Cabinetmaking Season

It’s cabinetmaking season in Washington again. President-Elect Donald Trump has made his selections, and they’re all working their way through their confirmation hearings. The outcome, for virtually all of them, is not in doubt. Unless three Republican senators disapprove of a nominee to the point of voting against his or her confirmation, Trump will get the cabinet he desires. To the victor go the spoils, and all of that.

Trump’s cabinet is a mixed bunch, to state it as politely as possible. Some have a wealth of government experience to draw upon, some (like Trump) have none. Some seem to be sober and reasonable people, and some seem to be nothing short of bomb-throwers intent on an ideological goal. But the most interesting thing about them so far is the degree which they disagree with Donald Trump on certain issues (unless they’re just “saying anything to get confirmed” ― always a possibility). It’s not exactly the classic “team of rivals,” but rather a team which may just contradict the president on basic viewpoints about reality (such as whether climate change is a Chinese hoax, for instance).

How this is going to work out is anyone’s guess, at this point. It may be easier to predict how the individual cabinet members will act than to predict how President Trump is going to act (or react) on any particular issue. As Joe Biden recently commented, we all have “no freakin’ idea” of how Trump’s going to set about the job of being president. It’ll probably be shocking in many ways, but at this point it’d be hard to be surprised by anything Trump does. His personal style is so erratic that anything is possible, really.

The biggest question for the cabinet is going to be whether Trump takes a hands-on or a hands-off approach to all the executive departments. Will he be content to sit back and delegate just about everything to his departmental secretaries? Or will Trump be micromanaging their every effort? Again, nobody knows.

The biggest danger to the cabinet members is if Trump switches between the two managerial styles without any warning. How would you feel if you had spent months implementing some policy agenda item only to have the rug yanked out from beneath all your efforts by a lone early-morning tweet from Trump? If Trump tweeted: “We’re not going to do that. Bad idea!” then all your hard work would be for naught. This is not all that far-fetched a thing to contemplate (knowing Trump), but how will his cabinet members react, if this happens?

The other danger for Trump cabinet members is more normal for any cabinet members. Reportedly, the first thing a new cabinet member is expected to do when taking office is to write out an undated letter of resignation and give it to the president. The president keeps all these on file, so that he can fire any of them at any time for any reason ― but without technically “firing” them. Whenever a cabinet member leaves, the announcement from the president always begins: “I have accepted a letter of resignation from Secretary X....” This might just play out differently with President Trump (who, after all, would probably enjoy beginning his statement with: “Today, I told Secretary Z : You’re fired!”). But no matter how the process works, being a member of a presidential administration means, at times, voluntarily falling on your sword to politically protect the president. This is true for any administration, but Trump seems quicker than most to throw subordinates under the political bus, as it were. Any perceived failure of a Trump agenda item is never going to prompt President Trump to admit error, to put it another way. Instead, he’ll shift the blame and clean house. It’s about the most predictable thing about Trump’s presidency, in fact ― it’ll never be his fault, it’ll always be because somebody didn’t do the job of making his vision into shining reality.

Of course, this works both ways, although it’s normally quite rare to see it actually happen. Cabinet secretaries can step down on their own (whether Trump wants them to or not, in other words), and there’s a pretty high likelihood that Trump’s cabinet won’t survive his first year in office intact. There could be a clash in viewpoints that is impossible to gloss over publicly. So many of them have contradicted Trump in their hearings that one of the areas of disagreement could become too fundamental to ignore ― such as if Trump actually did order that torture be revived as U.S. policy. There could be a clash of personalities as well, which wouldn’t be too surprising considering how thin-skinned Trump has always been. A cabinet member deciding he or she had had enough wouldn’t be all that big a surprise.

