Donald Trump believes that those who aspire to the most visible spots in his administration should not just be able to do the job, but also look the part.
Given Trump’s own background as a master brander and showman who ran beauty pageants as a sideline, it was probably inevitable that he would be looking beyond their résumés for a certain aesthetic in his supporting players.
“Presentation is very important because you’re representing America not only on the national stage but also the international stage, depending on the position,” said Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller.
To lead the Pentagon, Trump chose a rugged combat general, whom he compares to a historic one. At the United Nations, his ambassador will be a poised and elegant Indian American with a compelling immigrant backstory. As secretary of state, Trump tapped a neophyte to international diplomacy, but one whose silvery hair and boardroom bearing project authority.
The parade of potential job-seekers passing a bank of media cameras to board the elevators at Trump Tower has the feel of a casting call. It is no coincidence that a disproportionate share of the names most mentioned for jobs at the upper echelon of the Trump administration are familiar faces to obsessive viewers of cable news — of whom the president-elect is one.
“He likes people who present themselves very well, and he’s very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it’s a very important medium for public policy,” said Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Trump. “Don’t forget, he’s a showbiz guy. He was at the pinnacle of showbiz, and he thinks about showbiz. He sees this as a business that relates to the public.”
“The look might not necessarily be somebody who should be on the cover of GQ magazine or Vanity Fair,” Ruddy said. “It’s more about the look and the demeanor and the swagger.”
As Trump formally announced his vice presidential pick in July, he said that Mike Pence’s economic record as Indiana governor was “the primary reason I wanted Mike, other than he looks very good, other than he’s got an incredible family, incredible wife and family.”
And in picking retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his nominee for defense, Trump lauded him as “the closest thing to General George Patton that we have.”
Mattis has a passing physical resemblance to the legendary World War II commander, as well as to the late actor George C. Scott, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Patton in the 1970 biopic. Trump also seems particularly enamored with a nickname that Mattis is said to privately dislike.
“You know he’s known as ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, right? ‘Mad Dog’ for a reason,” Trump said in a recent interview with the New York Times.
The president-elect, however, does not mention Mattis’ other sobriquet, which is “Warrior Monk.” Or his call sign: “Chaos.”
On the other hand, in Trump’s book, not having the right kind of appearance is tantamount to a disqualifier. During the presidential campaign, he stirred a controversy when he pronounced that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lacked “a presidential look, and you need a presidential look.”
Battling through the GOP primary, Trump frequently made barbed comments about his opponents’ appearances.
Those kind of skin-deep standards helped make Trump a success as a reality-television star and international brand, but his critics say they are worrisome in the Oval Office.
His personnel choices show signs of being “cast for the TV show of his administration,” said Bob Killian, founder of a branding agency based in Chicago. “They are all perfectly coifed people who look like they belong on a set.”
But Trump spokesman Miller insisted that some qualifications do not lend themselves to lines on a résumé: “People who are being selected for these key positions need to be able to hold their own, need to be doers and not wallflowers, and need to convey a clear sense of purpose and commitment.”
All of which has led him to some unconventional picks. If confirmed by the Senate, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson will become the first secretary of state in modern history to come to the job with no experience in government. Then again, Trump himself has none.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has little obvious foreign policy experience to qualify her for United Nations ambassador, but she is a rising political star who brings diversity to Trump’s largely white and male picks for top jobs. Given how she and the president-elect had clashed during the 2016 campaign, Haley’s selection also suggests that Trump is willing to bring adversaries into the fold when they suit his needs.
In hiring, Trump has long trusted his own impressions, at times more than a candidate’s expertise or experience.
In 1981, he saw a security guard at the U.S. Open tennis championships masterfully eject some hecklers. Trump asked Barbara Res, one of his top construction executives, to hire the man.
“But you’ve never even met him!” she protested. Trump said he liked how the man looked when he handled the situation.
That security guard, Matthew Calamari, has worked for Trump for 35 years and is now chief operating officer of Trump Properties. His son, Matthew Calamari Jr., started with Trump five years ago as a security guard and is now the Trump Organization’s director of surveillance.
Trump’s closest aides have come to accept that he is likely to rule out candidates if they are not attractive or not do not match his image of the type of person who should hold a certain job.
“That’s the language he speaks. He’s very aesthetic,” said one person familiar with the transition team’s internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You can come with somebody who is very much qualified for the job, but if they don’t look the part, they’re not going anywhere.”
Several of Trump’s associates said they thought that John R. Bolton’s brush-like mustache was one of the factors that handicapped the bombastic former United Nations ambassador in the sweepstakes for secretary of state.
“Donald was not going to like that mustache,” said one associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “I can’t think of anyone that’s really close to Donald that has a beard that he likes.”
Trump was drawn to Tillerson and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney for secretary of state because of their presence and the way they command a room when they walk in.
The president-elect considered Romney despite the former Massachusetts governor’s scathing criticism of him during the presidential campaign. Several Trump associates say he was drawn to Romney, and later to Tillerson, by their “central casting” quality, a phrase the president-elect uses frequently in his private deliberations.
People close to Trump said he has been eager to appoint a telegenic woman as press secretary or in some other public-facing role in his White House — both because he thinks it would attract viewers and would help inoculate him from the charges of sexism that trailed his presidential campaign.
His first choice was his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who has resisted the offer. On Thursday, Trump announced that she would be counselor to the president. Others under consideration for the podium job included Laura Ingraham, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Monica Crowley, all of whom are conservative pundits familiar to the viewers of Fox News Channel.
The current favorite for press secretary is Republican National Committee chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer, who has impressed Trump with his tough and unyielding defenses of the incoming administration in hostile interviews on cable news networks.
Crowley, meanwhile, has been picked to become communications chief for Trump’s National Security Council, where the deputy director will be K.T. McFarland, another longtime denizen of the Fox green room.
Trump is also said to be considering CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow for head of his Council of Economic Advisers. That is normally an all-but-invisible spot given to a prestigious economist, but Kudlow has neither an undergraduate nor graduate degree in the subject.
Kudlow is, however, known for his ardent advocacy of tax cuts, which are also a top priority for the incoming president. In Trump’s administration, the job description may be to formulate his policies — and also help sell them on TV.
Marc Fisher, Matea Gold and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.