Political Landscape

The Incoming US Government and its Cabinet: An Overview

§Trump Presidency: First 100 Days

It is customary in American politics that a presidential nominee outline a vision for their first term as US President.

Presidential nominee Trump had sketched out the following platform for his first 100 days as President:

  • Design the wall with Mexico
  • Audit the Federal Reserve
  • Implement the Muslim immigration ban
  • Move to repeal Obamacare
  • Rescind Obama’s executive order on immigration
  • Pick a Scalia-like nominee for the US Supreme Court

Contrast these with what President-elect Trump unveiled as his administration’s top policies on November 21, 2016, through a YouTube video:

  • Trade: Withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, replacing it with negotiating “fair bilateral trade deals”.
  • Energy: Loosen “job-killing” restrictions on American energy production.
  • Regulations: Cut regulations dramatically (such as on shale and clean coal).
  • National Security: Ask his national security team and the Department of Defense to buttress against infrastructure attacks by developing safeguard policies against cyberattacks and “all other forms of attacks”.
  • Immigration: Trump pledged to “investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker”.
  • Ethics Reform: Impose fresh bans on lobbying by government employees such as a 5year ban on executive officials becoming lobbyists after they leave the administration while a lifetime ban on the same officials lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.

Although characteristic of the same protectionist and nativist track championed by Presidential nominee Trump, President-elect Trump’s agenda emphasizes that Trump’s charge would begin with a “very busy first day”, indicating that the incoming president would invest his political capital on priorities that would produce quick yet quality results. This makes sense: Time and speed will be critical as the incoming president aims for larger and more durable wins in his first presidential year.

President-elect Trump’s six items are relatively easy lifts, only requiring a Trump signature and no congressional approval. But what stands out from this preview is that Trump did not mention his most significant campaign promises: building a wall along the Mexican border, repealing Obamacare, spending $1 trillion on infrastructure, and placing new restrictions on immigration from some majority Muslim countries.Trump’s tango with hyperbole has never wavered: He had once claimed that with him as President, his supporters were going to “win so big”, they would soon be “sick of winning”. Now, arguably, he is perhaps even moderating some of his toughest campaign stances that include implementing a registry for Muslims in the US and completely repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).


During the election cycle, Trump had been vociferous in pledging to rescind every “executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama”. His campaign had sought to identify “maybe twenty-five executive orders” that Trump could reverse as President, effectively erasing the Obama Presidency and legacy. Yet, this is another agenda where Trump has seemingly calmed down, even stating that he would likely retain key elements of Obamacare.

Ultimately, President Trump’s first 100 days (and perhaps beyond) may be characterized by Nixon’s infamous words: “When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal”. Whether or not this is true, America will have to do what it did with most of Trump’s presidential campaign: wait and see.

Foreign Policy: First 100 Days

A leader’s beliefs matter. Particularly on foreign policy, where he/she has ample space to exert immediate clout.  Other leader attributes such as age and experience may further interact with key beliefs to affect how leaders make decisions. In democracies and mixed regimes, older leaders (particularly those over 70, Trump’s age) are more prone to aggression. Trump’s core beliefs revolve around “opposition to America’s alliance relationships” and “opposition to free trade” as identified by Thomas Wright early in the election campaign.

Today, Americans are reflecting on hard questions about the type of global leadership role they want their country to play. President-elect Trump will have to employ singular discipline and imagination to address the simultaneity of proliferating challenges and constrained appetite.  

Henry Kissinger rightly identifies there to be a gap “between the public’s perception of the role of US foreign policy and the elite’s perception”. With a non-establishment US president to take power, this may be the opportunity to reconcile the two. Most DC elites, regardless of party affiliation, appear internationalist, favoring maintaining US alliances abroad. With more traditional Republican voices in the Senate and Congress acting as foreign policy watchdogs, President-elect Trump is likely to preserve this modus operandi, albeit with an increased rhetoric of calling on allies such as NATO, Japan, and South Korea to do more. Other such foreign policy ‘regulators’ will also include the American public, the media, and the attitude of foreign leaders.

The voices of foreign allies are likely to be more active now. One case where this is likely to be true is the Iran Deal. Particularly keeping trans-Atlantic relations in mind, Ambassador Nicholas Burns rightly points out that “there is zero chance” American allies such as Germany, Britain or France will agree to re-impose sanctions against Iran if the new US administration ousts the Iran Deal.

Powers like Russia and China are likely to wait to see how the situation evolves. What may be challenging in the short-term is the possibility of non-state actors having an incentive to provoke a US reaction that undermines the US global position. Reflection before reaction has to be the incoming president’s motto. Ultimately, as emphasized by Kissinger, two key themes may help guide the incoming Trump administration’s strategic thinking:

  • “What is the US trying to achieve, even if it must pursue it alone?”
  • “What is the US trying to prevent, even if it must combat it alone?”