The most likely scenario for a cabinet member suddenly resigning, though, is if Trump does undercut one of them in a major way (that early-morning tweet I previously mentioned). Months spent on implementing a policy wrecked by a before-breakfast tweet may result in a cabinet member resigning by the end of the day. Unless Donald Trump is forcibly separated from his access to Twitter, this seems entirely possible. This is why the chances are pretty high that Trump’s first cabinet will lose at least one member during his first year in office.

Then there’s a scenario which is downright worrisome to contemplate. Trump sees the world in a certain way. Sometimes, his worldview simply does not match up with reality. Take a look at his campaign statements on the unemployment rate, to cite a prominent example. On all sorts of subjects, Trump just flat-out disagrees with numbers he doesn’t like, because they don’t reflect his own view of the situation. But with Trump in charge of the executive branch, he’ll be in charge of the departments which provide such data to the public. Normally, this wouldn’t even be an issue. But with Trump, anything is possible. What happens when the unemployment rate goes up during Trump’s presidency (again, this is but one example, substitute any economic indicator you like here)? Will Trump sit idly by while the economic figures get worse, or will he insist that these numbers are “rigged” and decide to meddle with them? After all, he’ll control the number-crunching departments which put out official government data. If reality conflicts with the Trumpist view of the situation, will Trump tell the number-crunchers to make the numbers look better than they are? This is a real possibility, and a real danger. It’s easy to see a department head (perhaps at a lower level than the cabinet) very publicly resigning in protest over such a conflict.

There’s one final danger for the incoming cabinet, one that has roots in presidential history. Will Trump even pay much attention to his cabinet? Or will he, instead, rely more on a “kitchen cabinet” of family members and other trusted advisors who don’t actually serve on the official cabinet?

The term was coined during Andrew Jackson’s presidency (the “kitchen cabinet” was differentiated from the real cabinet, called the “parlor cabinet”). Jackson, like Trump, was the ultimate Washington outsider who rode a wave of seething populism into the White House. Once there, he relied on his adopted son Andrew Jackson Donelson and a group of men who had earned Jackson’s trust ― including two newspaper editors (Amos Kendall and Frances Preston Blair, namesake owner of the “Blair House,” directly across from the White House). Jackson fought bitter battles with his official cabinet, and at one point dismissed them all (because ― you just can’t make this stuff up ― their wives were snubbing one particular cabinet wife, in what was known as the “Petticoat Affair”). He is the only American president to have fired his whole cabinet, in fact.

After Jackson, the kitchen cabinet term was used for other presidents, most notably in modern times for Ronald Reagan, who also had a group of close advisors he relied upon (sometimes to the exclusion of the actual cabinet).

Donald Trump, pretty obviously, is going to have his own kitchen cabinet that the Senate will have no say in confirming. Several members of his family will form the core of Trump’s kitchen cabinet, along with anyone else he decides is worth listening to. How much of a clash this sets up with the real cabinet remains to be seen. Trump famously makes up his mind depending on the last person he talked to, so if the real cabinet is undercut on a regular basis by the kitchen cabinet, it could prove to be incredibly frustrating for Trump’s actual cabinet members. This is another dynamic that will bear watching, for sure.

Since Trump is so unpredictable, it’s impossible to say how his cabinet will function. Until we see him actually govern, nobody has any idea how he’ll interact with his cabinet, or how effective they’ll be (either on their own initiative or under Trump’s close supervision). Will Donald Trump’s cabinet work well with the new president? Or will it be a dysfunctional mess? Will he wage public battles with them over Twitter, or will he just leave them alone to do their jobs? Will Trump trash one of his own cabinet members in public, if they have a personality conflict? Will one (or more) of them decide their job is impossible, and walk out unexpectedly? Or will Trump call a hasty news conference to announce “You’re fired”? Will members of his own family have veto power over cabinet-level decisions, or will they remain behind the scenes as merely personal advisors? In this season of cabinetmaking, it’s easier to articulate the open questions than it is to predict any possible outcomes. But then that was probably a given, for a Donald Trump cabinet.


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