World

What Trump’s Cabinet Picks Tell Us About His Administration

The composition of various ‘landing teams’ is perhaps the best indicator of the important sub-cabinet appointments that will be made.

File photo of US President-elect Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

File photo of US President-elect Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

Washington: On one corner of the coming Donald Trump administration boxing ring we have vice president Michael Pence and chief of staff Reince Priebus, who have links to the conservative wing of the Republican establishment, speaker Paul Ryan and the Congress. On the other, we have former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former speaker Newt Gingrich, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and a range of financiers, lobbyists, bankers and retired military officials who have propelled the Trump bandwagon.

There is a titanic struggle going on to capture the soul of the Trump establishment and the president-elect seems to be enjoying it. His appointments so far show a mix of the pragmatic and the ideological, leaning sharply towards the latter – Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Steven Mnuchin (ex-Goldman Sachs) as treasury secretary, General James Mattis as defence secretary, Mike Flynn as national security advisor, K.T. MacFarland as his deputy, Tom Price at health and human services, Wilbur Ross at commerce, Nikki Haley, Elaine Chao and Betsy De Vos.

Yet, our principal concern would be the new secretary of state, a position that has yet to be filled. Mitt Romney would be an orthodox secretary of state, but a great deal would depend on the authority he is given by the president-elect and the freedom with which he can make key sub-cabinet appointments. General David Petraeus would be somewhat similar, in view of his experience as the head of the US Central Command. On the other hand, Giuliani would be a much more unorthodox figure, one that could give our adversary Pakistan a hard time, but that could well be offset by his whimsicality.

Given the enormous complexity of the US bureaucracy, what we need to watch out for are sub-cabinet appointments such as the assistant secretary of state, who deals with South Asia, and his or her defence department counterpart.

This is often best indicated by the composition of the various ‘landing teams’ that have been announced. These are unpaid people who range from retired officials, specialists, lobbyists to academics, who fan out to the various departments of government and the National Security Council to assist in the transition process. They work with the existing staffers to smoothen the transition and play a key role in making new appointments. Some of the landing team members are themselves often tapped to fill positions. (The details of the “landing teams” can be found at www.greatagain.gov.)

An example is visible from the fact that Paul Atkins, a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a critic of regulation, has been put in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau team. The bureau was created as part of the Dodd Frank regulation, which Trump has promised to dismantle it. Andrew Peek, a young counter-terrorism specialist, has been nominated to the state department team, as has Herman Pirchner, the head of the American Foreign Policy Council, a conservative Washington DC think tank.

Myron Ebell, chosen for the Environment Protection Agency, is the head of an NGO which questions many accepted aspects of global warming. Another critic of the Paris Climate treaty, Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation, has been appointed to the state department team.

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank in Washington DC, has been tapped for other landing team members as well. Curtis Dubay, a research fellow of the foundation, has backed Trump’s tax plans and has been nominated to the department of treasury team. Another Heritage alumnus, Dakota Wood, a former military officer, has been nominated to the defence department team. Nina Owcharenko, the Heritage specialist on health policy reform. is surprisingly not in the landing team for the department of health and human services. Beltway rumours suggest that Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the foundation, could well be nominated to the position of assistant secretary of state for South Asia.

The actual work of filling out many of the key positions in various departments will be a long-drawn process. As of now, the landing team members themselves are going through the process of getting their security clearances and credentials, before they are allowed access into the various offices.

The key questions that the Washington strategic community notes is the extent of autonomy Trump will be willing to grant to any of his top nominees, especially in the department of state. It is a no-brainer to suggest that an empowered secretary will make for a vigorous Trump administration imprint around the world, but it remains to be seen just what kind of administrative style Trump will follow. If he is too controlling, it could mean an emasculated system. On the other hand, if is not able or willing to rein in the generals around him, primarily his NSA choice Mike Flynn, there could be dissonance within the American system.

The problem of generals could resonate in a different way as well. Retired generals like James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who has just been appointed secretary of defence, and Petraeus, who is in the running for secretary of state, can complicate relations with the military. The chairman, joint chiefs of staff is the principal military advisor to the president and the presence of well-known generals in other high-level positions can complicate the advise he gives, since they also have networks within the senior echelons of the armed forces. But, that said and done, both Mattis and Petraeus are not cardboard generals, but thorough professionals with an intellectual bent. Neither are likely to be pushovers for Trump or anyone else. Incidentally, in service Mattis outranked Flynn, who is the NSA.

Cabinet and sub-cabinet picks are no doubt important in understanding the direction of the new administration’s policies. However, equally important is the need to understand who has been chosen and why. The Trump team has a distinct ideological orientation and it will be surprising if it is not manifested in the unfolding of its policies.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research  Foundation, New Delhi.