First, the nature of his characterization of the search process, with his tweeting on November 15 (amid reports of disarray), “Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!” It is, at times, as though, he is on a new addition to The Apprentice, moving from The Candidate, but not so much transitioning from presidential but rather the television version. All prestige, no responsibility, but sadly, many many repercussions.
Second, while one might be able to make a case for an outsider bringing a fresh perspective into the government, one must still expect that their hires would pick up the slack when it comes to policy expertise, with the policy outcomes reflecting some measure of compromise between establishment and the new wing of the party. That is, while many view experience normatively desirable, among those for whom it was not a dealbreaker, there was presumably some expectation of Trump surrounding himself with good, bright people.
Yet his choices thus far raise a number of serious concerns, not to mention a challenge to a rich political science literature (to which I have contributed) resting on assumptions of bureaucratic competence and expertise. After all, the landmark administrative law case Chevron v. NRDC (1984) lays out the “Chevron Two Step” articulating the conditions under which deference should be accorded to agencies’ interpretation of statutory delegations of authority, and that deference is based on a higher degree of technical expertise upon which to draw to determine important matters of policy implementation for the nation. While a legislature comprised mainly of lawyers may not be well-equipped to determine the threshold of harm for benzene in water, the Environmental Protection Agency’s bureaucrats are.
Trump has chosen as his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson, who said himself that (while he felt qualified to run for President of the United States) he lacked the requisite experience to be a cabinet secretary and who nevertheless was offered this position. There are two problems here. First, he is a medical doctor whose experience would be leveraged much more appropriately as Secretary of Health and Human Services or Surgeon General, given his understanding of (at least some aspects of) healthcare. In contrast, his experience in no way prepares him for work in HUD, the work of which impacts public housing across the nation, among many other things. Indeed, the Hill article discussing the nomination cited that Carson was seen as a resource in addressing “inner cities,” a sore spot given Trump’s conflation of minorities and inner cities. While it is certainly admirable to add to the diversity of one’s cabinet, it should not be targeted based on a misguided association, not to mention should not be entirely at the expense of the expertise on which he might be able to draw (e.g., healthcare as opposed to housing).
And second, though relatedly, Carson himself said he was too inexperienced for the cabinet before a particular post was being offered, suggesting a broad-based concession to lacking the credentials to guide policy at the national level. Trump would have done well to heed Carson’s words (something I never thought I’d say…), perhaps keeping Carson as an advisor in the inner circle to weigh in on matters to which he could contribute (such as how to balance their aversion to many parts of the Affordable Care Act without taking health insurance away from millions of Americans who have benefited from the Act’s provisions).
Trump has chosen as Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a woman who has in some cases drawn relief from those on the left because of her competence at what she does currently, and the fact that she is not among the “overly obsequious to Trump but combative with others” crowd (I’m looking at you, Giuliani, Christie, and Flynn). These are all qualities that point to her being an appropriate pick for something. Yet he has chosen as his ambassador to the UN someone whose entire repertoire of political experience is domestic rather than foreign. It is a misallocation of brainpower, and a sad reflection of his inattention to the expertise and skill sets of those around him.
Moreover, he has been rumored to be considering for a post David Petraeus, who pled guilty to the leaking of classified information. He has already named as National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who is not only vehemently anti-Muslim but has disseminated fake news via Twitter. The likely appointee as Administrator of the EPA is Myron Ebell, a man who is neither a scientist nor a believer in climate change, instead characterizing climate scientists as “global warming alarmists” who “exaggerate the rate of warming… exaggerate the potential impacts of warming and how soon they may occur… and underestimate wildly the costs of reducing our emissions by the magical amount they have picked.” And as icing on the cake, Jared Kushner reportedly asked about how many current staffers would be saying on, apparently unaware of the vast staffing issues that lay before them in order to run the nation (not into the ground).
(While competence and expertise are not such problems in the case of Senator Sessions, his hostility to all of the things under the umbrella of the Department of Justice – from his lack of opposition to the KKK, his hostility to school desegregation, history of racial slurs, and his fighting against voting rights – is deeply troubling and should be disqualifying. There were challenges enough around the slogan “Make America Great Again” without reframing Session’s apparent goal to “Make America Jim Crow Again”).
This is all to say that the fact that while Trump could conceivably select a cabinet of advisors to compensate for his inexperience, he has failed spectacularly to do so. The functioning of the American government requires that someone responsible be at the wheel, or at least in the passenger seat and able to intervene when needed. While some might have viewed Priebus as that person, his deference to both Steve Bannon (“a force of good”) and Jeff Sessions gives no reason to expect him to provide any push-back on the more extreme aspects of the Trump agenda, let alone question authority on more everyday aspects of governance. Those whom he is selecting for top positions either are inexperienced or are inexperienced in their designated policy domains. (If we took Carson and Hayley and let them do random draws for their new position, they might well wind up in a more sensible department).
Campaigns are too often not about the realities of policymaking but rather about rhetoric, which Trump’s core coalition is being reminded of as he backs away from several of his key promises (though those opposing Trump are breathing sighs of relief about some of that backtracking). The reality of governance is that it is hard work, yet Trump often appears to have the mentality of Aziz Ansari’s “Parks and Recreation” character Tom Haverford, who said, “I hate doing work, but I love being flattered.” Politics involves a lot of credit-claiming, but behind the scenes there must be hard-working, competent, expert bureaucrats – from civil servants to partisan appointees – who can draw on their policy knowledge to craft policy that is consistent with the president’s objectives and what they view as the good of the country. Indeed, that they are insulated from electoral pressures enables them to apply their expertise without concern for electoral implications. Members of Congress and first-term presidents do not have that luxury, and so it behooves the president – and in this case the president-elect – to consider the policy and administrative implications of his current staffing decisions, which will shape much of the direction that they choose to take. Indeed, it would be for Trump’s own benefit to maximize his ability to “make America great” by placing his agenda in competent hands (that presumably are larger than his).
Whether for the left or for the right, for regulation or deregulation, we want the person behind the wheel to have a license (and preferably no prior record of at-fault collisions). Thus far, Mr. Trump has yet to demonstrate an interest in making such basic protections against collision. And unlike the (many) bankruptcies that he himself has taken, as president his legacy in crashing will have far vaster repercussions.