Overcoming the American national/political divide

This divisive, rancorous election campaign revealed a double deficit of trust: a horizontal distrust across geography, states, communities and even families and social identities, along with a vertical dimension across authority and establishment. This twin trust deficit did not happen overnight. Yes, Americans always shared various values and disagreements but a unifying glue had always been present. Alarmingly, the recent embittered politics assumed that the US is endlessly resilient: Americans treated the US as if it were a football when in fact, the latter has come to be as sensitive and fragile as an egg.

People need the political authority to help develop a narrative to explain why Americans are feeling how they are feeling: disillusioned and disenfranchised. People must understand how distrust became rampant and a part of the political system. It became a tool to bash the government, a way to reduce dependency on the Federal circle, and an apparatus to portray the government as a problem. Labeling every political fiasco as another Watergate has fast become the norm. Undermining people who do not share the same values and points of view through accusations of a liar and a crook is not viable. The innocence of government people who actually care and work needs to be restored. At the same time, people must understand that some bureaucrats are doing good work but  because they also want to do well personally. As a politician, that is a fair ambition to possess.

President-elect Trump does have a potent advantage: he is well-versed in deal-making and has intellectual capacity, the latter being grossly underestimated in the recently-concluded election cycle. Such qualities need to be used to heal divisions and help communities find common-ground, particularly rejuvenating lateral bonds of trust. Come January, Trump will be on a steep learning curve and must enjoy what he learns. He has been accused of being rash, harsh, and too spontaneous. But now that the presidency is his, he should relax, be composed and be reflective before reacting. His ‘fighting’ quality needs to recede in the background, being substituted with diplomacy and empathy. More critically, Trump needs to enrich himself by asking solid, hard questions from his advisors to smoke out the underside of key issues.


 Decisions the incoming US President can (and cannot) take on his own

Incoming leaders have their own ambitious agendas and campaign promises to keep. However, not all priorities may be accomplished single-handedly: some decisions require Congress approval while others pose different obstacles such as commitment to international partners. The following presents a snapshot of Donald Trump’s pre-election promises and pledges, outlining the autonomy he will have (as US President) concerning each agenda. Also captured below is the frequency with which he had mentioned the promised commitments during his speeches (This frequency is based on transcripts from 122 rallies and speeches over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, as recorded by the New York Times).

Incoming Cabinet

After the hype and melodrama of Election Day, the US has turned its focus on the incoming Cabinet as President-elect Trump selects the men and women who will fill his administration. So far, his picks largely indicate that loyalty is paramount, with early Trump backers and campaigners poised to form the inner circle of the new Oval Office. Yet, this has also expectedly sparked alarm, frustration, and confusion among the opposite camp.

The Cabinet & Administration Short List

  • Commerce Secretary: Wilbur Ross

The Commerce Department has suffered recurring budget cuts but the Commerce Secretary position still entails a diverse portfolio, overseeing the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Census, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The nominee, Wilbur Ross, an investor with an estimated fortune of $2.9 billion, has stated that the US must rid itself from the “bondage” of “bad trade agreements” and has ushered threats to impose sharp tariffs on China.

  • Education Secretary: Betsy DeVos

To implement his aims to dramatically shrink the Education Department and shift responsibilities for curriculum research and education aid to state/local governments, Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, an education activist, and a passionate believer in school choice.

  • Health & Human Services Secretary: Tom Price

This Cabinet official will be critical if President-elect Trump is to fulfill one of his central campaign pledges of repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) and installing a fresh health system. Tom Price is Mr. Trump’s selection for this crucial position: a six-term Republican congressman from Georgia and an orthopedic surgeon, Mr. Price has opposed the ACA on the basis that it obstructs the ability of patients and doctors alike to make medical decisions.

  • Housing and Urban Development Secretary: Ben Carson

This position manages fair-housing laws, access to mortgage insurance, and development of affordable housing. Dr. Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon and Trump’s rival in the Republican presidential primaries, is expected to be nominated for this position, despite Dr. Carson previously stating that he does not want to work in the government.

  • Transportation Secretary: Elaine L. Chao

The new top transportation official will regulate and administer President-elect Trump’s campaign promises of increasing infrastructure funding to rebuild the country’s airports, roads, bridges, and transit systems. Elaine L. Chao, a former Labor secretary for George W. Bush, has been selected for this position. Ms. Chao is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and is popular among the Republican establishment.

  • Defense Secretary: James N. Mattis

This position will be ever so critical for shaping US foreign engagements and the fight against the Islamic State. Significant decisions will include rolling back or continuing with the Obama era initiatives of integrating women into combat roles and allowing transgender people to serve openly. Former four-star Army General Jack Keane had been offered this position but declined the offer for personal reasons, recommending former generals James Mattis and David Petraeus instead. Other contenders had included current and past senators (Tom Cotton and Jon Kyl), Representatives (Duncan Hunter), and former government officials (Stephen J. Hadley). Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and the former head of US Central Command, ultimately emerged as the President-elect’s pick for the nomination: Gen. Mattis had been the leading candidate for the Defense Secretary slot, according to the President-elect’s Twitter account.

