All the big-name news sources are talking back-and-forth this week about Trump’s cabinet picks as he prepares to take office in a little more than ten days.
In what has become typical Trump fashion, he has done completely away with the customary practices of all his Presidential predecessors and waited until the absolute last minute to get his nominees for the top posts confirmed by the Senate.
Yet, even as writers and reporters from the majorly credible publications and broadcasts across the country acknowledge that Trump’s cabinet nominees themselves and the timetable for their confirmations are “controversial,” they are starting to take on this tone in their observations that is resigned to the chaos of the President-elect’s nascent leadership.
It’s a big deal, though, that he has chosen the people he has chosen to do the jobs that they will ostensibly do. A President’s cabinet plats a crucial role in his administration.
This is what I learned from my research over the last couple of days.
The cabinet is a Constitutionally established body of officials that advise the President about any subject that relates to the duties of their specific office.
They are the heads of 15 different executive departments–the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs–plus the Attorney General and Vice President.
According to the Brookington Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, DC, “Presidents fill their cabinets with experienced leaders from around the country. These leaders must have some combination of executive experience, policy expertise, partisan credentials, or personal loyalty to the president. They symbolize presidential priorities, represent demographic groups and marshal the support of the clientele of the department they will be leading.”
In 2009, Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu described the importance of the Cabinet on the White House blog, saying, “Every day, the President calls on the Cabinet . . . He . . . values their work in running the federal departments and agencies, ensuring that the government always works on behalf of the American people.”
This is why Cabinet secretaries–along with the Attorney General, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador to the UN, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Administrator of the Small Business Administration–must be confirmed by the Senate.
Nominees for these Cabinet-level positions must be fully vetted, which means they must disclose all financial documents to whichever Senate committee conducts their confirmation hearing so the members of that committee can determine whether they have conflicts of interest that could unduly influence the way they advise the President.
According to ABC News, the confirmation process for Cabinet secretaries goes like this: Nominations, generally made by the President and/or his transition staff, are given to the relevant Senate committee; that committee opts to either hold a confirmation hearing, move the nomination straight to the Senate for a vote, or not do anything with the nomination, which “kills” it; if the committee holds a hearing, they may either vote whether to report the nomination favorably, unfavorably, or without any recommendation or “sit” on the nomination, which seems like another way to “kill” it; nominations that clear a committee–one way or the other–are moved to the Senate floor where a simple majority vote is held; if the nominees winds the majority vote, he or she becomes a member of the Cabinet.
Since the nominees must get voted in by the Senate, this process of getting his first-round nominees confirmed may not go as smoothly for Trump as he may want because the Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate.
Take the Attorney General confirmation. There are 100 seats (two senators for each state); the Republicans have 51 seats; but Jeff Sessions–the Republican Senator from Alabama–is the nominee for Attorney General and may not vote for himself as a show of good faith.
Too, Republicans that take issue with Trump’s nominees can and may “defect” and vote against them, and it would only take one or two of these kinds of votes to block a nominee. In 228 years, according to The Business Insider, nine Cabinet nominations have been outright rejected by the Senate, and eleven have either been withdrawn or the Senate has refused to act on them.
The other potentially “sticky” issue surrounding the confirmation of Trump’s nominees, according to a really interesting and informative article by NPR, is the fact they may not all have the same political philosophies or ideas for their leadership that he does.
In fact, Jessica Taylor for NPR, says, ” . . . [S]ome of the president-elect’s top would-be advisers revealed [during their hearings] . . . major policy breaks with the future president on issues Trump championed and views he expressed on the campaign trail — from Russian hacking, torture, a Muslim ban and registry, mosque surveillance, NATO, the Iran nuclear deal [to] infrastructure, deportations and that border wall.”
If these nominees are confirmed, it could mean that Trump will experience a lot of friction as he attempts to move forward on those more grandiose promises he made to his electorate.
The potential, though, for conflict between Trump and the members of his Cabinet can be construed as a positive for those of us that distrust Trump and are worried that he will be wielding his Presidential power essentially unchecked for the next four years (based on how readily he has broken with dozens of behavioral standards, customs, and norms throughout his campaign and transition into the White House and how willingly and easily the media, his supporters, and Congress have let him off the seeming hook), as long as that conflict stems from the members of his Cabinet pushing Trump to make smarter, more beneficial decisions.
