BBC News

Trump presidency: What his new team teaches us

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

Related Topics
  • US election 2016
image copyrightGetty Images

As Donald Trump's 20 January inauguration draws closer, the president-elect's administration is starting to take shape. What does it tell us about what we can expect from the Trump presidency?

Although the incoming president has to fill more than 4,000 executive branch jobs scattered across dozens of agencies, departments and bureaus, there are 21 top-level Cabinet positions that require Senate confirmation. So far the Trump transition team has announced nominees for 15 of the spots (a 16th, interior secretary, is reportedly going to Ryan Zinke of Montana).

First, the basics. Of those 16, 11 are white men. For the first time since 1993, none of the top four departments - state, defence, treasury or justice - will be headed by a woman or a member of an ethnic minority group.

Ben Carson, tapped for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the only African American. Elaine Chao (transportation) and Nikki Haley (UN ambassador) are the only Asians.

Six have previously held elective office, and one - Ms Chao - has prior experience running a federal agency. That marks a significant change from past presidential administrations, which were well stocked with more experienced political hands.

Mr Trump's Cabinet is a mix of rich businessmen, former military leaders and conservative true-believers. He may have campaigned as an anti-establishment outsider, but he's mostly surrounding himself with powerful, wealthy, influential men. While many may be outsiders to the game of elective politics, they're not exactly drawn from the ranks of the angry populist masses.

Here's a closer look at how it all shakes out.

Captains of industry

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRex Tillerson hopes to move from the ExxonMobil boardroom to White House Cabinet meetings

American voters elected a businessman with no political experience as their president, and he's filled many of his top administration jobs with businessmen who have no political experience.

Leading the way are Rex Tillerson, who has helmed the international energy conglomerate ExxonMobil since 2006, as secretary of state, and venture capitalist and former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin for Treasury.

Other notable picks include the so-called "king of bankruptcy", Wilbur Ross, for commerce and fast food mogul Andrew Puzder at Labor.

What we've learned: Mr Trump campaigned against a global elite that he said was stripping the working class of its wealth. By looking to Wall Street insiders and corporate chieftains for key administration spots, however, his post-election actions signal a decidedly different mentality.

Read more about:

Here come the generals

At one point during the campaign, Mr Trump quipped that he knew more about fighting the so-called Islamic State than many of the generals currently running US military operations. When it came time to fill out his national security apparatus, however, the president-elect has frequently turned to the military brass.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJames Mattis is a former general that Donald Trump likes

James Mattis (defence) and John Kelly (homeland security) are both retired generals, as is Michael Flynn, who Mr Trump has slated for national security adviser (a position that does not require Senate confirmation).

Taken individually, the picks are unremarkable - ex-military leaders sometimes wind up in the presidential administrations of both Democrats and Republicans. Colin Powell was George W Bush's secretary of state, and David Petraeus ran the Central Intelligence Agency under Barack Obama.

Together, however, Mr Trump's picks give his administration a decidedly martial bent. While he may have mocked Mr Obama's generals, Mr Trump, who attended military school as a youth, seems inclined to favour the spit and polish of military leadership.

The military is one of the few institutions still viewed favourably by the American public, and Mr Trump seems more than happy to march along with it.

What we've learned: Candidate Trump often espoused a less interventionist foreign policy on the campaign trail, but President-elect Trump's decision to surround himself with generals could indicate he will be quicker on the trigger.

Read more about:

The vanquished

Former presidential candidate Rick Perry once called Mr Trump a cancer on the Republican Party. Ben Carson, another primary opponent, questioned the business mogul's religious faith. Now Mr Trump has chosen both to head Cabinet departments in his administration.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDonald Trump has named Ben Carson to his presidential team

There's a certain amount of irony in Mr Perry's selection, given that he is slotted to head the Department of Energy, which he famously forgot the name of when listing Cabinet-level posts he'd cut during a 2008 Republican primary debate.

Although Mr Trump has only named two former adversaries to his administration, he's also rumoured to be considering former computer executive Carly Fiorina for an intelligence agency post. Then there's New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was reportedly offered several Cabinet-level positions after being passed over for attorney general.

He's a foe-turned-friend who now, it seems, has been forgotten.

What we've learned: Facing off against Mr Trump in the past isn't necessarily a deal-breaker for the president-elect, but a subsequent bent knee - offered both by Mr Carson and Mr Perry - is a key to bygones being bygones.

Read more about:

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTom Price, chair of the House Budget Committee, is a Washington power player

The insiders

According to a recent story in Politico, Mr Trump's transition team has been beset by conflicts between establishment party players, led by incoming chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, and the conservative outsiders who helped run the Trump campaign.

In a number of Cabinet positions, it appears the establishment landed the people they wanted. Tom Price, slated for Health and Human Services, is a member of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. Betsy DeVos, heading to education, is a long-time conservative activist and Republican Party donor. Elaine Chao served as labour secretary under President George W Bush and is married to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, considered a party rising star, is the nominee for US ambassador to the United Nations.

Given that Mr Trump is likely to be a hands-off president when it comes to the day-to-day management of his administration, department heads will wield considerable power over the next four years.

While the president-elect has said there are portions of Barack Obama's healthcare reform that he likes, for instance, chances are Mr Price will use his health secretary authority to strip the programme of much of its power. While he may sit down with former Vice-President Al Gore to talk climate change, his Environmental Protection Agency nominee, Scott Pruitt, is an outspoken critic - and legal opponent - of the agency he will head.

What we've learned: Mr Trump railed against the political establishment on the campaign trail, but some of his nominees are very comfortable in the Washington "swamp". The tension between the insiders and the outsiders in the Trump transition team is likely to continue well into his presidency.

Read more about:

The loyalists

The first Trump Cabinet nominee to be announced, Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, was also one of the first national politicians to endorse the New Yorker's presidential campaign.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAlabama Senator Jeff Sessions took a chance on Donald Trump - and was rewarded for it

Several high-profile Trump political donors and advisers also were handed top positions, including Mr Mnuchin, Mr Ross and Mr Puzder. Linda McMahon, who gave more than $7m to the Trump campaign and affiliated political groups, is his pick to head the Small Business Administration. (She is also the largest donor to the Trump family's charitable foundation.)

Another Trump donor, Todd Ricketts, has landed a deputy position in the Commerce Department.

Meanwhile, some early, outspoken Trump advocates were passed over for plum positions - including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. They emerged from the political graveyard to take an early gamble on Mr Trump, but they have yet to be rewarded for their efforts.

What we've learned: While fiery speeches and television appearances are nice, one of the quickest ways to Mr Trump's corridors of power appears to be with an open chequebook.

Read more about:

Related Topics

More on this story

  • Who will be on Trump's economic team?