  • Attorney General of the United States: Jeff Sessions

Billed as the country’s top law enforcement executive, the Attorney General will possess the authority for carrying out the new president’s ‘law and order’ policies, also having the ability to change how civil rights laws are enforced. The controversial Senator of Alabama, Jeff Sessions, has been nominated for the job. This choice has stood out for the wrong reasons: Sessions is a vigorous proponent of strict immigration enforcement, reduced spending and tough-on-crime measures while his nomination for a federal judgeship during the Reagan years was rejected due to racially charged comments and actions. This is one of the President-elect’s most contentious picks for the incoming government so far and among all his nominations, the most likely one to face confirmation hiccups.

  • US Ambassador to the United Nations: Nikki R. Haley

This official, second to the US Secretary of State, is the primary face of the US to the UN and the world, championing various American interests in an often-frustrating international bureaucracy. This position entails profound diplomatic and navigational skills. The incoming US ambassador to the UN will have to diligently shape US-Russian relations at the UN amid concerns that the new US President will be too cozy with Putin: Russia and the US are both veto-wielding Security Council members, which often puts them at odds with one another. The governor of South Carolina and a former critic of Trump, Nikki Haley, has been nominated for this position. Reportedly, her criticism of Trump is believed to have kept her off Trump’s list of vice presidential candidates. Ms. Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India and a rising star in the GOP, was the President-elect’s first female appointee to a Cabinet-level post: Trump called her “a proven deal-maker”. Although Haley is an unknown in the foreign policy arena, Senator Tim Kaine (the Democratic vice-presidential nominee) viewed her executive experience as an asset in her new role.

  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo

The initial calls faced by the incoming CIA Director will include deciding to continue or abandon his predecessor’s (John Brennan) CIA ‘modernization’ plan and chalking out a strategy on how to proceed if Trump orders a resumption of harsh interrogation tactics (that have been labelled by critics including John McCain as ‘torture’) for terrorism suspects. Besides being a former US Army officer, Mike Pompeo, Representative of Kansas, is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is a relative newcomer in the Trump circle but notably sharply criticized Hillary Clinton in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack of 2012. Pompeo heavily rebuked the Iran nuclear deal and believes Edward Snowden to be a traitor deserving the death sentence.

  • National Security Adviser: Michael Flynn

The national security adviser is not a cabinet member but is a “critical gatekeeper” for consolidating policy proposals from various agencies including the State Department and the Pentagon. The national security adviser is likely to assume outsize, given the dearth of government and security experience among the Trump team. However, Trump’s nomination for this position, Michael Flynn, is an audacious and controversial pick. Flynn, a former US Army lieutenant general, was retired as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. In addition, Flynn has been a sharp critic of Islam, declaring it to be “a political ideology”. He is vocal of the Islamist militancy dangers, believing IS extremists to pose an existential threat globally. Flynn also accused the Obama administration of being too soft on terrorism. Nomination for this position does not require Senate confirmation.

  • White House Chief of Staff: Reince Priebus

Managing the personnel of the West Wing, steering the president’s agenda, and tending to important relationships. These are key tasks handled by the Chief of Staff. As with the national security adviser position, the Chief of Staff will also assume greater responsibility in a Trump administration that lacks policy-making experience and balancing precarious relationships between critical players in DC. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was marked as the White House Chief of Staff a mere few days after the election result. Nomination for this position does not require Senate confirmation.

  • Chief Strategist: Stephen K. Bannon

Steve Bannon, like Priebus, was nominated early in his position as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor in the White House. Bannon, a right-wing media mogul and the chairman of the president-elect’s campaign, was earlier considered by Trump for the Chief of Staff job. He will work “as equal partners” with Priebus in the new administration. Along with Flynn (National Security Adviser) and Sessions (Attorney General), Bannon is among the most contentious and disquieting nominations so far by the President-elect. He has acquired fierce critics (including civil rights groups, Democrats and even Republican strategists) who fear he will bring “anti-Semitic, nationalist and racist views to the West Wing”. Nomination for this position does not require Senate confirmation.

  • Secretary of State: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

Arguably the most distinguished and esteemed Cabinet position, the Secretary of State position has Trump loyalists, ideologues and relatively seasoned foreign policy minds as potentials. This official plays a critical role in the post-1945 setup of alliance-building and globalism, something which the President-elect desires to shift away from. As such, the nominated candidate will have to balance the new President’s inclinations with the traditional role of the State Department.

