The Formation of Team Trump
The Formation of Team Trump

In choosing his Cabinet members, Trump is picking both Washington insiders and outsiders. The selection process—which Trump is partially sharing via Twitter—is being studied for signs of how it will shape his plans and priorities for governing America.

According to an adage popular since Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, personnel is policy. In order for a president to deliver on specific policies, people who believe in those policies need to be appointed.

This saying has special relevance for the Trump administration, as we look for signs in his appointments to indicate the direction he intends to take the country in.

More than any recent president, Trump, in spite of the grueling primary and general election campaigns, remains something of a mystery. He has never held political office, he has never had experience in government, and he ran as an outsider attacking the establishment.

Moreover, while Trump has strong political intuitions, his grasp of policy details and his ability to articulate what he wants to achieve have been a work in progress, leaving room for friends and critics to imagine different versions of what a Trump presidency might deliver.

Insurgent conservatives who backed Trump are watching attentively to see whether the people he chooses fit the tax, trade, and immigration policies he ran on. Members of the Republican establishment are keeping an eye out for signs that a Trump administration may be more open to their input than Trump’s rhetoric may suggest.

Democrats are alternately looking for lines of attack and for individuals they believe they can work with. The country at large hopes that a competent administration can move the nation beyond the bitterness of recent partisan divides.

A presidential transition requires the president-elect to find, in a little over two months, officials to fill 4,000 slots, including 15 department heads and seven other Cabinet-level positions.

(Mike Demidov/shutterstock)
(Mike Demidov/shutterstock)

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REINCE PRIEBUS

CHIEF OF STAFF

Behind Priebus’s record of success lies a sterling character and a knack for getting rivals to work together.

One can learn a lot about someone at 5 a.m. on a bitterly cold Wisconsin morning. Alexander Tiahnybok said he learned about the makeup of Reince Priebus, Trump’s nominee for White House chief of staff, when the two would meet in the pre-dawn hours to drive together to deliver campaign literature. Priebus would lean out the window to hang the plastic bags on the mailbox poles.

Tiahnybok, a Republican activist and a faculty member at Kenosha’s Carthage College, first met Priebus in 2003 and worked on Priebus’s run for the Wisconsin Senate in 2004, just as Priebus worked on Tiahnybok’s run for the state legislature in 2008—both unsuccessful.

Tiahnybok said the most important thing Priebus brings to his new role is character: “He has got Wisconsin, Midwestern values. Faith. Dedication. Family. He lives it.”

And loyalty. Tiahnybok said Priebus has always remembered where he comes from. Even during his three terms as Republican National Committee (RNC) chair, Priebus often returned to Wisconsin to attend local events.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, with a law degree from the University of Miami, Priebus worked his way up in the Wisconsin Republican Party from Kenosha County chair, to district chair, to state chair in 2007, just in time to witness Barack Obama’s landslide win in 2008.

Priebus will challenge Trump’s team to do what is right.

The mid-term election in 2010 was a different story: Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker won, and the party added two U.S. House seats and took control of the state legislature. One key to this success was Priebus’s ability to get tea party conservatives and mainstream Republicans to work together.

In 2011, he ran against incumbent Michael Steele for chair of the RNC, winning on the seventh ballot. He inherited an institution with real problems: a $23 million debt and a loss of trust among donors.

Priebus retired the RNC debt in two years, but was unable to deliver a victory for Mitt Romney in 2012. In the years following, Priebus rebuilt the organization, improving the party’s get-out-the-vote and digital information efforts. In 2014, the Republicans took control of the Senate and padded their majority in the House by 13 seats.

During the 2016 campaign, Priebus kept Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Trump’s strained relationship from breaking publicly.

Priebus will bring to Trump’s White House connections with everyone in the Republican Party and a track record for getting insurgents and establishment figures to work together.

Tiahnybok believes character is one reason Trump chose Priebus for chief of staff: Priebus will challenge Trump’s team to do what is right.

