Generals, Billionaires, and Insiders: the Cabinet of Donald Trump

During a campaign-style ‘thank you’ rally in Ohio, on December 8, Donald Trump announced that he was assembling one of the best cabinets in the history of the United States, of which Mike Pence (Vice-President) and Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) were his first picks. Bellow, we go over his most recent choices for cabinet nominees.

The Generals

Lt. General Keith Kellogg’s appointment to the National Security Council is only the latest example of a recurring trend: Trump is surrounding himself with individuals with military backgrounds. While there is a tradition of having veterans holding key positions in political office, it is uncommon for a President’s inner circle to be filled with many military figures.

General James Mattis (the Secretary of Defense pick) and Lt. General Michael Flynn (National Security Advisor-designate) are men who believe in a combination of strong military presence and a hard line against terrorism and Islamism. Homeland Security Secretary nominee General John Kelly, on the other hand, is popular for his strong stance against illegal immigration.

Former Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke has been chosen as Interior Secretary. The early Trump supporter is a strong believer in American energy independence, and echoes a position of the President-elect by opposing the transfer of public lands to the states.

The Billionaires

The 6-billion-dollar cabinet that Donald Trump is assembling is worth more than a third of all Americans households. For a long time, General David Petraeus was one of Trump’s top picks for Secretary of State, but would end up losing to Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobile CEO. The nod of the multimillionaire businessman for Secretary of State has drawn criticism from both sides of Capital Hill, due to his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and representation of a vast business empire.

Wilbur Ross, a 78-year-old billionaire investor, was chosen by the President-elect as the next Secretary of Commerce. After decades of purchasing and restructuring troubled companies, the head of private equity firm WL Ross & Co. will be responsible for scrapping trade deals with the US all over the world.

Steven Mnuchin, the wealthy finance chairman of Trump’s campaign, is tapped for Secretary of Treasury. A great supporter of less regulation and lower taxes, the former Goldman Sachs executive has said little about policy, although he has come out to say that there will be no tax cuts for the upper class – a statement that strangely defies Trump’s own tax plan.

Billionaire heiress and businesswoman Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education pick, is a strong supporter of school choice who had mostly kept a low-profile. However, her Michigan official’s school reform initiatives in Detroit were disastrous, and met with widespread criticism.

Fast-food mogul and CEO of CKE Restaurants, Andrew Puzder was an economic advisor for Donald Trump during his campaign. After vehemently opposing Barack Obama’s efforts to raise minimum wage and extend eligibility for overtime, the Labor Secretary nominee will have the opportunity to reverse such policies.

The Insiders

Despite his promises to “drain the swamp”, the President-elect has chosen to fill some of the positions in his cabinet with establishment figures. The decision to have Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department is perhaps one of the most curious, given that the politician had famously expressed his intention to dismantle it back in 2012. It is expected that his appointment will steer the department away from renewable energies, and towards fossil fuels.

Elaine Chao, Trump’s choice for Transportation Secretary, is an experienced government official who worked as Labor Secretary under George W. Bush. The President-elect has emphasized the importance of infrastructure spending during his campaign, and Chao will play a key role in getting the needed Congress approval.

Tom Prince is another establishment figure and was picked by Donald Trump as Secretary of Health and Human Services. A strong critic of Obamacare, the Georgia congressman might find difficult to balance his views with the President-elect’s recently softened tone regarding the Act, as Trump expressed interest in keeping some of its most popular elements.

Lastly, Ben Carson’s nod for Housing and Urban Development is unique amongst every other nominee. The former neurosurgeon is a Washington outsider, and endorsed Mr. Trump after ending his own bid back in March. After taking himself out of the running for a cabinet position amid claims that his inexperience would “cripple the presidency”, his nomination is particularly surprising.


Despite claiming, during his electoral campaign, to “know more about ISIS than the generals do”, Trump’s heavy steer towards interviewing them makes sense, given his obvious lack of national security experience. Additionally, it is important to remember that most Republican foreign policy experts criticized the President-elect’s non-existent qualifications in the field, and that military figures enjoy significant popular support amongst the American electorate. While Flynn’s statements on Islamism and Kelly’s standing on torture techniques and equality in the military should raise strong concerns, it is reasonable to admit that, overall, all military figures seem adequately accomplished in their fields.

Trump’s cabinet is currently, even though it is still not complete, the richest ever assembled, as the President-elect’s tries to realize his plutocratic view of America. However, it is important to note that running a country and running a business are clearly not the same thing – the role of Governments, while still a fundamental question in any political science debate, does not revolve around turning profits. Ross, Mnuchin, or Tillerson are not regulators, but businessman who exploited the economy to their own advantage, being more likely to pursue policies that will benefit the top 1%, in detriment of the most vulnerable members of society. This is particularly problematic given that the distribution of wealth in the United States is already the most unequal in the world. Trump’s billionaire picks have also resulted in a very noticeable drop of government experience in comparison with the cabinets of his two predecessors, and adding to his own. Will they be apt to help the future President accomplish what he promised?

And why is Trump nominating powerful Wall Street figures after criticizing their ties to Washington insiders? His commitment to “drain the swamp” of the latter is also seemingly broken, since Donald Trump has given the nod to a very clear establishment figure in Elaine Chao, and repaired his relationship with former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, until recently one of the top picks for Secretary of State.

So far, Donald Trump is building a cabinet in his own image, gathering several extremely wealthy individuals, which are joined by military brass and a few selected Washington insiders. Many of his choices are controversial, inexperienced, break former commitments, or just plainly make very little sense. But most importantly, given the concerns raised about the President-elect, they offer both his working-class voters, and his doubters, very little reassurance.

Trump Tower. CC0 Public Domain

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David Ferreira

Research Assistant at CEI-IUL. Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science, specialisation in International Relations (ISCTE-IUL).

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