The following are thought to be in the run to be America’s top diplomat:

  • Mitt Romney (The 2012 Republican presidential nominee; Former governor of Massachusetts; Romney is among the leading candidates, despite his fierce criticism of Trump during the election cycle)
  • David H. Petraeus (Former four-star US Army General; Former CIA Director, who resigned amid a scandal involving the mishandling of classified material)
  • Rudolph (Rudy) W. Giuliani (Former mayor of New York; Early Trump supporter during the election campaign; Mr. Giuliani’s security firm’s ties to the Qatari government and his speeches to an Iranian exile opposition group that (until 2012) had been on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations list are frequently debated; Also a possible candidate for the Homeland Security Secretary and Director of National Intelligence positions)
  • John R. Bolton (Former US Ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush)
  • Bob Corker (Senator from Tennessee; Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee)
  • Zalmay Khalilzad (Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan)

–     Treasury Secretary: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

The top Treasury position entails responsibilities for government borrowing in financial markets, assisting in any rewrite of the tax code and managing the Internal Revenue Service. The Treasury Department further carries out/lifts financial sanctions against foreign countries (e.g. on Iran, DPRK, and Cuba) and terrorist organizations. Steven Mnuchin, an anti-establishment Goldman Sachs partner, is a strong favorite for this position: Trump himself has indicated that he wants to select Mnuchin, his campaign finance chairman, for the top Treasury job.

The following are in the run to be America’s Treasury Secretary:

  • Steven Mnuchin (Trump campaign’s Finance Chairman; Former Goldman Sachs executive, Current Chairman and Chief Executive of the private investment firm Dune Capital Management)
  • Thomas Barrack Jr. (Founder, Chairman and Executive Chairman of Colony Capital; Private equity and real estate investor)
  • Tim Pawlenty (Former Minnesota Governor)
  • Jeb Hensarling (Texas Representative; Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee)

–     Director of National Intelligence: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

This will be the president’s principal adviser on intelligence, responsible for the holistic civil-military intelligence apparatus. The director will be critical in driving coordination between the intelligence agencies, particularly for the war on the Islamic State.

The following are in the run to be America’s Director of National Intelligence:

  • Rudolph W. Giuliani (Former Mayor of New York; Early Trump supporter during the election campaign; Mr. Giuliani’s security firm’s ties to the Qatari government and his speeches to an Iranian exile opposition group that (until 2012) had been on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations list are frequently debated; Also a possible candidate for the Homeland Security Secretary and Secretary of State positions)
  • Michael S. Rogers (Navy admiral; Current director of the National Security Agency; his selection may be complicated, given the Obama administration is currently contemplating removing him from office after his slow response to combat the Islamic State)

–     Interior Secretary: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

Responsible for American public lands and waters, the incoming Interior Secretary has crucial decisions to make: roll back Obama administration rules that block public land development, restrict the exploration of oil, coal and gas, and encourage wind and solar power on public lands. The President-elect has a selection of politicians and company executives to choose from.

The following are in the run to be America’s Interior Secretary:

  • Forrest Lucas (President of Lucas Oil Products that produces automotive lubricants)
  • Sarah Palin (Former Alaska Governor; Republican Party nominee for Vice President in the 2008 US election; Also a possible candidate for the Secretary of Veteran Affairs position)
  • Jan Brewer (Former Arizona Governor)
  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Representative from Washington)
  • Robert E. Grady (Venture capitalist; Gryphon Investors partner; Served in the George

H.W. Bush administration; also a possible candidate for the Energy Secretary and EPA Administrator positions)

  • Harold G. Hamm (Chief Executive of the oil and gas company, Continental Resources; an Oklahoma billionaire and a close friend of Trump, having had a significant influence on Trump’s energy policy platform; also a possible candidate for the Energy Secretary position)

–     Agriculture Secretary: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

The agriculture secretary oversees America’s farming industry, inspects food quality and provides income-based food assistance. The department also helps develop international markets for American products, giving the next secretary partial responsibility to carry out Mr. Trump’s positions on trade. Trump has a relatively wide variety of nearly 70 leaders on his agricultural advisory committee to choose from.

The following are in the run to be America’s Agriculture Secretary:

  • Sam Brownback (Kansas governor)
  • Sonny Perdue (Former Governor of Georgia)
  • Chuck Conner (COO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives)
  • Sid Miller (Texas Commissioner of Agriculture)

–    Labor Secretary: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

This Cabinet official manages rules that protect the country’s workers, distributes benefits to the unemployed and publishes economic data (e.g. monthly jobs report). This position is important for President-elect Trump’s campaign promise of dismantling Obama-era rules covering the vast work force of federal contractors.

The following are in the run to be America’s Labor Secretary:

  • Victoria A. Lipnic (Equal Employment Opportunity commissioner and workforce policy counsel to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce)

–    Energy Secretary: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

Contrary to popular belief, the Energy Secretary manages the White House purview to protect and handle the country’s nuclear weapons.