On election night, Trump said of Priebus, “He’s an unbelievable star.”

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STEVE BANNON

CHIEF STRATEGIST

Bannon says we live in a time of crisis that threatens the future of the United States.

Years before Trump decided to run for president, Steve Bannon was working to create the movement that Trump would come to head. Now, having been appointed as Trump’s White House chief strategist, Bannon is in position to plot a strategy to transform that movement into a governing coalition.

According to Bannon, the movement that propelled Trump into the White House took form in response to the financial meltdown in 2008.

The middle class saw that not a single executive was charged with a crime, and executive bonuses were left untouched, while the middle class paid to bail out the banks.

According to Bannon, the 2008 financial disaster made visible a crisis of governance that threatens the future of the United States: the crony capitalism that has compromised the nation’s political class.

The movement that propelled Trump into the White House took form in response to the financial meltdown in 2008.

In 2011, in a speech to around 100 members of the Liberty Restoration Foundation, Bannon said he was speaking three times a week to small groups like them.

In these speeches, Bannon told his audiences it was up to them whether the United States could be saved. The nation was going through the fourth great crisis in its history, Bannon said, and those audiences would determine the outcome.

Bannon came to political activism after serving as a naval officer (1976–1983), then working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and as a media entrepreneur. He earned a master’s in national security studies from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

He has made several films with political themes and through the Government Accountability Institute, which he co-founded, he helped arrange the publication of “Clinton’s Cash” by Peter Schweizer, whose detailing of Hillary Clinton’s financial improprieties influenced the 2016 election.

After Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon was tapped to head the Breitbart news website. His stewardship of that website has led to charges that Bannon is a white nationalist and a racist.

In July, Bannon told Mother Jones that Breitbart is “the platform for the alt-right.”

Alt-right stands for alternative right, a recent movement that is not yet well known. The press has widely reported that what distinguishes the members of alt-right are their white nationalist and racist views.

Bannon recently told Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, “Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.” Bannon told Strassel he has “zero tolerance” for the “racial and anti-Semitic overtones” sometimes associated with the movement.

In a 2014 speech, Bannon said the racism appearing in nationalist movements in Europe, over time, gets washed out. “People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.”

Bannon sees this moment as full of promise for the movement he has helped bring to life. He told the Hollywood Reporter that if the Trump administration delivers, “we’ll govern for 50 years.”

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MIKE POMPEO

CIA DIRECTOR

An outsider to the intelligence community, tea party Congressman Pompeo brings his military experience to the spy agency.

It didn’t take long for Congressman Mike Pompeo to accept the offer to lead the CIA as its new director when asked by President-elect Donald Trump on Nov. 18.

Pompeo said in a press release that while he “genuinely loved representing the people of Kansas in Congress,” he could not ignore the call to lead the “world’s finest intelligence warriors, who labor tirelessly to keep this nation and Kansas safe.”

Pompeo, a member of the tea party movement, serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, but is still technically outside the intelligence community. According to Drew Berquist, founder of OpsLens and a former senior intelligence consultant for the U.S. government, this is something Pompeo will likely be tested on.

Most of the operational elements of the CIA take place at the level of the deputy director. Berquist said, “They kind of drive the train there, and you want to have someone in there who’s an intel guy. … It’s going to be critical that that level of officers is solid.”

Moving forward, Berquist said, we’ll have to see what Pompeo does culturally “in terms of rallying the troops.”

Pompeo has cared deeply about security issues during his time as a congressman.

He was a strong and outspoken critic of Hillary Clinton’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks and the subsequent deletion of 33,000 emails from her private server. He said on Oct. 18 that Benghazi is “worse is some ways” than Watergate.

Pompeo has taken a strong stance against anything that smells of corruption and special interests.

Pompeo was also a strong critic of President Obama’s deals with Iran. When Obama announced he would pay Iran $1.7 billion the same day Iran released four American hostages, Pompeo said in an Aug. 3 press release it was “reminiscent of the Iran-Contra scandal,” and said it would lead to Iran imprisoning more Americans.

