Just two weeks ago, President-elect Donald Trump appeared poised to assemble a Cabinet as unconventional as he is, drawing heavily from a band of quirky loyalists that included several from the fringes of the Republican Party.
But as he moves rapidly toward assembling his roster of top advisers, Trump instead is pulling together a more orthodox GOP team than many expected, including a defense secretary nominee, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who has received solid marks from the party establishment ahead of his formal unveiling Monday.
The emerging Cabinet has gone a long way toward mollifying some of Trump’s Republican critics, and several of the picks — including the wife of the Senate majority leader as transportation secretary — are tailor-made to encourage cooperation between the administration and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. The incoming team is preparing not only to implement longtime Republican goals — such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes — but also to push for Trump’s iconoclastic and controversial campaign promises on issues such as a border wall and trade.
But the group and the president-elect also hold conflicting views over key issues including Iran policy, Medicare and immigration, raising the risk of infighting and fractiousness both within the administration and with Congress.
Several of Trump’s early personnel picks were “more directly in your face, while others that have come forward since then are decidedly less so,” said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “At this point, I would say the Republican establishment that was so attacked by Trump during the campaign is doing pretty well in shaping his administration.”
Trump, who cast himself as a hard-edged populist during the campaign, is also moving faster in the pace of announcing his picks compared with recent predecessors.
The biggest test of Trump’s interest in broadening his inner circle still looms, with his choice of a secretary of state, one of the most important posts in any administration. Aides have publicly identified four finalists for the job, including 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
If Trump gives the nod to Romney, long one of his fiercest Republican critics, it would send a reassuring signal to the party’s moderate wing and to the nation’s foreign policy establishment — a need seen as all the more urgent after Trump caused a diplomatic uproar when he broke decades of precedent Friday by speaking directly with the president of Taiwan.
But the prospect of picking Romney — who called Trump a “con man” and a “phony” during the campaign — has already sparked strong objections from some of Trump’s die-hard supporters.
Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist, said that he, like many others, considers a potential Romney appointment a mistake but can understand Trump’s thinking.
“He knows he cannot fight two wars at the same time,” Viguerie said. “He can’t fight the Democrats and the establishment Republicans. They’re still a big presence in Congress, and he probably wants to make nice with them.”
Several of Trump’s more recent choices appear to have the imprint of Mike Pence, the vice president-elect. The Indiana governor and former House member is well-regarded by the party’s conservative wing but has also served as a bridge to the party establishment.
Trump turned to some of his staunchest and most controversial allies for his earliest White House picks, including former campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive, as his senior counselor. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who during the campaign led “lock her up” chants directed at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, was named national security adviser.
Trump’s choice of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general also seemed in no small part a reward for his loyalty during the tumultuous campaign.
Since then, however, Trump has shown a willingness to put rivals and others outside his orbit in key slots. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who endorsed two of Trump’s rivals at various points in the Republican primaries, was named as his choice to become the ambassador to the United Nations.
And on Friday, Trump met in New York with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who left the door open to joining the Republican administration. Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is also being eyed by the Trump team for a possible job.
Other recent picks by Trump may be unconventional in some respects — they would be hard to imagine in the Cabinet of Jeb Bush or John Kasich, two of his primary rivals — but bring familiar credentials to the posts they have been asked to fill.
For treasury secretary, Trump tapped Steven Mnuchin, a loyalist who served as finance chairman of his campaign. Mnuchin comes from a conventional place for recent treasury secretaries of both parties: He spent 17 years at the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.
Likewise, Trump rewarded campaign booster Wilbur Ross with his nod to be commerce secretary. Like many others before him, Ross is a successful businessman; in his case, though, he is known for his investments in distressed industries.
For transportation secretary, Trump tapped someone as establishment as they come in Washington: Elaine Chao, who served as labor secretary under President George W. Bush and held other posts in previous Republican administrations. She also happens to be the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a relationship that certainly cannot hurt Trump’s promised effort to push a $1 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress early in his tenure.
