What Trump’s Cabinet picks reveal
As President-elect Donald Trump fills out his Cabinet, a few things are becoming clear: He loves generals, he prizes loyalty and he especially values the loyalty of those who funded his presidential campaign.
Trump has so far chosen four major donors or fundraisers to join his Cabinet. With just over half of the jobs filled, he already has more high-end campaign donors in his Cabinet than either President Obama or President George W. Bush did when taking office.
Obama’s first Cabinet had more campaign donors — at least eight — in total than Trump, but the most any of them gave Obama was $9,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Many of Obama’s initial picks were Democratic politicians.
Presidents often reward campaign donors with foreign ambassadorships — France is an especially prized posting — and donors are sometimes offered top Cabinet positions. The current Commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, was Obama’s national finance chairman in the 2008 campaign.
Trump, however, has gone further in rewarding his biggest donors.
Former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin, the president-elect’s choice for Treasury secretary, served as Trump’s top fundraiser and personally contributed $430,000 to Trump and to the Republican National Committee’s joint fundraising account.
Pro wrestling magnate Linda McMahon, Trump’s pick to head the Small Business Administration, gave $6 million to Rebuilding America Now, a super PAC that backed Trump. She also gave $153,000 to Trump’s joint fundraising account and more than $400,000 to the RNC.
Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, Trump’s choice for Commerce secretary, had a senior role on Trump’s fundraising team. He gave $200,000 to Trump’s joint fundraising account and $117,000 to the RNC.
Andy Puzder, the fast-food CEO chosen for Labor secretary, raised campaign cash for Trump and personally contributed $388,000 to the RNC and $150,000 to Trump’s joint fundraiser. He also gave $10,000 to Rebuilding America Now.
Another Trump Cabinet selection, Betsy DeVos, belongs to one of the top Republican donor families in the country. The Education secretary pick, however, was no booster of Trump’s. She gave $50,000 to a super PAC supporting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Trump’s rival in the GOP primaries. She also wired the maximum amount to another of Trump’s primary rivals, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Trump is taking a political gamble by choosing major donors for such lofty posts.
One of his biggest campaign promises was to “drain the swamp.” And for 18 months he campaigned, theatrically, on the most populist message seen in recent Republican politics. He thrilled his crowds by ridiculing the donor class that he said dictates much of the Washington agenda.
Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, says that a big part of Trump’s appeal was that the billionaire self-funded his primary campaign. Despite Trump’s reversal in the general election — he began soliciting campaign donations and tacitly blessed outside super PACs — many of his fervent supporters believe he is beholden to no one.
Democrats are seeking to portray the incoming president as a man more likely to fill Washington’s swamp rather than drain it.
And some of Trump’s staunchest allies aren’t pleased with some of the Cabinet selections, particularly Puzder.
Hours before Trump had announced Puzder on Thursday, three hard-line immigration groups criticized the fast-food CEO’s selection on the grounds that he would be too sympathetic to foreign workers.
“President-elect Trump’s choice of Andrew Puzder to run the Department of Labor raises questions and concerns about whether he will vigorously defend the interests of American workers,” Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a statement.
“Puzder has served as an executive of a fast food conglomerate,” he added, “an industry that has thrived on low-wage labor, illegal workers, and which has lobbied for greater access to foreign guest workers to maximize corporate profits.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, was even rougher on Puzder.
“Bad news,” Krikorian told The Hill in an email Thursday. He sent The Hill a link to an article Puzder wrote in The Wall Street Journal last June.
In the section of the article most troubling to Krikorian, Puzder praises the contribution of immigrant workers. He writes: “The American Enterprise Institute found in 2011 that ‘temporary foreign workers — both skilled and less skilled — boost U.S. employment’ and that immigrants with advanced degrees working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields ‘boost employment for U.S. citizens.’”
“Considering that managing the importation of guest workers is part of the Labor Department’s responsibility, Puzder’s views on other immigration issues are irrelevant, ” Krikorian said.
“He’s full-on Gang of Eight when it comes to the piece of immigration policy he’ll be responsible for,” added Krikorian, referring to Congress’s failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Trump’s top allies argue that the donors picked for the president-elect’s Cabinet are, for the most part, in lock step with his agenda.
A senior source in Trump’s close orbit told The Hill that it would be wrong to see the Cabinet selections as a move toward the agenda of the donor class. The people Trump has chosen, the source said, are not the kind of free-market purists who have long held power in the Republican Party.
The source singled out Wilbur Ross as a case in point.
Ross is a billionaire who made his fortune by investing in distressed businesses. The New York Times’s DealBook depicted Ross as a complicated character, a risk-taker who could be viewed either as a “vulture” picking off the carcasses of American companies or as a “phoenix” raising them from ashes.
But Ross is not seen as coming from the free-trade school dominant in conservative Washington politics.
For one thing, he’s a former Democrat. For another, he is down in writing agreeing with Trump’s nationalist prescriptions for protecting American jobs.
In the senior Trump source’s telling, Ross is “one of these anti-offshoring billionaires.”
Ross co-authored the Trump campaign’s economic white paper, which proposed “eliminating America’s chronic trade deficit.”
“And if we have to use tariffs, so be it,” the source added. “We’re not bringing in outsourcing CEOs. We’re bringing in guys who challenged conventional wisdom.”
Trump will likely respond to criticisms about these donors the same way he’s dealt with criticism throughout his campaign: He’ll shrug it off.
And he wrote the playbook for doing so.
In a triumphal rally in Cincinnati last week, Trump hit back at those criticizing his decision to nominate a billionaire donor to run his Commerce Department.
“The guy knows how to make money, folks,” Trump said.