The following are in the run to be America’s Energy Secretary:


  •  James L. Connaughton (Former environmental adviser to President George W. Bush; Chief Executive of Nautilus Data Technologies)
  • Robert E. Grady (Venture capitalist; Gryphon Investors partner; Served in the George H.W. Bush administration; also a possible candidate for the Interior Secretary and EPA Administrator positions)
  •  Harold G. Hamm (Chief Executive of the oil and gas company, Continental Resources; an Oklahoma billionaire and a close friend of Trump, having had a significant influence on Trump’s energy policy platform; also a possible candidate for the Interior Secretary position)

–    Secretary of Veteran Affairs: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

The secretary will face the task of improving the image of a department Mr. Trump has widely criticized. Mr. Trump repeatedly argued that the Obama administration neglected the country’s veterans, and he said that improving their care was one of his top priorities.

The following are in the run to be America’s Secretary of Veteran Affairs:

  • Sarah Palin (Former Alaska Governor; Republican Party nominee for Vice President in the 2008 US election; Also a possible candidate for the Interior Secretary position)
  • Scott Brown (Former Massachusetts senator)
  • Jeff Miller (Retired representative from Florida; Former Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee)


–     Homeland Security Secretary: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

This agency was established in the aftermath of 9/11 and is still working to settle at a firm goal(s). However, in the Trump administration, the Homeland Security Secretary becomes key since he will oversee the US guarding its borders. The Secretary will be busy if the Trump administration keeps its promises of widespread deportations and building the Mexico wall.

The following are in the run to be America’s Homeland Security Secretary:

  • Joe Arpaio (Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona)
  • Rudolph W. Giuliani (Former Mayor of New York; Early Trump supporter during the election campaign; Mr. Giuliani’s security firm’s ties to the Qatari government and his speeches to an Iranian exile opposition group that (until 2012) had been on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations list are frequently debated; Also a possible candidate for the Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence positions)
  • John F. Kelly (Retired four-star Marine general; His son was killed in combat in Afghanistan)
  • David A. Clarke Jr. (Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin)
  • Kris Kobach (Secretary of State for Kansas; Top adviser to President-elect Trump on his hard-line immigration policies)
  • Michael McCaul (Texas Representative; Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee)


Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

This position manages the country’s environmental regulations. Early on in the campaign, Trump had promised to dismantle the EPA “in almost every form. Later, Trump stated that he would “refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans”. Either way, the EPA administrator will quickly become inundated with work in a Trump administration.

The following are in the run to be America’s EPA Administrator:


  • Robert E. Grady (Venture capitalist; Gryphon Investors partner; served in the George H.W. Bush administration; also a possible candidate for the Interior Secretary and Energy Secretary positions; had been involved in drafting the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990)
  • Myron Ebell (Director at Competitive Enterprise Institute; Climate change skeptic; Runs the EPA working group on Trump’s transition team)
  • Jeffrey R. Holmstead (Lawyer at Bracewell L.L.P.; Former Deputy EPA administrator under George W. Bush)


–    US Trade Representative: Not yet nominated (as of December 4, 2016)

This official will be the chief US trade negotiator. Uniquely, the top trade representative may actually end up opposing new trade deals, rewriting fresh ones, and consolidating President-elect

Trump’s enforcement of what the incoming president views as unfair trade, particularly with China.

The following are in the run to be America’s US Trade Representative:

  • Dan DiMicco (Former Chief Executive of Nucor Corporation that is a steel production company; Critic of Chinese trade practices)



In the shortlist and nominated candidates so far, President-elect Trump does not possess the typical cadre of establishment insiders. The Cabinet contenders primarily include anti establishment surrogates, industry titans and conservative activists. A handful of mainstream Republican minds (possibly Mitt Romney) are still likely to make the cut. The President-elect has also provided unique juxtapositions such as announcing the Transportation and Health & Human Services secretaries on the same day. Crucial recurring themes for shortlisting candidates have included plucking them from the private sector and rewarding loyalists who stood by the president-elect during the bruising election campaign.

Yet, nominations like those of Jeff Sessions (first Senator to endorse Trump), Steve Bannon (Trump’s presidential campaign CEO), and Michael Flynn (Trump’s top military adviser) are highly contentious, provocative and do little to unite the divided country. According to transcripts, Sessions was accused of joking that he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was OK” until he learned its members smoked marijuana while also calling a black assistant attorney “boy.” Sessions has denied making some of the comments and said the others were jokes taken out of context. Bannon was the head of Breitbart website that was widely seen as sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic: the incoming senior counselor himself referred to Breitbart as a platform for the “alt-right” (a far-right group that hovers over white nationalism and populism). Bannon has frequently been accused of being a “white supremacist”. Meanwhile, General Flynn has been accused of embellishment and poor interpersonal skills. Colin Powell, in an email, wrote:

“Abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc.” No former high level official who views Flynn as an appropriate appointment has come forward so far. Flynn has been an outspoken critic of political Islam, advocating a global campaign led by the US against radical Islam. Flynn once expressed on Twitter that fearing Muslims was rational. Such selections hint at how Trump’s political debts to the alt-right might manifest itself in the incoming administration. Critically, Bannon and Flynn’s appointment as Chief Strategist and National Security Adviser respectively do not require Senate confirmation.