Terrorism, overall, has been among Pompeo’s main concerns. He was a critic of Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo Bay and of plans to move the prisoners to Kansas. He criticized Secretary of State John Kerry for “ignoring the evil actions of Hezbollah” and has also stated his support for Israel, saying “we must stand with our ally Israel and put a stop to terrorism.”

He has defended the men and women who serve in the U.S. military. He issued a statement on Oct. 25 against reports that National Guard troops in California were required to repay bonuses, sometimes from more than 10 years ago.

“As a former soldier, I understand the sacrifices we ask of our men and women in uniform,” he said. “As a nation, we have a responsibility to support our troops, on and off the battlefield. It is unacceptable for bureaucracies and poor planning to get in the way of promises made to them.”

At the same time, Pompeo has taken a strong stance against anything that smells of corruption and special interests. On Oct. 17, he demanded investigations into alleged “quid pro quo” arrangements between the FBI and the State Department on investigating Clinton. He said, “The integrity of our government and the trust of the American people are far too important to be sacrificed for any one official.”

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MICHAEL FLYNN

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR

A plain-spoken general who predicted the rise of the ISIS terrorist group, Lt. Gen. Flynn is in equal measures respected and viewed as a disruptor.

After supporting Trump for months during the campaign, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), has accepted the role of National Security Adviser to the Trump administration.

Flynn, who was appointed head of the DIA in July 2012, announced his retirement on April 30, 2014, amid rumors he was forced out. He was also an intelligence advisor to retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal.

“This is someone who is coming in who a lot of people respect. He’s aggressive, he calls it like he sees it, and that’s going to be positive,” said Berquist, founder of OpsLens.

He added, however, that “some people would call him controversial.”

Flynn believes it’s important to understand threats and call them out by name, though this stance may sometimes stray from political correctness, Berquist said.

Many mainstream outlets have criticized Flynn, but for most of them, their recent criticism runs counter to their previous coverage of him from a year or two ago.

On Nov. 18, The New York Times called Trump’s choice of Flynn “alarming” and claimed Flynn has a history of “poor judgment.” In 2014, however, The Times reported that Flynn accurately predicted that ISIS would take territory in Iraq and Syria, and said his report was “disregarded by the White House.”

Flynn believes it’s important to understand the threats, and call them out by name.

It said Flynn had “pioneered new intelligence techniques” and quoted an unnamed official as saying, “Anytime you have a leader with Mike Flynn’s incredible energy and drive, you’re bound to cause a rub every now and then,” and that “he’s a guy who can shake things up.”

The turning point for most news outlets seemed to be during his speech at the July 21 Republican Convention where he called for Hillary Clinton’s arrest and said, “We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law.” He also tweeted a video on Feb. 26 stating that “fear of Muslims is rational.”

Of course, while it didn’t previously draw ridicule from the press, Flynn has a reputation for being disruptive. This allegedly led him to being forced to retire.

Flynn told Breaking Defense in August 2014 that he jogs each morning before work and spends two to three hours each day reading intelligence reports. “I will frankly tell you that what I see each day is the most uncertain, chaotic, and confused international environment that I’ve witnessed in my entire career,” he said, adding that “we’re in another very dangerous era.”

He is known for his belief that defending U.S. forces also means defending computer networks. He has promoted better intelligence sharing, and he allegedly tried pushing his analysts and operators to get out into the field—a move that didn’t go over well with other agency leaders.

According to Berquist, “I know military folks who don’t love [Flynn] either, but I think he’s better than what we had.” He said sometimes people appointed to advisory positions like Flynn’s “don’t have the background you’d like to see,” but that’s not the case with Flynn, he said.

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JEFF SESSIONS

ATTORNEY GENERAL

Before Trump ran a campaign opposing illegal immigration and looking to help the middle class, Sen. Sessions was on message.

