Trump's Cabinet Picks 'Take The Establishment And Shake It Upside Down'

Dec 13, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 9:32 pm

With the selection of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state and the expected nomination of Rick Perry for the Department of Energy, Donald Trump's Cabinet has largely taken shape in Trump's own image — a combination of millionaires, billionaires, outsiders and even a few politicians who oppose the work of the very agencies they've been tapped to lead.

"It's a reflection of what Donald Trump has been wanting to do, which is to take the establishment and shake it upside down," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant.

Bonjean pointed out that Trump is coming into office not like a traditional Republican president but with an approach all his own.

"It's as if these Cabinet secretaries are each moving into a house and completely demolishing it and turning it upside down and remodeling it the way they want to see it," he said.

And that's exactly what Trump voters were asking for — to take a wrecking ball to Washington and start over.

Energy "oops"

Looking at domestic policy, you could describe many of Trump's choices as an Anti-Cabinet. Take former Texas Gov. Rick Perry who, during a 2011 presidential debate, famously attempted to list three government agencies he'd do away with. He stuttered and paused and just couldn't think of the third, finally saying, "Oops."

That third agency Perry wanted to eliminate, the one he couldn't remember? It was the Department of Energy, the very department he'll head up, pending Senate confirmation.

A climate skeptic at EPA

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whom Trump has picked to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is a climate change skeptic, a promoter of the fossil-fuels industry and has described himself as "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda."

He has sued the agency repeatedly.

"What the Affordable Care Act was to health care, what Dodd-Frank was to the banking and finance system, the Clean Power Plan is to our power grid and energy in this country," Pruitt said at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in March 2016.

Pruitt argues that Congress needs to be more prescriptive when it comes to environmental goals and that the EPA shouldn't be in the business of writing regulations.

An Obamacare critic at HHS

Trump's choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, is an opponent of the Affordable Care Act. When it comes to Medicare, he favors creating a voucher system.

"The problem isn't that there isn't enough government involvement in health care," Price said in an interview on Fox Business. "The problem is that there's too much."

Undermining public education from the Education Department?

Trump's choice for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a staunch advocate for charter schools and school vouchers.

Teachers unions say that would undermine public schools.

A dim view of government social programs at HUD

And then there's Ben Carson, Trump's pick for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He's a renowned neurosurgeon with no experience in housing policy who has expressed a dim view of government social programs, many of which are administered through HUD.

"My stance is that we the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society," said Carson during a CNN town hall. "It's not the government's job."

Carson has described the war on poverty as an expensive failure.

A potential labor secretary whose company has been cited for overtime violations by ... the Labor Department

Andy Puzder, who runs the company that owns the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast-food chains, is on tap to lead the Labor Department, the very agency that cited Hardee's for overtime violations.

Puzder also opposes significant increases in the minimum wage and has advocated for automation to replace low-wage workers.

"Out of the ordinary"

"I have to say it's really quite shocking," said Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. She served on the Obama transition team in 2008.

It's not uncommon for there to be significant policy shifts when control of the White House changes parties. But Tanden said this goes well beyond that.

"You did not see that with previous Republican administrations," said Tanden. "Obviously there were some Cabinet members who were very, very conservative. But it's unusual to have picks who do not believe in the department itself and the mission of the department."

And there's another way Trump is breaking with tradition: government experience.

"So many of these people are so very inexperienced in terms of the Cabinet departments that they've been tapped to oversee," said Dave Cohen, a political science professor from the University of Akron, who studies the presidency and White House staffing.

There are wildly wealthy business executives like Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state and Linda McMahon as administrator of the Small Business Administration. They are all people with impressive resumes in business, but like many of Trump's choices, no experience in government or the agencies they hope to lead.

Cohen said Republicans and Democrats alike have typically chosen Cabinet secretaries from people who have served in the agencies they will lead or have other relevant government experience.

"I think it is very out of the ordinary," Cohen said. "You know what a president usually tries to do is to place people in the Cabinet that won't run into a lot of objection on Capitol Hill, and one way you do that is you appoint people that have a vast amount of experience."

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With the selection of ExxonMobil's Rex Tillerson for secretary of state and the expected nominations of Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke at Interior and Rick Perry for the Department of Energy, Donald Trump has largely formed his Cabinet. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, the president-elect's personnel choices give an indication of how he might govern.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Looking at domestic policy, you could describe many of Trump's choices as an anti-Cabinet. There's former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who during a 2012 debate said he wanted to eliminate three agencies. He famously couldn't remember one of them - the Department of Energy, the very department he's being tasked to lead.

For the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who's a climate change sceptic and has been a vocal critic of the EPA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT PRUITT: What the Affordable Care Act was to health care, what Dodd-Frank was to the banking and finance system, the Clean Power plan is to our power grid and energy in this country.

KEITH: Trump's choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Congressman Tom Price, is an opponent of the Affordable Care Act. When it comes to Medicare, he favors creating a voucher system. Here he is on Fox Business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM PRICE: The problem isn't that there isn't enough government involvement in health care. The problem is that there's too much.

KEITH: Trump's choice for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a staunch advocate for school vouchers. Teachers unions say that would undermine public schools.

And then there's Ben Carson, Trump's pick for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He's a renowned neurosurgeon with no experience in housing policy who's expressed a dim view of government social programs. Here's what he said during a CNN town hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN CARSON: My stance is that we the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society. It's not the government's job.

KEITH: And there's Andy Puzder, who runs the company that owns the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast food chains. He's on tap to lead the Labor Department, the very agency that cited Hardee's for overtime violations. He also opposes significant increases in the minimum wage and has advocated for automation to replace low-wage workers.

NEERA TANDEN: I have to say. It's really quite shocking.

KEITH: Neera Tanden is president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and served on the Obama transition team in 2008. She says it's not uncommon for there to be significant policy shifts when control of the White House changes parties, but she says this goes well beyond that.

TANDEN: You did not see that with previous Republican administrations. Obviously there were some Cabinet members who were very, very conservative. But it's unusual to have picks who do not believe in the department itself and the mission of the department.

KEITH: And there's another way Trump is breaking with tradition, says Dave Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies the presidency and White House staffing.

DAVE COHEN: So many of these people are so very inexperienced in terms of the Cabinet departments that they've been tapped to oversee.

KEITH: There are billionaires and millionaires, people with impressive resumes in business. But Cohen says Republicans and Democrats alike have typically chosen Cabinet secretaries from people who've served in the agencies they will lead or have other relevant government experience.

COHEN: I think it's very out of the ordinary. You know, what a president usually tries to do is to place people in the Cabinet that won't run into a lot of objection on Capitol Hill. And one way you do that is you appoint people that have a vast amount of experience.

KEITH: In a way, it's like Trump is constructing a Cabinet in his own image. Ron Bonjean is a Republican consultant.

RON BONJEAN: It's a reflection of what Donald Trump has been wanting to do, which is to take the establishment and shake it upside down.

KEITH: Bonjean says Trump is coming into office not like a traditional Republican president.

BONJEAN: It's as if these Cabinet secretaries are moving into - each moving into a house and completely demolishing it and turning it upside down and remodeling it the way they want to see it.

KEITH: And that, Bonjean says, is what Trump voters were asking for - to take a wrecking ball to Washington and start over. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.