Interestingly, Cabinet positions such as the Health & Services Secretary, the Energy Secretary, and the US Trade Representative that are typically not contentious or hyped up have become highly publicized. This reflects how far-reaching and singular Trump’s campaign platform was, reminding voters of the sweeping shift away from the establishment a Trump administration is shaping. Additionally, the Trump Cabinet selection and nomination has been quite a public process (CNN trained a camera on the President-elect’s golf club’s wooden front door throughout the day where and when Trump was meeting hopeful potentials). As with the election campaign, Trump is doing things Trump’s way.

And who is leading the transition effort for the President-elect? This responsibility (taken away from Chris Christie) was given to the Vice-President-elect, Mike Pence. Pence, a Trump loyalist yet with deep contacts in Capitol Hill will be critical in navigating this delicate transition period. But with additional Trump loyalists such as Steve Bannon as top transition advisers, the

President-elect is keeping close the circle of anti-Washington advisers. Notably, three of the Trump children and his son-in-law, are also an integral part of the 16-member advisory committee.

Through “research into seven parliamentary and presidential democracies (including the United States)”, the Washington Post identified three (unwritten and informal) rules for cabinet appointments:

  • Cabinet members must possess relevant (i.e. germane to their Cabinet appointment) educational credentials and/or experience in government/private sector
  • Leaders appoint Cabinet members particularly based on whom they can trust and who have demonstrated loyalty to them/their party
  • Cabinets should resemble/look like the country in some way i.e. Cabinets need to be representative of citizens and their interests

Despite the drama ensuing Cabinet nominations, President-elect Trump appears to be generally satisfying the first two rules. Elaine Chao, Nikki Haley and Mitt Romney hail from the traditional Republican bloc. Nominees like Jeff Sessions, however controversial, have education credentials and government experience. Likewise, despite her share of controversies, Betsy DeVos (nominee for secretary of education) has experience in education reform, especially the charter school movement.

It is the third rule which particularly makes the Cabinet stand out: the Cabinet does not “look like” the country in any way. The probable Cabinet members are not representative of Americans and of their interests. Yes, not everyone in a country gets equal representation but this Cabinet will shape an extraordinary relationship between a Western democracy and fair representation. Appointing a conventional and representative Cabinet could have been a major way for the President-elect to be able to claim his victory speech promise of becoming “a President for all Americans.”


The incoming White House and Cabinet roster may end up ranking among the least experienced in recent presidential history. Norman Eisen, a former ambassador who was part of Obama’s

White House transition team in 2008, aptly summed up the current situation: “When we were in the Obama transition, one of the big concerns we had that there were a lot of people coming into government who did not necessarily have federal government experience. The Trump transition has that problem on steroids.”

Among Trump’s picks who have never worked in government are prominent names such as Steve Bannon (White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor), Reince Priebus (White

House Chief of Staff), Betsy DeVos (Education Secretary), Dr. Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development Secretary), and Wilbur Ross (Commerce Secretary). Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, being touted as a White House adviser, also has no government experience to his name. But then, nor does Trump.

Additionally, the ones with government experience under their belt, such as South Carolina

Governor Nikki Haley, do not seem to have the relevant government experience: Haley has been nominated as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, yet has little, if any, official foreign policy experience. Eisen, describing the Trump Cabinet, stated: “You have either no experience or the wrong kind of experience [in the incoming new Cabinet]”.

Some Trump nominations are raising eyebrows for reasons other than experience: the likely new National Security Adviser, Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, was previously retired in 2014 as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, partly due to concerns over his management style, which one former Pentagon official described as “disruptive”. Even a figure within the Trump transition team voiced concerns that Flynn lacks the prerequisite diplomatic style for the National Security Adviser post: “He [Flynn] should be coordinating policy, not dictating it. Imagine how this will go: [James] Mattis [former commander of US Central Command who outranked Flynn, is generally well liked and is being touted as the new Defense Secretary] disagrees with Flynn. Does Flynn then scream at him or spend time undermining him? …how does Flynn handle a situation where all of the Cabinet is unified and Trump disagrees?”

However, Jay Lefkowitz (Bush Jr.’s adviser on domestic policy) believes that by nominating a relatively inexperienced cabinet, Trump is shifting away from “conventional politics and conventional bureaucrats”, noting that for instance, the nominated Education Secretary, DeVos’ lack of federal government experience, makes her ideal for an agency desperately wanting reform. As such, Lefkowitz concluded that having new faces in key posts is “a net positive, not a net negative”.

Ultimately, inexperience issues are likely to add up to pose potential problems in policy development and governance. Yet, what may also likely emerge with inexperienced Cabinet appointees is the selection of more seasoned deputies to push agendas through the government machinery, cushioning against the inexperience complications.