Taylor says basically the same thing: “[The breaks in thinking between Trump and his cabinet nominees demonstrate] the potential constraints the president-elect could run into if he seeks to implement some of the more provocative aspects of what he campaigned on.” But she also acknowledges, “[A] lack of cohesion [at the Presidential level of government] could lead to . . . potential difficulty . . .”
Again, the Brookings Institute gives some insight into how differences in philosophy, belief, and opinion between the President and his Cabinet can be not just prophylactic but problematic.
In writing the institute, James Pfiffner locates the potential for “difficulty,” as Taylor terms it, very specifically in the relationship between Cabinet members and the White House Staff:
[B]y the late 20th century, major policy functions that used to be performed outside the White House were now integrated into the White House [it reads] . . . Additionally, political functions that had previously been performed by the political parties and in Congress were now located in the White House . . . [Yet] cabinet secretaries understandably resent “interference” from White House staffers . . . Once in office, cabinet secretaries are seen as advocates for their policy domain, champions for the workers in their departments, and aggressive seekers of budget resources . . . [Their] duties and inclinations often put them on a collision course with White House staffers, who are trying to rein them in and harness them to presidential priorities.
In “Cabinet secretaries versus the White House staff,” Pfiffner illustates this principle using an example from the Obama administration:
[W]hen President Obama came to office, he initially intended to delegate legal policy on detainees at Guantanamo to his attorney general and friend, Eric Holder. Holder accepted the position with the understanding that he would make legal decisions independently of the White House, though of course the president would have the final say. In delegating some of the key legal decisions regarding detainee policy to Attorney General Holder, President Obama wanted to be seen as not letting politics interfere with legal principles. Obama told Holder to make legal decisions on the merits of the law rather than on political grounds.
Exercising his delegated authority, Holder decided to try some 9/11 terrorist suspects in criminal court rather than by military tribunals, and he chose New York City as the venue. The decision caused a political uproar, with congressional leaders threatening legislation to mandate military commissions at Guantanamo and not in the continental United States. Holder’s decisions reinforced White House staffers’ suspicion that he was not sufficiently sensitive to the president’s political interests. Ultimately, the White House staff, particularly chief of staff [Rahm] Emanuel, convinced Obama that the political repercussions of Holder’s decisions were more important than Holder’s legal judgments and his independence from the White House.
Because of the White House’s desire to maintain a certain image of political expediency, with the thought it would help get Obama re-elected in 2012, it urged Obama to undermine Holder’s authority during his first term, making it “difficult”–again–for Holder to keep the promises he made when he became Attorney General.
Holder promised the American people he would “end the policy of indefinite detention at Guantanamo by prosecuting some of its most notorious detainees; to investigate torture by the CIA; and to revitalize the department’s most neglected offices, like the long-suffering Civil Rights Division.” Although his agenda fell under the auspices of President Obama’s own agenda–to make the Department of Justice more of an independent agent, exercising first and foremost by the “rule of law”–when Holder’s actions conflicted with Obama’s efforts to make popular (read: right-leaning) decisions about unpopular issues like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Holder found himself struggling back and forth with the White House to do what he deemed as Constitutional.
The Obama-Holder situation illustrates what Pfiffner identifies as the “challenge” a President faces, when working with his Cabinet, “to maintain a healthy balance between too much centralization (executive decisions being made primarily by the White House) and the opposite problem of lack of coordination of policy making and implementation in [outside] departments and agencies.”
Trump is a very different man than Barack Obama. He comes from the world of business, but he has the sensibilities of an entertainer, and he is odd combination of a One Percent insider and Washington outsider. Still, he doesn’t seem any more willing to be led by his Cabinet than Obama was.
In fact, it will be fascinating–and very probably disturbing–to see how Trump–who has been labeled everything from “sociopathic” to “remarkably narcissistic” to superlatively “opportunistic“–and the members of his Cabinet will operate–jointly and separately.
Trump–for all his delusional Twitter claims–has an extensively documented track record of “playing” poorly with others, even just from his last few weeks in Washington.
But so, too, do many of his Cabinet nominees.