it is. But they asked me the question: What do you think of waterboarding? Absolutely fine. But we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Trump has also spoken in wild, if detail-light terms, about fighting ISIS. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” he said at a campaign event. “I would bomb the s–t out of them.”
James Mattis: Despite courting controversy in 2005 when he told servicemembers “it’s fun to shoot some people,” the recently retired marine general has also spoken at length about the ISIS threat. In 2014, he delivered a nuanced analysis to Congress on the group’s growth and how they should be combated. He urged against ruling out “boots on the ground” but also said the Obama administration needed to be more specific about its goals.
As Trump himself said following a conversation with Mattis, the military man does not support torture techniques. “I met with him at length and I asked him that question,” the President-elect told the New York Times. “I said, ‘What do you think of waterboarding?’ He said – I was surprised – he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’”
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Trump: Says he wants to repeal Obamacare, but with a number of caveats.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” after the election, Trump said he wanted to keep provisions that guarantee coverage to people with pre-existing conditions – “It happens to be one of the strongest assets. It adds cost, but it’s very much something we’re gonna try and keep” – and allow parents to keep their children on their policies until the age of 26.
He also guaranteed that the law would be “repealed and replaced” with no gap between the two – not a “two day” or “two year period where there’s nothing.”
Tom Price: Also wants to repeal Obamacare, but has no interest in keeping any specific element or simply amending the original. Price, though, unlike many of his Republican House colleagues, has a thorough plan to replace it with a program that relies on tax credits for insurance seekers on the individual market and an emphasis on Health Savings Accounts. People with pre-existing conditions would likely be clustered in high-risk pools. The Price plan would also end the expanded Medicaid funding some states have accepted as part of Obamacare.
On balance, experts say his plan would be a boon for healthy and wealthy, but reduce aid to the elderly and those who are already sick or in need.
Secretary of Commerce
Trump: Pledged to bring jobs back to the manufacturing sector in part by renegotiating international trade deals like NAFTA. Trump also focused relentlessly on China’s market activities, including allegations that their government had artificially undervalued its currency – a way of boosting exports and cutting down on imports.
Wilbur Ross: The billionaire private equity firm man told CNN’s “Erin Burnett Outfront” that an effort to redraw NAFTA would be “a logical starting point” once he arrived on the job. And like Trump, he has been critical of China, saying that the country “is the world’s biggest exporter, but they’re also the people with one of the highest tariffs on imports in the whole world. That seems a little bit oxymoronic.”
Ross boosted his fortune in the early 2000s by buying up sinking steelmakers, creating the International Steel Group, then selling it off a couple years later for $4.5 billion. Of all Trump’s picks, Ross stands out as perhaps the most ideologically in-step choice.
Environmental Protection Agency
Trump: In a 2012 tweet, said that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and has expressed doubt over tmore recently about climate science. But he met with former Vice President Al Gore, this week and hedged his position in a post-election interview with the New York Times, saying, “I think there is some connectivity (between activity and climate change). Some, something. It depends on how much.”
Scott Pruitt: While Trump’s comments on the matter are open to interpretation, the Oklahoma attorney general’s are not. He is a prominent climate science denier and a frequent critic of the agency he will lead if confirmed. In a piece he co-authored for the National Review in May, Pruitt announced he would challenge Obama’s Clean Power Plan – proposed in tandem with the White House by the EPA – in court.
Though Pruitt cannot completely shutter the EPA or unilaterally cancel many of its regulations, he could accept diminished budgets and drastically diminish its influence.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Trump: Spoke during the campaign only in vague terms about the troubles of America’s “inner cities,” usually framing them as part of an appeal to African-Americans. “We will make your streets safe so when you walk down the street, you don’t get shot, which is happening now,” he said in August – an phrase he returned to in the first debate, when told viewers that “African-Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell.”
Ben Carson: The celebrated brain surgeon has no experience in government, a fact his business manager cited and attributed to Carson as his reasoning for not initially accepting an administration job. Carson has also never lived in public housing, despite being raised in poverty in Detroit.
In his limited public comments about HUD policy, he has been mostly critical of its activities. Carson disparaged 1970s busing programs meant to desegregate city schools as one of a series of “failed socialist experiments” in a Washington Times op-ed from July 2015. He also fretted that the Obama HUD’s use of the Fair Housing Act to tie federal funds to the construction of affordable housing in wealthier enclaves would “change the nature of some communities.”