President-elect Trump still has plenty of time to evaluate his options and make the final picks. Compared with the past five new presidents, Trump seems to be well ahead of schedule. As the chart outlines, most Cabinet nominations are finalized during December (with December 25 being a target date for recent presidents) through a staid journey. Generally, nominations for the heads of the Treasury, Justice and Commerce departments are the quickest to be finalized while the slowest are Interior, Energy and Transportation department heads.

The chart further shows that the incoming Cabinets for the last five new presidents were completed by the New Year, on average. President Obama was the quickest to name his Cabinet (within 32 days before his inauguration) while George H.W. Bush took the longest (not naming his final Cabinet member until over a week before he was sworn in). However, Obama did not finalize his first pick until November 21 and his second one until after Thanksgiving while Reagan made his picks in large clusters (six on December 11 and four on December 22). Since 1980, just 2 of the 70 eventual Cabinet announcements for the five new presidents had been made by November 17 of the year before the inauguration.

Foreign Policy & Security

Despite the rumor mill fast churning out potential nominations, the Cabinet roster for security and foreign policy, is tough to pigeonhole Loyalists (such as Rudy Giuliani), former Trump adversaries (Mitt Romney), and former veterans (Gen. James Mattis) are all in the mix.

Romney particularly, if chosen to be the top American diplomat, is viewed as a moderating influence on the potential hard-liners nominated for defense and security. Such was Romney’s earlier harsh and personal vitriol against Trump that the anti-Romney bandwagon now includes Kellyanne Conway, (Trump’s campaign manager), conservative stalwarts such as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, and others including Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) and influential conservative activist Brent Bozell. This like-minded group strongly favors Rudy Giuliani, with some believing the loyal Trump backer deserves the Secretary of State post out of sheer loyalty. Yet, Romney’s criticism has reportedly irked Trump: The President-elect was “furious” particularly at Conway’s comments. Those favoring Romney for the Cabinet’s most prestigious office do include Vice President-elect Mike Pence, trusting Romney to lead US diplomacy.

This escalating feud has brought forward former Army General David Petraeus as another candidate for the same position. The general had been adopting a patient ‘wait and see’ approach on the matter and is among the most influential American military officers. However, with a controversial end to his government career as CIA Director (Petraeus pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of mishandling classified information amid scandal revelations that he had an affair with his biographer), Petraeus may face a tough Senate confirmation process. Numerous GOP senators have privately warned of a political fallout if the general is nominated as Secretary of State, indicating a “high level of angst” among Republican senators on the matter. Yet, Petraeus has the support of veteran Republican senator, John McCain, who believes the general is respected on both sides of the aisle.

Given the controversies surrounding the possible Secretary of State candidates, some GOP senators favor Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee (Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) for the job. David Rothkopf (CEO/Editor of FO Group) concluded that Petraeus was a much better choice than Romney who was “infinitely” better than Giuliani.

Just as Romney could be crucial in thawing Trump’s frosty relations with the core Republican establishment, General James Mattis, widely respected throughout the US forces, could also gesture towards an effort to placate the establishment and military’s concerns. Mattis, chosen for the Defense Secretary slot, is a decorated soldier who advocated a tougher military posture against Iran, believing Tehran to be the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the

Middle East”. Mattis is the first former ranking general to become defense secretary since George Marshall in the 1950s. As Mattis retired in 2013, his appointment requires a congressional waiver since US federal law stipulates that the Pentagon chief be out of uniform for seven years. David Rothkopf (CEO/Editor of FO Group) hailed Mattis’ nomination as “by far the best, most qualified and capable pick in the Trump team to date. By a lot”.

Interestingly, the common denominator for all the nomination potentials for foreign policy and security positions includes people who supported the Iraq War at the start, possess hawkish views on Russia; furthermore they  are emphatic about US support for NATO and not passionate believers in US engagement receding from the world. This produces various theories: Has the President-elect moved away from his campaign-time beliefs? Or is Trump open to including people with contrasting policy views in high positions? The former is a promising prospect, the latter a looming disaster that puts the incoming US leader fundamentally at odds with his defense and security advisers’ views.

On the positive side, even if the President-elect does not go for the seasoned defense and foreign policy hands, one can hope that Trump may have been impressed with their views and global issue perspectives. Trump is on a sharp foreign policy learning curve and the numerous meetings for the security positions can be crucial in the president-elect acquiring a crash course on global issues.

