With the exception of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, virtually every Cabinet secretary or Cabinet-level official in the Trump administration has had multiple missteps. Some have been repeat offenders on ethics rules, others “merely” incompetent. But just how bad are they? Could a case be made that President Trump assembled the worst Cabinet in modern American history? (Not having at my fingertips the definitive study of Chester Arthur’s Cabinet or Benjamin Harrison’s, I’ll stick to the past 50 years or so.)
“It is not even close! We have a contingent of corrupt kleptocrats, some sadists, a racist, utter ideologues, at least one utter incompetent, another who has made as his mission devastating our diplomatic corps,” says American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein. “Other administrations have had occasional embarrassments or individuals brought down by scandal. None in our lifetimes like this. Maybe Warren Harding would be a contender.” Let’s take a look.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate Judiciary Committee on his contacts with Russians during the campaign; got embroiled in the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and the preparation of a pretextual defense for his dismissal; led Republican senators to believe that he would not reverse President Barack Obama’s directive on non-enforcement of marijuana laws; reinstituted harsh civil-forfeiture rules (enraging libertarians and progressives alike); attacked a federal court (“on an island in the Pacific“); created a humanitarian and political disaster by insisting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was illegitimate and could be extended only through early March; falsely claimed we are in the middle of a crime wave caused by illegal immigrants; and repeatedly failed to defend his own employees at the Justice Department and the FBI from Trump’s malicious smears.
Tom Price was forced to resign from his post as secretary of health and human services after a scandal about his charter jet travel. Questions still remain about the travel of secretaries of interior, treasury and veterans affairs. VA Secretary David Shulkin seems to have lost it, accusing his staff of all manner of betrayal and posting a guard outside his office. Axios reported, “After the VA’s inspector general reported that Shulkin used taxpayer dollars to pay for his wife to go to Europe, the VA secretary has been telling anyone who will listen that Trump appointees in his agency are conspiring to undermine him. He started handling his own media relations because he doesn’t trust the agency’s communications staff.” (He does not, however, have a flag to designate his presence on site as does Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is also under fire for his rollout of an offshore drilling plan.)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos managed to alarm even the Trump White House with her jaw-dropping display of ignorance during a series of TV interviews. (White House advisers perhaps were not paying attention during her horrific performance at her confirmation hearing?)
Departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was poorly suited for the job, never was seen as speaking for the president and managed to fail at managing both up and down.
Next in the rogues’ gallery is Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. His office is plagued with its own ethics scandals, wasteful spending and fierce criticism over his effort to depart from HUD’s traditional mission in enforcing nondiscrimination in housing.
Over at the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross has advocated a mindnumbingly foolish protectionist policy that has been roundly criticized by most every reputable economist, business leaders and even GOP members of Congress. And he has had his own conflict-of-interest scandal.
Aside from his travels, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has become a poster boy, along with his wife, for clueless excess. His willingness to spin for the president’s tax plan at the expense of his department’s credibility undercuts his effectiveness on the Hill and has drawn searing criticism from economists. His advocacy for a weaker dollar brought international scorn,
When you drop down to other top administration appointees, the picture is equally gloomy. Office of Budget and Management Director Mick Mulvaney has been routinely ridiculed for his budget predictions and outlandish spin. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is a standout — combining climate-change denial, banishment of subject-matter experts, his objection to flying coach on “security grounds” (he later relented when “security” turned out to be the indignity of facing criticism from other passengers) and bizarre security concerns that prompted, among other things, construction of a soundproof booth. (Sorry, but I cannot get the “cone of silence” image out of my head.)
I am compelled to agree with former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont governor Howard Dean. “The Trump cabinet is mostly a collection of incompetent doofuses,” he remarked in the wake of DeVos’s TV train wreck.
A number of historians and political scientists agree that Trump’s Cabinet really is the worst they can recall. American University history professor (and accurate prognosticator of Trump’s win in 2016) Allan Lichtman tells me, “There is no question that this is the most unqualified and inexperienced cabinet in the modern history of the presidency. Several of the cabinet officials not only lack the most basic qualifications for their jobs, but are intent upon undermining the fundamental mission of their departments: DeVos at Education, Carson at HUD, and Zinke at Interior. You can also add in Pruitt at EPA.” He adds in, “More than any other group of cabinet officials the Trump appointees also are using the federal treasury as their personal expense accounts.” With the firing of Tillerson on Tuesday, Lichtman observes that the churn of Cabinet officials “is without precedent in recent presidential history.”
Andrew Rudalevige, a professor at Bowdoin College, is more restrained. “I’m afraid I’m enough of an academic to be wary of making blanket claims – after all, there are a range of characters and competencies in every Cabinet,” he says, citing scandals in the Truman, Reagan and Clinton administrations. However, he too agrees that “it is fair to say that the Trump Cabinet is overstocked with secretaries who are not helping the president govern – either because they have not been able to run their departments effectively or because their bad behavior has provided highly salient distractions.” He notes, “Cabinet members are supposed to be lightning rods for the president — but in this case they are conducting bad press into the White House.”
How did Trump wind up with such dregs? “President Trump has, from the start of the administration, had difficulty in finding staffers who are both responsive and competent – and wound up stressing responsiveness,” says Rudalevige. “On this it also matters that Trump did not – does not? – have clear policy positions. So loyalty to the president is to him, not to a policy agenda. This differs starkly from the situation in 1980, say, as President Reagan sought appointees.”
A less polite explanation would be that Trump chose people like him — rich, contemptuous of government and skeptical of expert opinion. The number of millionaires and billionaires in the Cabinet was not by accident. Trump values the opinions of rich people and generals and few others.
Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution tells me that the normal course is for a president to pick mid-level staffers from the most recent administration of his party. In this case, however, Trump was antagonistic toward President George W. Bush. In turn, many Bush staffers took themselves out of the running due to their moral and political objections to Trump.
One thing is clear: Success in business is not related to success in governing. As Kamarck points out, arguably the most successful Cabinet officials (e.g., Mattis, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao) came to government with years of public service and subject-matter expertise. (Even U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had governing experience in South Carolina, if not foreign policy expertise.)
In short, Trump’s measure of a person’s value is his bank account and his personal loyalty to Trump. That’s a ridiculous basis for picking a Cabinet. Accordingly, Trump does not deserve the deference usually shown toward executive-branch picks. The Senate should take its power of advice and consent a whole lot more seriously to put a halt to the parade of incompetent and ethically challenged appointees.