The first senator to endorse Trump for president has been nominated to be the next attorney general.

Jeff Sessions is widely known as a staunch conservative—the Heritage Foundation gives him a score of 80 percent, where 100 percent represents a perfect conservative record. What may be less known is the extent to which Sessions was articulating Trump-style politics before Trump’s campaign.

Sessions has long led the fight in Congress against illegal immigration and has called on successive administrations to enforce U.S. immigration law. Like Trump, he framed his opposition in part as a jobs issue, saying that illegal immigrants take jobs from working-class American citizens.

In a July 2013 memo, he argued to his Republican colleagues that Romney lost to Barack Obama because of a failure to win enough votes from middle- and low-income Americans—anticipating the strategy of Trump’s campaign. In that memo, Sessions also urged the embrace of a “humble and honest populism.”

He has led the opposition in Senate to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Trump has vowed to kill.

Born in 1946 and growing up in the small Alabama town of Hybart, Sessions earned a bachelor’s from Huntingdon College and a law degree from the University of Alabama law school.

After serving for two years as assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Sessions was appointed U.S. attorney for the district by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Sessions held the position for 12 years.

Sessions urged the embrace of a ‘humble and honest populism.’

In 1986, Reagan nominated Sessions to be a federal district court judge, a nomination sunk by allegations that Sessions was a racist.

In 1995, Sessions was elected Alabama attorney general, and in 1996, was elected to the first of four terms in the U.S. Senate.

Now, the 30-year-old allegations of racism against Sessions have been revived. They consist of conversations related by an African-American colleague who claimed Sessions called him “boy” and professed to like the Ku Klux Klan until Sessions “found out [the Klan] smoked marijuana.” Sessions was also accused of describing the NAACP and ACLU as “communist-inspired.” Sessions denied referring to his former colleague as “boy” and said the remark about the Klan was a joke.

As U.S. attorney, Sessions filed several cases desegregating Alabama’s schools and his office prosecuted the head of the Alabama Klan for murder. The Klan head received a death sentence, which Sessions, as Alabama’s attorney general, saw carried out. An African-American attorney who attended law school with Sessions has said he was “one of three white students who openly acknowledged my humanity and embraced me in the spirit of friendship.”

If confirmed, Sessions can be expected to enforce U.S. immigration law, to push for strict sentencing laws, to favor gun rights, and to take tough stances on drugs and terrorism.

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NIKKI HALEY

U.N. AMBASSADOR

Trump has nominated a former opponent with a gift for conciliation to to be ambassador to the United Nations.

A child of immigrants will be America’s ambassador to the United Nations. The child of Sikh immigrants from India, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has a number of firsts on her résumé: the first Indian-American to hold office in South Carolina, and the first woman and member of a minority to be elected governor of the state.

Haley grew up in the tiny town of Bamberg, South Carolina, population 3,707 (as of 2010). After graduating from Clemson University with a degree in accounting, Haley worked for FCR Corporation, a waste management and recycling company, and then in 1994 joined her mother’s business, high-end clothier Exotica International, which became a multimillion dollar business.

In 2004, Haley was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, where she was immediately tapped for leadership positions: chair of the freshman caucus and majority whip.

Haley ran for governor in 2010 as a tea party conservative, with a late endorsement by Sarah Palin that helped secure her win. Her platform was anti-tax, fiscally conservative, and supportive of U.S. immigration law. She won a second term in 2014.

While in office, she focused on economic development and led seven overseas trade delegations. In a statement released on Nov. 23, Haley says, “We made South Carolina’s economic development the envy of the nation and brought new jobs to every county. We cut our unemployment rate by more than half, employing more South Carolinians than ever before.”

Haley was thrust onto the national stage on June 17, 2015, following the racist murders by Dylann Roof of nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

Haley was not a supporter of Trump in the presidential campaign, first backing Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz.

