When Donald Trump was elected president three weeks ago, many Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- openly fretted about whom he would pick to be in his Cabinet. Would he appoint only loyalists who affirmed his views? People with zero experience? People no one had ever heard of?
With the announcement Thursday of Gen. James Mattis as his pick for secretary of defense, Trump continues to demonstrate that those early worries were way off base. In fact, Trump's Cabinet choices -- and some of his potential choices -- reflect a political savviness that many people haven't been willing to grant the president-elect.
Let's break it down.
Trump has, without doubt, installed a handful of trusted allies in both senior staff roles and Cabinet positions. Choosing Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general is one obvious example. But, whether or not you agree with Sessions's views -- and Democrats don't -- he's not someone whose résumé suggests he couldn't do the job. He's been in the Senate since 1996 and before that was a U.S. attorney and was nominated for a federal judgeship by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. (Sessions's nomination was scuttled by the Senate due to racially-charged comments he had made in the past.)
Yes, in picking Michael Flynn for national security adviser and Stephen Bannon as his senior counselor, Trump has put controversial allies by his side. But, installing loyalists in a handful of key positions is nothing new. Every president does some form of this -- from Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Joe Allbaugh for George W. Bush to David Plouffe and David Axelrod for President Obama. That's not to say that Axelrod = Bannon. But it is to point out that all presidents surround themselves with a small group of people they trust implicitly.
In his choice of Mattis, Rep. Tom Price for health and human services and Elaine Chao for transportation, Trump has gone outside of his direct inner circle and chosen people who are, by almost any estimation, qualified for the jobs to which they have been nominated. No, they aren't the people Hillary Clinton would have picked if she had won the White House 24 days ago. But, when you win, you get to pick who you want, not someone the other party likes. And that trio is decidedly within the normal bounds of Republican politics. You could see a President Marco Rubio, for example, making any one of those three picks. Or a President Lindsey Graham.
General Mattis will provide great leadership to the Department of Defense and President-elect Trump will find his advice to be invaluable.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 2, 2016
Then there is the willingness Trump has shown to put former vocal rivals in key slots. The big name there is South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who is Trump's nominee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley endorsed Sen. Rubio and then Sen. Ted Cruz during the GOP presidential primaries and repeatedly spoke out against Trump and his comments about women. Cynics note that by naming Haley as U.N. ambassador, Trump elevates Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a longtime ally, to the governor's mansion. Sure! But, that's smart politics, too! Trump brings a former rival into a senior position in his administration and rewards a trusted loyalist. Win-win.
Speaking of smart politics, Trump is set to sit down with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota on Friday at Trump Tower. Heitkamp, on Thursday, put out a statement that left the door wide open to accepting a position in the Trump Administration -- possibly as agriculture secretary. If she took that job, it would be a major coup for Republicans, who would be nearly certain to pick up her Senate seat, which is up for reelection in conservative North Dakota in 2018. Heitkamp's sitdown with the president-elect comes as rumors that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a candidate for energy secretary. Manchin was non-committal about the possibility of taking such a job if offered, but if Trump could lure him away from the Senate that would be another almost certain Republican pickup in 2018 since Manchin is probably the only Democrat who could hold a seat in such a conservative state.
The one major Cabinet pick that is still outstanding is secretary of state and, depending on what Trump does, it will either bolster my theory that he deserves more credit than he's getting for his Cabinet picks, or it will take that theory down a few pegs. The four candidates are former general David Petraeus, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Picking Romney would be the most newsworthy and would affirm my theory of Trump's surprisingly savvy approach to Cabinet selection. Corker and, to a slightly lesser extent, Petraeus would also broadly confirm the idea that Trump isn't solely picking people he agrees with or are nice to him. A Giuliani pick, particularly given the mayor's total lack of foreign policy experience while in office, would undermine some of Trump's other Cabinet selections that have reached beyond his loyalists.
Still, viewed as of today with Hweitkamp and Manchin potentially in play and Mattis and Haley already picked, it's hard to say that the doomsday predictions for Trump's Cabinet have come true -- or anything close. What we've seen so far is a smart melange of close allies, well-respected establishment types and a few picks with helpful political repercussions for the party Trump now leads. Give credit where credit is due.