Is There an Explanation for Trump’s Picks?

What to make of the Trump picks for top administration jobs so far? Chuck Todd of NBC News (and moderator of Meet the Press) had an analysis on a podcast Wednesday (Dec. 14), which struck me as insightful.

Chuck Todd, NBC's Meet the Press major domo

Chuck Todd, NBC’s Meet the Press major domo

Todd said he sees two sets of appointees, one made up of genuine Trump picks, and the other consisting of choices by Vice President-elect Mike Pence and soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. The Trump picks – for top-tier jobs such as national security advisor, defense secretary, homeland security chief, labor, treasury secretary, commerce – all reflect Trump’s outsized ego, the big promises he made during the campaign, and his personal decisions.

None of this to suggest that Trump’s picks are worse, or better, than others he could have chosen, or than those Hillary Clinton might have chosen had she won the election. It simply provides interesting insight into the mind of Trump and the way the administration will work after January 20, if Chuck Todd is right. I suspect he is.

This cohort of Trump selections consists of retired generals and successful business moguls, who mostly don’t have particular political agendas, but fill up a room when they step in. They either reflect who Trump is, noted Todd, or whom he wishes he were. He called them “Trumpian.”

General Mike Flynn as national security advisor, a fiery, controversial boat rocker; General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for secretary of defense, whom Trump likened to the late General George Patton (which probably made Mattis cringe); General John Kelly for homeland security, a four-star Marine whose son died in combat in Afghanistan.

Exxon Mobil CEO and multi-millionaire Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. He has close business ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom Trump praised throughout the campaign. Todd quipped that Trump picked Tillerson over Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee because Tillerson is a foot taller than Corker. Steven Mnuchin for treasury, with an estimate net worth of $2.9 billion. He’s a former Goldman-Sachs executive and hedge fun manager with deep ties to Hollywood and show-business (which is as much Trump’s business as his real estate enterprises). Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, known as the “king of bankruptcy,” for commerce secretary, a critic of the trade agreements that Trump also criticized during his campaign.

Wait, there’s more. Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, a fast-food chain that owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., for labor. Puzder took CKE private in 2010, so his net worth is not known, but he is clearly a multi-millionaire. He’s a critic of raising the minimum wage.

Then, according to Todd, is the other tier: conventional conservative Republican ideologues for agencies that Trump doesn’t much care about one way or the other. This is the Pence-Priebus cohort. Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo to head the CIA. He served with Pence in the House and was a leading critic of Hillary Clinton’s performance in the 2012 Benghazi attack on a U.S. compound, as was Pence. Trump has made it clear that he’s no fan of the CIA, at least as currently constructed.

Then there is Tom Price, six-term member of the House from Georgia (and an orthopedic surgeon), to head health and human services. Price was also close to Pence and the two agree on most health care issues, including revamping Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. This figures to be a Priebus pick, as Pruitt has been a leader among state-level Republicans, aided by the Republican National Committee which Priebus chaired, to overturn the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Rick Perry, former Texas governor, to the energy department, which is clearly low on Trump’s priority list, but a payoff by Priebus (and Trump) for loyalty after Perry savaged Trump during the GOP primaries but worked hard to elect him and other Republicans in the general election.

At interior, the choice of Ryan Zinke was a surprise, as the Trump administration-in-waiting sent strong signals just days before the Zinke announcement that it would name Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to the job. McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, has close ties to Pence. She may have decided to stay in the House, where she has had a successful tenure and could rise in the party leadership. Zinke was a freshman House member with a background in state politics and a stint at the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 on his resume.

Other announced Trump appointments may be one-off selections, where neither Trump nor the conventionally-conservative Pence have much interest. Elaine Chao for transportation (she’s married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky), Betsy DeVos at education, Nikki Haley, South Carolina governor, for U.N. ambassador, and Linda McMahon at small business all look like politically correct nominations, although Trump claims to loath political correctness. Add surgeon Ben Carson to housing and urban development to the possibly-PC list.

Who is left? Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the earliest statewide-elected official to back Trump and a hawk on immigration. He informed Trump’s views during the primary and general election. This was clearly a Trump pick and a reward for loyalty, another Trump trait.

This still leaves a few vacancies: agriculture (Perry would have been a good choice); director of national intelligence; veterans affairs; U.S. trade representative.