Team of Tycoons

by John Lawrence

The selection of an incoming president’s Cabinet often provides valuable insights into the direction of the new Administration on key policy matters. Lincoln had his “Team of Rivals”; Trump offers up his “Team of Tycoons”.

Early in the 2016 campaign, many questioned the sincerity of Trump’s full-throated embrace of conservatism. But Trump has left little room to question his current thinking, as illustrated by his embrace of some of the most extreme and dubiously qualified purveyors of hard-Right ideology.

There is nothing new about appointing friends, cronies, contributors and even relatives to positions for which they are dubiously qualified. John Kennedy once joked that he saw nothing wrong with appointing his 35-year old brother and campaign manager, Bobby, as Attorney General so he might gain some legal experience before beginning private sector practice. Historically, the need to give grandiose and undeserved titles to inexperienced political amateurs is why we had offices like Postmaster General or Ambassador to France.

Trump’s appointments add new and deeply troubling complications to the assembling of a management team for the Executive Branch. For someone without a voter mandate justifying so extreme a reversal in policy – he currently trails in the popular vote by 2.6 million, by far the largest deficit in history – Trump has selected uniformly extreme conservatives for his Cabinet. By contrast, Barack Obama, who won a healthy majority of the vote, bewildered Democratic congressional leaders by embracing bipartisan governance, an objective he soon discovered was not shared by the vanquished Republicans.

Trump’s appointments are not only disturbing because of the ideological rigidity, but also because of the designees’ appalling absence of governmental backgrounds. The common denominator of these appointments, beyond ideology, seems to be public sector inexperience, private sector executive skills, and vast amounts of personal wealth – none of which necessarily bear any relationship to the skills needed to implement complex policies or supervise and motivate intricate bureaucracies. Of course, neither the nominees nor Trump has demonstrated much interest in those responsibilities: the goals, instead, seem to be to vitiate most federal policies over which the agencies have jurisdiction and to ignore the deep experience of those with decades of experience in managing the agencies. It will doubtless come as a shock to these corporate leaders when bureaucrats refuse to roll over at the first contrarian command, as did reliable private sector underlings.

Trump’s appointments leave little doubt about his contempt for the very offices to which they are being proposed:

  • an Ambassador to the United Nations with no experience in foreign affairs or national security;
  • a Labor Secretary from the notoriously anti-union, low-paying fast food industry (his own company had a 60% labor violations rate) who opposes the most basic legal protections for employees and unions;
  • an Education Secretary with strong ties to religious education who embraces diverting taxpayer money to non-public schools with dubious records of academic achievement;
  • a Commerce Secretary whose background at Rothschild’s included representing Trump’s failed Taj Mahal casino and buying up bankrupt companies to flip them for a quick profit;
  • a Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs with a long history as a hedge fund manager, and for good measure, selection of the president of Goldman Sachs to run the National Economic Council;
  • an Attorney General once rejected for a federal judgeship because of his record on civil rights and who, as a senator, opposed passage of a domestic violence law because it extended protections to LGBT Americans;
  • a Housing Secretary with no experience on housing affordability or availability who admitted his unsuitability for running a federal department;
  • an EPA Administrator who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and has a long history of suing the agency he would lead;
  • an Energy Secretary who is an unequivocal apologist for the oil and gas industry to head a department he once promised to eliminate (of course, the nominee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also famously forgot that he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, but then again, he also once named Juarez, Mexico as “the most dangerous city” in the United States.).

Few appointments could be more disturbing than naming the president of Exxon-Mobil as Secretary of State. Rex Tillerson will be the most inexperienced person to serve as America’s chief diplomat – by a long shot. His international experience is reflected in longstanding business relationships that earned him the Russian Order of Friendship in 2012 for sealing a $500 billion deal. Tillerson’s baggage includes decades of world-wide conflicts of interest that no one could purge from their thinking once entering public service.

Tillerson, along with many of the other plutocrats preparing to join the Trump Administration, will face questions from skeptical senators eager to expose their long records of hostility to what will soon become their public responsibilities. They also will have to reveal their intricate and extensive financial interests that may compromise their ability to act in ways that serve the public rather than their private interests. And they will face inquiries into their lack of experience in managing a large public agency with mandates to implement laws which they have long histories of opposing or flaunting.

One person in the Administration will avert such scrutiny, at least until 2020: the President-elect himself, who has yet to describe how he intends to divest himself of his own massive conflicts of interests, or to release his own tax records that may clarify the extent of his own involvement with foreign countries and foreign business leaders. Just five weeks from Inauguration Day, it is difficult to know what is more unsettling about the Trump Administration: what we already know about the special interest records of his Team of Tycoons, or what we do not.