Secretary of Labor
Trump: Has pivoted, twisted and reversed himself repeatedly on the question of raising the minimum wage. Trump said he supported raising the federal number to $10 but, in earlier interviews, suggested it should be a question for the states. At a GOP primary debate, he said that wages in the country are “too high” and he would not raise the floor.
Politifact rated Trump’s position as a “Full Flop.”
Andrew Puzder: The CEO of fast food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, Puzder is a stalwart opponent of the progressive push for greater regulation of the industry and the move to a $15 minimum wage.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed from March, he argued that “dramatic increases in labor costs have a significant effect on the restaurant industry, where profit margins are pennies on the dollar and labor makes up about a third of total expenses,” and said that ramped up expenses like a minimum wage hike would push corporations toward automation – and in so doing eliminate jobs entirely.
Secretary of Homeland Security
Trump: Used the campaign season to push alarmist rhetoric about the threat of Islamic extremism inside US borders, at times proposing a temporary ban on the immigration of the Muslims into the country and flirting with the creation of Muslim registry. Trump isn’t talking about a ban on Muslims traveling to the US *anymore*, but his transition team has expressed interest in a program similar to one enacted by the George W. Bush administration and met early on after the election with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped build the since disbanded NSEERS program (National Security Entry-Exit program).
NSEERS focused on countries, not individuals, and did not block immigration. But it added an extra layer of screening for people from almost exclusively Muslim-majority nations – or any the administration deemed high-risk.
John Kelly: Another retired Marine general, Kelly was the former head of the US Southern Command, which meant he administered the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Kelly opposed Obama’s efforts to close the camp, which Trump supports, telling the Military Times in an interview, “There are no innocent men down there.”
But unlike the President-elect, Kelly is more careful in his comments about the Muslim community. Speaking to NPR in December 2015, he described ISIS as being powered by a “corrupted Islamic view of life” and “truly not representative of Islam.”
“The vast majority of Muslims are wonderful people,” he added, “whether they live here in the United States or overseas.”
Secretary of Education
Trump: Has been difficult to read on the nitty-gritty of education policy, at points suggesting the department could be eliminated altogether. On his website, Trump promises to “immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice” – or private and charter schools.
He also says that Congress should pass reforms to assure colleges and universities are making “a good faith effort” to reduce the costs and student debt “in exchange for the federal tax breaks and tax dollars.”
Trump is an opponent of Common Core standards, which has called a “disaster” and pledge to discontinue.
Betsy DeVos: A billionaire Republican donor and school choice activist, DeVos has, unlike Trump, been a supporter of Common Core, one of the reasons her nomination raised eyebrows on the right as well as tempers on the left. Critics note that DeVos has sought to push voucher systems – funded with taxpayer bucks – that would funnel students to private schools, undermining and draining the lifeblood from public schools.
Secretary of Transportation
Trump: Made infrastructure spending a focus point during the campaign and will now seek to negotiate funding from a Republican-controlled Congress loathe to spend on public projects. During the campaign, Trump said he wanted $1 billion to rebuild American roads, bridges, airports, rail systems, hospitals and other critical infrastructure as a means of creating jobs now and boosting furture growth.
Elaine Chao: A former labor secretary in the George W. Bush administration, she is the daughter of a wealthy shipping family and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Chao has also worked as a banker in New York and San Francisco. In this role, she would likely be working in close quarters with McConnell as the White House tries to help maneuver legislation to fund Trump’s infrastructure spending ambitions.
Trump: Pledged as a candidate to bring back “law and order,” which in political speak usually translates to tougher policing and crackdowns on activists and protesters. It was a rallying cry during the 1960s, when former President Richard Nixon used the phrase as a coded nod to White southerners angered by the progress of the Civil Rights era.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions: A former US for the Southern District of Alabama and Alabama attorney general, Sessions’ appointment to the federal bench was blocked in 1986 after an African-American former colleague testified he had called him “boy” and expressed past sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan.
Sessions disputed the allegations, but his nomination was scuttled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which he now sits.
He has also spoken out against the Voting Rights Act, called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American,” accusing the groups of having “forced civil rights down the throats of people.”
Small Business Administration
Trump: Put forward a plan that would cut business tax rates across the board, reducing the rate to 15% for both major corporations and smaller firms.
Linda McMahon: The former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment helped turn a relatively small operation into a global goliath. In the process, though, the WWE has developed a reputation for its fierce efforts to preserve what is effectively a monopoly on pro wrestling by swatting down potential competitors – or small businesses.