Written by Francesco DeSantis and Yuval Lev | 24 January 2017 at 11:27AM
President Donald Trump is a businessman with no prior experience in government. His business interests span the world and he has worked with state officials in several countries to build his hotels. During his presidential transition, Trump has failed to raise a clear barrier between his personal business interests and his role as President. His cabinet appointments also include several billionaires, making his one of the wealthiest Cabinets in history and teeming with possible conflicts-of-interest.
Over the course of their respective confirmation hearings in the Republican-controlled Senate, which were held before some nominees had submitted their ethics paperwork, several nominees said they would not be recusing themselves from decisions involving their interests indirectly. That sets a very low bar for his appointees, and the GOP-controlled Congress is not angling to raise it.
Donald Trump was inaugurated as President on January 20th, 2017. While we assume no clairvoyant abilities beyond evidence-based speculation, we can indeed speculate: his staff and cabinet picks signal a dark four years. The Trump team, and the man himself, have explained their assembly as an extremely decentralized Cabinet and staff, like a bizarro-world version of Lincoln’s team of rivals. Many secretaries will have free reign of their respective agencies, independent of the White House. Many advisors will have broad prerogative to act on behalf of the President. Much of this likely derives from Trump’s apparent disinterest in policy, or the function of government. He prefers to watch Fox News and other cable shows instead of reading briefings, or reading anything at all. This is the man who shunted daily intelligence briefings because he’s “like, a smart person.” Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do about the appointments, and once they’re in, the Trump years begin. To those who say we need to give Donald Trump a chance to govern before we judge him, we say, personnel really is policy. Constitutionally-questionable foreign ties, conflict-prone business interests, and lack of government experience (as well the usual regressive Republican ideology) characterize this dangerous administration.
It is up to all of us to be vigilant and understand the impact these appointments could have on you. Don’t allow Trump’s media blitzkrieg with several nominees in a short period of time work.
The Rogues Gallery
Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as the head of the United States Department of Justice is an especially egregious selection. Sen. Sessions has praised the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which instituted quotas for “racially inferior” immigrants. He has said, about the KKK, “I used to think they were okay,” until learning that they were “pot smokers.” Sessions was the first Senator to endorse Trump, and it was likely this was his price. Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship was rejected by a Republican-controlled Senate in 1986 because he was considered too racially acrimonious - and at that time even Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, wrote a letter to the Senate urging them to vote down Mr. Sessions. He will be replacing the first ever black female Attorney General Loretta Lynch. That man cannot be trusted to defend and enforce civil rights at the Department of Justice, respect the rights of states to legalize marijuana, or even work to reform the criminal justice system, which has become a bipartisan priority. Senate Democrats realize this and New Jersey’s Cory Booker broke with precedent to testify against Sessions along with civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis. He highlighted the contradiction of nominating a man who seems to stand against everything the Justice Department represents. Tragically for this country, Sessions will be confirmed by McConnell and his minions. Although Sessions was unpalatable to both parties 30 years ago, he now sadly appears right at home in a party that stands against voting rights and equal protection under the law.
Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and education lobbyist, is Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos’ view of education reform could signal a major victory for the so-called school choice movement that wants to privatize our public education system. She is a strong advocate of charter schools, and has lobbied for reduced oversight of charter schools in Michigan. She has openly advocated for the closure of Detroit public schools, with taxpayers’ money redirected toward charter school vouchers. She recently failed to disclose information about anti-union donations in ethics paperwork she submitted. The core issue with Ms. DeVos’ nomination is her conflicting interests in regard to educational policy. She and her husband are investors in a private student loan refinancing company, for instance, and as such cannot market directly to students. Her underlings are already lobbying the Trump administration about changing that rule. How can she be expected to remain impartial on such policy questions as the Secretary of Education? Moreover, her and her husband’s wealth is expansive, and undisclosed to the Office of Government Ethics. We don’t know what conflicts-of-interest she might have. Trump tried to bypass this with a flurry of confirmation hearings, but the potential for disaster in this case was so overwhelming that her hearings were initially delayed.
Now, with her hearings underway, she seems even less capable of doing the job before her. When asked by Sen. Tim Kaine whether schools that receive federal funding must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to address the individual needs of students’, DeVos responded, “I think that’s a matter best left to the states.” All due respect to Ms. DeVos, but that was the same argument used to defend segregation.
Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for Secretary of State, is the most obvious example of business interests likely conflicting with political decisions. His selection is also worrisome in principle, because the appointment suggests a level of crony-capitalism that borders on Fascism, known for the barely-legal but unjust cooperation between corporate and state power. Tillerson has never served his country in politics or diplomacy; he was the CEO of Exxon after rising through the ranks managing projects in sensitive countries. There is an argument that, as the head of a multinational oil conglomerate, he has had to negotiate with foreign governments. Exxon even does forecasting resembling the CIA. Despite his (limited) foreign policy experience however, Tillerson has often engaged in actions contrary to American interests abroad. He also seemingly lacks any qualms about propping up dictatorial regimes around the world when it was in Exxon’s interest. His conflicts-of-interest are some of the deepest within the Trump administration: His shares in long-term oil speculation projects would not be easily placed in a blind trust or given away, as they represent years of hard work and sometimes personal negotiations with foreign leaders. Tillerson has a personal connection to Putin and Russia’s oil oligarchs. He received the Order of Friendship, which is the highest honor given in Russia to a non-citizen, after negotiating oil speculation contracts with the regime. When pushed by Sen. Rubio on the question of whether or not Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, referring to the bombing of Aleppo, Tillerson dodged the question. Yet, Marco Rubio will vote for Tillerson’s confirmation today, moving the nomination out of committee and to a Senate floor vote, which Tillerson is certain to glide through.
His past could taint every foreign policy decision he makes, including which countries the U.S. aligns with, and would put a currently below-board influence of the oil industry on foreign affairs into outright policy, similar to the way the bankers are regularly appointed to oversee the financial industry on an unprecedented scale.
Jared Kushner is a 35 year old millionaire who made his money in media and owns the New York Post. He is an Orthodox Jew and Trump’s son-in-law, married to Ivanka Trump. His appointment is cause for concern because appointing relatives to high positions is a key sign of a paranoid, tyrannical reign. He was one of the key architects of the campaign and often had the last word on contentious issues. In recent days, he has been named a Senior Advisor to the President. This appears to be Trump’s attempt at narrowly skirting a 1967 anti-nepotism law that states, “A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official.” Since Kushner is not a blood-relative, nor is Trump appointing him to a post within an agency, he might just slip through the legal cracks.
Over the course of the campaign, Kushner has proven himself to be wily political operative, overseeing Trump’s digital strategy - which, while morally bankrupt, proved quite effective. He, along with Stephen Bannon, could be a key mind behind the an online political propaganda machine designed to help Trump manipulate facts and distort reality.
Representative Tom Price is a Georgia congressman, formerly an orthopedic surgeon.In recent years he has been laser-focused on dismantling the medical safety net in this country. Not only is he an erstwhile advocate of repealing the Affordable Care Act, he has introduced legislation to create private alternatives to Medicare. This is a case of GOP orthodoxy colliding with Trump/Pence populism. Trump claimed he “[would] not...let people die in the streets,” and Pence expanded Medicaid under Obamacare while serving as Governor of Indiana. Congressional Republicans want to repeal the law and turn Medicare into a block grant program divvied up by State - like the 1996 welfare reform, which has proven disastrous for the poor. Further, a less centralized administration means Price could make moves toward deconstructing American health policy without the same kind of approval from the White House as would be required in previous administrations.
Beyond the policy prescriptions, Price has come under fire since his nomination regarding his financial entanglements. He has traded nearly half a million dollars worth of health care stocks, while advocating policies that would see their value skyrocket. This has already occurred with the Australian pharmaceutical firm Innate Immunotherapeutics, which Price and Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY, the first Congressman to endorse Trump) have invested massive amounts in multiple times. They have since quintupled their money. Perhaps most damningly, Mr. Price bought shares in Zimmer, a medical device company, just a week before delaying regulations that would have inflicted significant financial damage on that company. This trend of outright conflicts of interest - bordering on corruption - is consistent with other Trump picks, such as Rex Tillerson or Betsy DeVos.
Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury, appears to be the most galling contradiction to Trump’s promise to “Drain the Swamp.” Originally a Goldman-Sachs banker like his brother and father, Mnuchin bought-out a small bank in California and renamed it One West. He carried out vicious foreclosure procedures during the housing crisis. In one famous example, a woman’s house was foreclosed on for missing 27 cents on a mortgage payment. In another case, a man was supposedly not occupying his home, so he was served with foreclosure papers - at the home he allegedly did not occupy. The irony is that Trump, in the primary, accused Ted Cruz of exploiting his wife’s position at Goldman-Sachs to get a loan, and Hillary Clinton in the general for supposedly being a puppet of the big banks - like Goldman-Sachs. This pick renders Trump’s claim of swamp drainage truly laughable.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Trump’s appointment to the post of National Security Advisor. Since 2014, he has worked in the private defense consulting industry and controversially sat Putin’s table at the Russia Today. He shares Trump’s penchant for tweeting inflammatory, often false statements - such as calling Islam a “cancer,” or that United Nations Agenda 21, a sustainable development program, would create a global church wherein Christianity was banned. Beyond that, however, and his extreme hawkishness toward Iran, he is a dangerous and erratic man. The accounts of people who have worked under him in defense are deeply concerning. He was forced out of his previous post a year before he was scheduled to leave because, in Colin Powell’s words “[he was] Abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc." Flynn was also the most vocal pro-Trump voice from the military establishment during the campaign, going against the uneasiness that most Republican foreign policy professionals felt and feel about Mr. Trump.