Foreign Policy & Security Focus

The national security and foreign policy apparatus of the new US administration is poised to focus on combating   ‘radical’ and ‘political’ Islam, particularly Iran. The top defense and security position appointments offer the most prominent tea leaves in this direction. The incoming Defense Secretary, Gen. Mattis, believes the US lacks a holistic Middle East strategy and has so far opted to handle complications in an ineffective one-by-one manner. Gen. Mattis also believes that while battling  IS is crucial, the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Such sentiments are echoed by most incoming security advisers, especially as former generals are among those  who favor a tougher stance against American adversaries abroad. The incoming

National Security Adviser and the President-elect’s foreign policy arbiter, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has been outspoken about militant Islamists than he has about US strategic concerns such as China and North Korea. Interestingly, Gen. Flynn has previously referred to the need to confront a global anti-Western alliance between Islamists and Communists, particularly between “radical Islamists” and China, North Korea, and Russia (even extending to Cuba and Venezuela). As such, Flynn’s appointment strongly signals that the new White House intends to prioritize Middle East policy and the fight against jihadist groups. Like Mattis, Flynn too believes in upping the ante against Iran, believing Tehran to be the anti-West “linchpin”, to have led nuclear cooperation with Syria and North Korea, and to have had a role in the 2012 Benghazi tragedy. The new Oval Office’s engagements abroad are likely to be in stark contrast with the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia from the Middle East. The US has so far juggled the East Asian and Middle East priorities and threats well together. With the new security setup’s core focus on militant and political Islam, keeping the eye on the ball while maintaining strategic balance is likely to become tougher, with US rivals in Asia eager for any opportunity to further their interests.

Additionally, the US may face a singular dilemma challenging the principle of civilian control over the military, a fundamental article of American democracy. Top (civilian) defense roles are not intended to resemble the Joint Chiefs of Staff position and the different management styles are likely to cause heated discussions over time (especially between Mattis and Flynn). In contrast to the incoming White House administration, Gen. Mattis does not see the US unilaterally breaking away from the Iran deal, despite viewing the Iran agreement as a “mess”. Similarly, Mattis, having previously served as the supreme allied commander of transformation for NATO, may not be as eager to call out NATO allies for not doing enough to build stability. Yet arguably, the President-elect drawing more heavily from the pool of retired army men is understandable: decades of war and foreign engagements have created  a robust US military leadership and Trump would be fairly utilizing available assets.


Peculiar topic to be included in an analysis of a future government Cabinet. Yet, it’s been an extraordinary election cycle so why not?

President-elect Trump will likely end up with what will be the wealthiest government administration in contemporary American history. Nominees and potential picks for the top administration posts include multimillionaires, two “Forbes-certified” billionaires (“one of whose family is worth as much as industrial tycoon Andrew Mellon was when he served as treasury secretary nearly a century ago”), and an heir to a family mega-fortune. Interestingly, the nominees have more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies.

On one side, such a Cabinet characteristic weighs against Trump’s populist campaign platform and of not undermining the blue-collar workers’ economic prospects. Yet, it also amplifies the president-elect’s core campaign pitch of DC outsiders navigating the “rigged” system to fix it for the working class. During the election, Trump’s personal fortunes never became the baggage they did for Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential run. The appointees have portrayed their business experience and ties as a positive for boosting workers.

Speculations are rife that the combined Cabinet wealth could touch $35bn (depending on the appointment of Harold Hamm as energy secretary and confirmation of the President-elect’s claim that his wealth exceeds $10bn). To place this in relative terms, the $35bn figure tops the annual GDP of Bolivia.

To be fair, certain Cabinet appointments (particularly the top Commerce and Treasury posts) are generally headed by politically-connected executives and opulent donors. George W. Bush’s first Cabinet was dubbed as a team of millionaires: 13 of the 16 cabinet members were worth at least

$1 million in 2001. Obama’s current Commerce Secretary (Penny Pritzker) hails from one of the wealthiest American families: her net worth is estimated to be $2.5 billion. Eisenhower’s cabinet acquired the titles “nine millionaires and a plumber.” Andrew Mellon, the wealthy industrial tycoon, served as Treasury Secretary under three administrations. Former Treasury secretaries

Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Paul H. O’Neill had amassed personal fortunes in millions of dollars. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan included seven multi-millionaires in their first cabinets while George H.W. Bush had six multi-millionaires.

However, the incoming US Cabinet is poised to leave them all behind: Combined, Bush’s first Cabinet of 2001 had an estimated inflation-adjusted net worth of $250 million, which is around one-tenth the wealth of Wilbur Ross alone, the nominee for Commerce Secretary. Harold Hamm (the self-made oil industry executive ranking 30th on the Forbes 400 has a net worth of $16.7 billion) is among the candidates floated for secretary of energy. The nominated education secretary, Betsy DeVos’ family has a net worth of $5.1bn while the nominated Deputy Commerce Secretary, Todd Ricketts’ family’s net worth is an estimated $5.3bn (Ricketts also crowns the Chicago Cubs baseball team).

About the author

Muhammad Omar Afzal

is a graduate from Grinnell College and is pursuing a Masters in Public
Affairs from Brown University.He specializes in international security, civil-military diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation.Omar is actively engaged in cross-cultural exchanges. He can be reached at omar.afzaal@cscr.pk. He tweets at @OmarAfzaal

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