WASHINGTON — Donald Trump ran for the White House as an outsider and a pragmatist. But he’s quickly putting together an administration that will be the most fiercely conservative of any in decades.
After campaigning as the least ideological presidential contender in modern times, Trump is naming a Cabinet and senior White House staff that is dominated by retired military leaders, wealthy business executives and partisan activists who oppose the historic mission of the departments they are poised to head. While the president-elect issued few policy blueprints while he was seeking the job, his nominees for key posts already have been leading the charge to dismantle President Obama’s initiatives on health care and climate change.
“I call it the three ‘G’ Cabinet: Goldman, generals and gazillionaires,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said mockingly Sunday on ABC’s This Week, a reference to multiple Trump appointees who have worked at the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.
On Fox News Sunday, Trump said he was ”very, very close” to naming his pick for the Cabinet’s biggest prize, secretary of State, speaking favorably of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “He’s much more than a business executive,” Trump said of Tillerson, reported to be the frontrunner for the job. “I mean, he’s a world-class player.” The president-elect also favorably mentioned two other prospects, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker.
Trump’s unorthodox campaign, dominated by a promise to “make America great again” and attacks on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, gave limited insights about what a Trump administration would look like. But in the past four weeks, he has reassured Republicans and alarmed Democrats by appointments that largely reflect GOP orthodoxy — from a Labor secretary-designate who opposes raising the minimum wage to a Housing and Urban Development secretary-designate who warns that subsidized housing fosters dependency.
His domestic team would have been a good fit for just about any of his Republican primary rivals, though Trump’s friendly stance toward Russia and its provocative president, Vladimir Putin, is at odds with GOP tradition and the party’s leading congressional voices on foreign policy.
So far, Trump’s choices — including top jobs for a trio of veterans of Goldman Sachs, a firm he blasted at campaign rallies — haven’t reflected the populist impulses that fueled his appeal to some white working-class voters or his vow to “drain the swamp” in Washington of donors and other insiders.
“I think we’re going to have one of the great Cabinets ever put together,” Trump boasted. The nominations, announced via Twitter and at campaign-style rallies, provide clues about how he will operate and what he will do after the Inauguration.
Here are some things we’re learning:
“I think generals are terrific, you know?” Trump said in Sunday’s interview on Fox News. “They go through schools and they sort of end up at the top of the pyramid, and it’s like a test. They passed the test of life.” He’s picked three of them to top jobs: retired Marine Corps Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of Defense, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security, and retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser.
He’s also met at Trump Tower with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis as he weighed the possibilities for secretary of State.
Not since the Eisenhower administration have so many business executives landed top government jobs, making Trump’s Cabinet the wealthiest in American history. “I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” he told supporters in Des Moines Thursday during his “thank you” tour. “It’s not different than a great baseball player or a great golfer.”
He has designated former Goldman Sachs banker Steve Bannon as his senior White House strategist, Goldman veteran Steve Mnuchin as Treasury secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as Commerce secretary and billionaire activist Betsy DeVos as Education secretary. Another billionaire, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, has been named deputy Commerce secretary.
Linda McMahon, a former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has been chosen to head the Small Business Administration. A millionaire who is married to a billionaire, she contributed $7 million to pro-Trump super PACs this fall.
Last week, environmental activists were encouraged when Trump met with former vice president Al Gore and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, both activists on climate change. Then the president-elect selected as head of the Environmental Protection Agency Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt — a skeptic of climate change who repeatedly has sued the EPA to push back regulations aimed at reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), an ally of the fossil-fuel industry, is reported to be Trump’s choice to lead the Interior Department. She has supported legislation to open the Atlantic Ocean to drilling and prevent the Interior Department from regulating hydraulic fracturing.
Trump, who during the campaign called climate change “a big scam,” now says it’s up for debate and decries the burden of regulations on businesses. (Mainstream scientists overwhelmingly agree that the climate is changing, in part due to human activity.) “I’m still open-minded,” Trump said Sunday. “Nobody really knows.”
He complained that China, Mexico and other countries were “eating our lunch” because of environmental regulations. “”We can’t let all of these permits, that take forever to get, stop our jobs,” he said, adding that he was studying whether to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. “I don’t want that agreement to put us at a competitive disadvantage with other countries.”
Trump’s stance on Russia, including his call for more cooperation with Putin, puts him at odds with many of the Republicans allied with him on other fronts. Some of the top appointments he has made or is considering are aligned with his views. Flynn sat next to Putin last year during a paid appearance in Moscow for Russia Today, a TV network financed by the Kremlin. Tillerson, who has negotiated business deals with Putin for years, was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013.
Trump disputed the conclusion in an unpublished CIA report that Russia tried to intervene in the election to boost his prospects. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”
Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) disagreed. “It’s clear the Russians interfered,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation. He called for a select congressional committee to investigate Russia’s efforts and expressed concern about Tillerson’s ties to Moscow. “It’s a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, and obviously they’ve done enormous deals together,” McCain said. “That would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of Trump’s primary rivals who happens to be on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will consider his nomination for secretary of State, on Sunday signaled his concern in a Trump-like way — on Twitter. “Being a “friend of Vladimir” is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryofState,” he posted.
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