David Friedman, whose career has been spent as a bankruptcy attorney to Donald Trump and the Trump organization, is Trump’s nominee to be the Ambassador to Israel. This man has no diplomatic experience whatsoever, and yet is being considered as the Ambassador to one of our closest, most important allies. His support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank fly in the face of 50 years of precedent. He has falsely claimed that Huma Abedin, top aide to Hillary Clinton (and GW alum!), is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, and has called J street Jews “worse than kapos” - the overseers in the concentration camps. Although ambassadorships have historically been given to donation bundlers and other unqualified people, this key appointment crosses the line.
Elaine Chao is the wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and nominee for Secretary of Transportation. Her nomination once again illustrates just how clearly Trump’s nominees contradict his campaign promise to “Drain the Swamp.” Mrs. Chao is actually quite qualified for the position of Transportation Secretary, serving as Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, and under-Secretary of Transportation under Bush 41. She is the first Asian-American woman in U.S. Cabinet history. That said, it is virtually impossible to avoid the spectre of nepotism. Perhaps Trump is attempting to leverage a favor to the establishment wing of the party - especially McConnell and his wife - in exchange for legislative leeway in the Senate.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has zero experience with nuclear physics, but is nonetheless set to replace nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz as Secretary of Energy - a department that Perry vowed he would eliminate as a presidential candidate, and whose name he could not even remember in a presidential debate. Perry, as the former governor of Texas, is clearly expected to promote oil interests but has no other ties to other energy issues. Some of the main responsibilities of his department, such as overseeing nuclear energy and weapons, are issues in which he has no experience. If his lack of scientific qualifications did not disqualify him from running the agency that oversees our nuclear weapons, his rhetoric about that department certainly should have. His hearings went fairly smoothly, with the typical offense and defense from the Senate Democrats and GOP. The only really odd moment was when Gov. Perry said to Sen. Al Franken (D-MN, a former SNL writer) "I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch,".
Similarly, Scott Pruitt, whom Trump has chosen to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, wants to reduce the power of the very agency he is now nominated to lead. He sued the EPA as Attorney General of Oklahoma and wrote a letter of grievance which was revealed to have been completely written by fossil fuel corporations. While both egregious, the spirit of this selection should not have been terribly surprising; Trump has repeatedly claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax - an idea that virtually every climate scientist vehemently disputes - and berated the EPA for hindering the fossil fuel industry. In his confirmation hearings however, Pruitt stated clearly that believed that the Climate is changing, and that humans contribute to it - though his exact answers leave a significant amount of gray area. Unfortunately, climate change denial has been a staple of the contemporary Republican Party, and these figures are nothing more than the logical extremes of that rhetoric.
Ben Carson, tapped by Trump to be the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, admitted just weeks ago that he did not feel qualified to run a federal agency. In fact, other than his extraordinary surgical skills - which are irrelevant to HUD work - the only experience that Dr. Carson has with politics are his inappropriately timed excoriation of President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, his subsequent stint on Fox News, and his quixotic Presidential bid. Carson ran against Trump for the Republican nomination, but was an active surrogate for Trump after his exit from the race. Carson’s appointment is also an uncomfortable parallel to Reagan’s appointment of Samuel Pierce. Like Carson, Pierce was the only African-American in the Reagan administration, and like Carson, he was nominated to run HUD. Pierce also turned a blind eye to one of the most sinister corruption scandals of the Reagan administration, wherein Reagan’s development cronies were given enormous taxpayer-funded subsidies intended for low-income housing - while simultaneously, funding for housing projects in low-income areas stagnated or fell off totally. Interestingly, one of the people named in this scandal was Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Ben Carson is another completely unqualified nominee who is likely to run his department counter to its own expressed purpose.
Donald Trump’s cabinet presents unparalleled opportunities for conflicts-of-interest and unqualified leaders running their departments into the ground. The American people will also suffer because those in power take time and energy to focus on Trump’s regressive agenda and their own industry business interests rather than moving the country forward. On pressing issues such as climate change, rising inequality, and civil rights, Trump’s cabinet may cause stagnation or even regression in key areas. The unprecedented nature of this administration demands unprecedented scrutiny. Stay vigilant.
Francesco DeSantis is a Political Science student, writer, and Freshman Representative of the Progressive Roosevelt Institute think tank at GW. He believes hip-hop will be to Trump what punk was to Reagan.
Yuval Lev is a sophomore majoring in Political Communication and Director of the DemsBlog. He has a passion for media and politics and is trying to cut down on gallery fries.
The opinions of individual writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the organizational stance of the GW College Democrats. DemsBlog is committed to serving as a platform for a diverse range of ideas, opinions, and experiences.