Many of Trump’s choices will arrive with a history of toiling toward long-held Republican objectives that Trump embraced during his campaign.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), whom Trump reached outside of his immediate orbit to tap as health and human services secretary, is among the leading critics of the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of President Obama that Republicans have been seeking to dismantle since its enactment in 2010.
Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire and conservative activist whom Trump nominated for education secretary, has spent years pushing to expand voucher programs in several states that give families taxpayer dollars to pay for private and religious schools — objectives simpatico with Trump’s call on the campaign trail to expand school choice.
And Sessions has established himself as one of the harshest critics of illegal immigration on Capitol Hill, a credential that should bolster the work of a candidate who advocated deporting millions of undocumented workers and building an extensive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an early Trump supporter who is serving as the transition team’s liaison to Congress, said the Cabinet that Trump is building “absolutely” signals that the president-elect will try to move swiftly on the agenda that he talked about on the campaign trail.
“The people being picked to run the departments with jurisdiction over those issues, I think, are in 90-plus percent lockstep with his positions,” Collins said.
Still, taken as a whole, Trump’s emerging team is far more diverse — in Republican terms — than many speculated in the immediate aftermath of a campaign in which he surrounded himself with GOP has-beens such as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
While Giuliani remains a finalist for secretary of state, the prospects for both men to hold sway in Trump’s Cabinet seem to have faded.
“I think Giuliani and Gingrich are just loose fruits right now,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “No one knows where to put them.”
With the choices he has made so far, Trump has pleased or at least calmed some of his chief Republican critics during the campaign.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was a vocal critic of Trump during the campaign, noted positively that Trump has added former detractors to his team, including Haley for the U.N. post.
“We’re still not done. Still got some to go. But I’ve been pleased with some of them,” Flake said.
That view was echoed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who announced in August that she would not vote for Trump or Clinton. “I think he’s made some good appointments,” she said.
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who continued to criticize Trump after ending his own GOP presidential bid, took to Twitter to praise the choice of Mattis as defense secretary, saying he would “provide great leadership.”
None of which is to say that governing will be easy for Trump — even with his party holding both the White House and Congress. Several stress points seem certain to surface between the populist president and more traditional Republican members of Congress, assuming Trump keeps his word on some key promises.
The GOP takeover of the White House, for instance, has emboldened House Republicans to pursue an agenda that includes privatizing parts of Medicare, the popular program for seniors. It is uncertain how that will square with Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate who sought to distinguish himself from other Republicans by pledging to leave Medicare and some other safety-net programs untouched.
While Trump and congressional Republicans share a goal of repealing Obamacare, there has been less agreement over what exactly to replace it with. Trump has only promised something better.
Trump could also face resistance on his immigration plans from some Republicans who argue that overreaching will prove costly at the ballot box among Latinos, a rapidly growing segment of the electorate that the party cannot afford to write off.
And there are bound to be tensions on trade, where Trump’s views are far more isolationist than what his party has long advocated.
In some cases, Trump’s nominees hold positions directly contrary to his. Mattis, for example, recently told Trump that he does not believe in the effectiveness of waterboarding, one of the “tough” interrogation techniques the president-elect has vowed to reinstate.
Mattis favors working with allies to enforce the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has vowed to tear up. The defense secretary nominee also reportedly has told colleagues that he understands the relationship between global security and climate change, a phenomenon Trump has said he wants to address far less aggressively than the current administration.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian, said that he sees numerous tension points ahead, spawned from what he called “a marriage of convenience” between the president-elect and other leaders of the Republican Party.
“It’s not clear what kind of arrangement this marriage is going to need to keep going,” Naftali said, arguing that making campaign promises a reality will be much tougher for Trump than continuing to tout them at campaign-style rallies, such as the one he held in Cincinnati on Thursday.
“He can go out on the hustings and have great big rallies, and then he still has to come back to Washington and make sausage,” Naftali said.