Responding to the murders the next day, Haley said, “We woke up today, and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken.” Haley then successfully led the effort to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse.

Haley was not a supporter of Trump in the presidential campaign, first backing Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz. She and Trump exchanged biting comments.

In a statement announcing the nomination, Trump referred to Haley’s record as a conciliator. “Governor Haley has a proven track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation to move critical policies forward for the betterment of her state and our country,” he said.

Haley lacks foreign policy experience. She was chosen to respond to Obama’s final State of the Union Address in January 2016, and that response perhaps gives a clue to what attitude she will bring to the ambassadorship.

“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference,” Haley said. “That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

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BETSY DEVOS

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION

A longtime advocate for school choice, DeVos will be tasked with making good on Trump’s agenda for improving K-12 education.

Sending a strong message about his support for school choice and his criticism of public education, Trump nominated billionaire Betsy DeVos to be the next secretary of education.

During the campaign, Trump promised to repurpose an additional $20 billion in federal funds for education, to give states the option of having federal money follow students to schools they choose, and to establish a national goal of providing school choice to the 11 million school-aged children living in poverty.

DeVos, a longtime school choice activist, is now tasked with making these promises a reality. She currently chairs the American Federation for Children, a leading advocacy organization for school choice.

DeVos is the daughter of the late industrialist Edgar Prince; sister of Erik Prince, the founder of private military company Blackwater; and wife of Dick DeVos, son of the co-founder of Amway Corporation.

Susan J. Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said DeVos’s emphasis on choice and competition in education is natural for her, given that she comes from two very enterprising families.

In 1982, at the age of 24, DeVos became active in Republican Party politics. She has served as a local precinct delegate, a member of the Republican National Committee, and twice as the chair of the Michigan Republican Party—work she says the vast majority of Michigan Republicans respect. DeVos and her husband Dick, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, are major Republican donors and fundraisers.

DeVos chairs the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which funds organizations that “focus on community, education, the arts, justice, and leadership.” And she chairs the venture capital fund Windquest Group.

Within hours of her nomination, DeVos already tweeted her position on Common Core. “To clarify, I am not a supporter—period.”

 

UNDER CONSIDERATION BY TRUMP

 

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Mitt Romney

[Secretary of State]

Mitt Romney led the “never Trump” movement. Now reports say the 2012 Republican presidential candidate is Trump’s favored candidate for secretary of state. In March, Romney unleashed a blast at Trump that urged Republicans to vote for any candidate who could beat him. A Romney nomination would signal Trump will work with the establishment he vilified.

 

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Ben Carson

[Secretary of Housing and Urban Development]

Retired pediatric neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson said Trump has offered him the position of secretary of housing and urban development. There has been no formal confirmation of this offer, but on Nov. 22, Trump tweeted he was “seriously considering” Carson for the post. Carson said he will pray over the opportunity during Thanksgiving weekend.

 

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Jared Kushner

[unknown]

A nepotism law may prevent Trump from nominating Jared Kushner to an official position, but expect the husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka to head his kitchen cabinet. Quite simply, Trump would not be president today without the work Kushner did behind the scenes, developing the data operation that raised funds and coordinating every facet of a very responsive campaign organization.

 

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Rudy Giuliani

[Secretary of State]

Rudy Giuliani, an early endorser and frequent campaign surrogate for Trump, may be nominated secretary of state. According to reports, Trump’s advisors are split, with some favoring Giuliani, “America’s mayor.” He earned headlines as a tough federal prosecutor, and later as the mayor who made New York City livable again by bringing down crime and as a stoic leader after the Sept. 11 attacks.

 

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James Mattis

[Secretary of Defense]

Known both as “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk,” retired Marine Gen. James Mattis is likely to be our next secretary of defense, reports say. Never married, Mattis is known for his tenacity and plain speaking, and for his intense study of history and war. After meeting him, Trump said, “He is the real deal. He is just a brilliant, wonderful man.”

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