Any time a new administration comes into office, there will be some complaining about the new president's cabinet picks. But we're seeing something extraordinary happening now. Donald Trump's cabinet brings with it a combination of ethical problems, inexperience, hostility to the missions of the departments its members are being called to lead, and plain old ignorance that is simply unprecedented.
This is shaping up to be nothing less than the worst cabinet in American history.
As just one colorful example, let's look at this report in today's New York Times about Rick Perry, who will be Secretary of Energy. The change from the leadership under Barack Obama is already striking: the current secretary, Ernest Moniz, is a respected nuclear physicist who also came to the job with significant experience managing scientific institutions, and he'll be succeeded by someone who advocated eliminating the department, although in his defense Perry couldn't quite remember that it was the one he wanted to get rid of (that famous "Oops" moment). But it's even worse than that:
When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.
In the days after, Mr. Perry, the former Texas governor, discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States' nuclear arsenal.
So Perry advocated dismantling the Department of Energy as a candidate in 2012 despite having no idea what the department actually does. But don't worry — he has recently become aware that his job will not in fact consist of traveling around the world telling people how great oil is. "After being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy," Perry now says, "I regret recommending its elimination." Good to know.
That's just the beginning. Let's run through some of the other highlights of the Trump cabinet and cabinet-level appointees:
Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury: Mnuchin has never served in government and has no experience in setting macroeconomic policy, but he did lead Donald Trump’s fundraising effort. In advance of his confirmation hearing, Mnuchin “failed to disclose his interests in a Cayman Islands corporation as well as more than $100 million in personal assets.”
Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services: Rep. Price, a doctor who has taken a particular interest in legislating on health care, has a habit of trading in health care stocks that are affected by the legislation he writes; he also recently got a “sweetheart deal” on stock in a foreign biotech firm.
Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education: DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor, has spent much of her adult life attempting to destroy public education in America. Despite that work, at her confirmation hearing she displayed a shocking ignorance of basic issues in education policy, though she did opine that schools should be able to have guns in them to ward off grizzly bear attacks.
Andrew Puzder, Secretary of Labor: If Trump had searched America to find the individual most hostile to the rights of workers, he could not have done much better than Puzder, the CEO of a fast-food company. The man who will be responsible for safeguarding workers’ rights is an ardent opponent of minimum wage increases and laws mandating things like break time and overtime pay; his company has been repeatedly cited for wage theft.
Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: The former presidential candidate, who has precisely zero experience in housing policy, was apparently appointed to lead this department because he’s one of the few African-Americans Donald Trump has met.
Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget: Mulvaney was just revealed to have employed a nanny without paying payroll taxes for her, to the tune of over $15,000.
Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce: The billionaire investor just realized that one of the dozen or so household staff he employs was undocumented.
Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior: Rep. Zinke is a former Navy Seal whose career was hampered by the fact that he was caught repeatedly billing the government for personal trips home which he falsely claimed were for the purpose of scouting training locations.
Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: Like Puzder and DeVos, Pruitt seems to have been chosen for his fervent opposition to the mission of the agency he’ll be leading. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA multiple times over its efforts to enforce environmental laws. In his confirmation hearings, he refused to commit to recuse himself from the cases among those that are still open, in the apparent belief that there isn’t anything wrong with essentially being both plaintiff and defendant in a lawsuit. When asked about lead poisoning, a vital and longstanding environmental issue that gained new urgency with the poisoning of the water in Flint, MI, he said that he had “not looked at the scientific research on that.”
Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser: Flynn, an ardent Islamophobe and purveyor of lunatic conspiracy theories, was fired from his last job in government because of mismanagement.
Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State: Tillerson has no government or diplomatic experience, though he has been to many countries that have oil.
Nikki Haley, United Nations Ambassador: Haley’s foreign policy experience consists of going on a couple of trade missions as governor of South Carolina.
That's not to mention the sub-cabinet appointments who are already in trouble, like the Army secretary who punched out a concession worker at a horse auction or the national security spokesperson revealed as a plagiarist, nor the fact that Trump's senior adviser used to run a white nationalist web site and the President-elect intends to employ his family members, all while insisting again and again that ethics laws don't apply to him.
While prior presidents have had some miserable appointments — James Watt and Anne Gorsuch in the Reagan administration, Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown and Alberto Gonzales in George W. Bush's — never before has one president assembled such a remarkable collection of individuals who are either unqualified for their jobs, devoted to subverting their agencies, or both, not to mention the ethical questions that will continue to swirl around this administration.
We expect the Republican contempt for government to be evident to some degree in the appointments of any GOP administration. But Donald Trump has truly blazed a new trail with the people he has gathered around him. One can only imagine the damage they're going to do.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.
You obviously love great journalism.
With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.