President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency has gone to court to stop its enforcement efforts.
His pick for secretary of education has been accused of trying to undermine traditional public schools, while his choice for Housing and Urban Development has questioned the need for the kind of safety-net programs the department administers.
And Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services has been bent on dismantling some of the agency’s signature health insurance initiatives.
Presidential transitions, particularly those from one political party to another, often usher in significant changes. But even for an incoming Republican administration, Trump’s personnel choices are striking for what they suggest about how fundamentally he wants to alter the aims of many Cabinet departments — in most cases moving in a sharply conservative direction.
“The fact is many of these folks are at odds with the stated mission of the agencies they have been tapped to run,” said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), adding that “clearly elections have consequences.”
The news on Thursday that Trump had picked fast-food executive Andrew Puzder as his labor secretary only added fodder for critics of the president-elect’s choices. Puzder, who runs CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., is opposed to significantly raising the federal minimum wage and making more workers eligible for overtime pay, objectives the Obama administration has championed.
Installing Cabinet heads with agendas at odds with their predecessors is in many ways “common practice,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “But it’s stronger than usual here. Trump is not a doctrinaire conservative, but he seems desirous of putting his own stamp on government. This is an effort to rebrand and steer the agencies in a new direction.”
Conservatives — some of whom spent the election season suspicious of Trump’s true policy aims — have cheered most of his choices, arguing they will help rein in overreaching agencies in Washington. Liberal critics, meanwhile, are sounding alarms, sometimes in hyperbolic terms.
After Trump announced Wednesday that he would nominate Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, as his EPA administrator, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said that was like “putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.”
Pruitt, who hails from an oil-and-gas state, has used his current post to sue the EPA over its Clean Power Plan, the principal Obama-era policy aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
When Trump named Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and conservative activist, as his education secretary, the resistance from some quarters was also strong.
Citing DeVos’s advocacy of voucher programs that divert money from traditional public schools, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Trump made it clear he wants to “focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”
On Thursday, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) said Trump’s choice of Puzder at the Labor Department threatened “one of our nation’s most successful federal agencies” that has ensured “every American who works hard and plays by the rules can enjoy dignified work and economic opportunity.”
Citing Puzder’s business practices, DeLauro said that if he is confirmed, “the fox is in the henhouse.”
LIberal groups and lawmakers have also been critical of Trump’s choice of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, questioning, among other things, whether someone they say has a record of trying to restrict voting rights should preside over the agency that seeks to protect them.
To address such criticism, Sessions boosters are preparing to argue that he has worked with Democrats during his Senate career on a range of issues, including voting rights.
Trump’s reach to the right for Cabinet picks has surprised some observers, who confessed they didn’t know what to expect from a former Democrat whose policy positions during the campaign were not always firmly rooted in ideology.
“With him, who knew what he believed on Monday, when he was apt to say something different on Tuesday?” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, said he thinks the nature of this election, in which voters clearly wanted “change,” has given Trump more latitude to make the appointments he wants.
“What I’m seeing is a blunt confidence in what he wants to do,” Fleischer said.
He argued that Bush’s election in 2000 and President Obama’s in 2008 came at a time when voters were more generally satisfied with politicians and not demanding wholesale changes. As a result, the picks for both administrations represented a less-marked departure than those of Trump, he said.
“If he made status-quo-type appointments, he’d be criticized by the people who elected him,” Fleischer said.
Marc Rotterman, a veteran North Carolina-based GOP consultant who supported Trump, is among those who say they have been heartened by the president-elect’s personnel picks.
“I think the Republican base and the populist movement are very pleased with his progress thus far,” Rotterman said. “As a conservative, I think it’s great that his picks show he has a very bold agenda.”
Among Trump’s picks who will arrive with a potentially bold agenda if confirmed is Tom Price, his nominee for secretary of HHS, a massive department that is tasked with providing care for more than 100 million Americans.
The congressman from Georgia has been working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health-care law, and wants to convert the popular Medicare program for seniors to one that would offer a fixed amount of money for coverage of each beneficiary that could be used to buy private insurance.
Price would also be responsible for overseeing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the expansion of which he opposed in 2007. He also has opposed the Obama administration’s initiative to require employers and insurers to provide free coverage of birth control for women.
In other cases, it’s less clear what direction a Cabinet nominee might head. Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon whom Trump has named to take over HUD, has voiced a philosophical aversion to safety-net programs.
But Carson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination, has no direct experience that indicates how he might preside over a $49 billion department that assists low-income applicants in obtaining home mortgages and operates more than 3,000 local public housing authorities.
Trump Cabinet members will be able to accomplish some aims through executive action. And with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, they are well positioned to push other policy changes.
Yet analysts say it remains to be seen how far-reaching changes will be, given the constraints of the legislative process and inertia of a large federal bureaucracy.
“There’s an awful lot written into the law and awful lot that the bureaucracy does,” Hess said.
Manley said a key indication of Trump’s desire to usher in change through Cabinet agencies will be his next round of picks. While secretaries serve as the public face of the departments, much of the work is done at lower levels.
“There’s a serious effort going on to staff the number two and number three positions, and that’s where all the action is,” Manley said.