Like Donald Trump, Barack Obama came to the presidency after winning an underdog primary victory in which he got little party support. So when his transition began, he had to make a choice. Would he award his top jobs to the very small group of loyalists who went out on a limb for him early? Or would he cast a wider net, looking for qualified and widely respected people, both Democrats and nonpartisan figures, regardless of their loyalties in the primary?
Obama chose the latter course. He picked someone who had been neutral in the primaries for his chief of staff (Rahm Emanuel), appointed nonpartisan figures as secretary of the Treasury and national security adviser (Tim Geithner and Jim Jones), and kept on George W. Bush’s secretary of defense (Robert Gates). He even awarded one of his most plum jobs, the secretary of state post, to his defeated primary rival, Hillary Clinton.
Naturally, people who went out on a limb early for Obama did get some key jobs (Eric Holder for attorney general, Greg Craig for White House counsel, Susan Rice as United Nations ambassador, David Axelrod as senior White House adviser). Yet for many top posts, Obama clearly prized competence and credibility over loyalty.
Donald Trump seems to be taking a starkly different approach.
Multiple reports indicate Trump’s transition team is leaning toward handing the most plum administration posts almost entirely to early loyalists and cronies of Trump, rather than trying to unite the GOP or appoint people based on their qualifications.
The names of frontrunners for appointments that have leaked so far have been almost comically sycophantic. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump surrogate with no diplomatic experience, for secretary of state. Steve Mnuchin, the Trump campaign’s finance chair, for secretary of the Treasury. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was reportedly forced out of the Obama administration for poor management but has advised Trump on foreign policy for months, for national security adviser. Jeff Sessions, the first senator who endorsed Trump, for secretary of defense. Even Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s ousted former campaign manager, may get a big White House job.
These people aren’t united by any ideology or policy preferences. They are, essentially, a motley crew that’s been hanging around Trump and his campaign for the past few months. So if they truly are Trump’s choices for his very top posts, this will send an early signal that the highest value in a Trump administration will not be not competence or professionalism but instead loyalty to Donald Trump himself.
Indeed, former Bush State Department official Eliot Cohen tweeted Thursday morning that he had had an “exchange” with the Trump transition team and come away with exactly that impression. “Stay away,” he wrote. “They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’” He elaborated to a Washington Post reporter: “It became clear to me that [Trump’s advisers] view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls.”
Trump clearly feels he owes nothing at all to the Republican Party or the bipartisan Washington policy establishments. That’s somewhat understandable, since many of them had remarkably harsh words for him during the campaign (Obama had little party support, but Trump had even less). But Trump needs to make the transition to governing now, so hiring competent people really should be more of a priority for him.
Now, Trump has only announced two appointments so far, so it’s not too late for him to reverse course here. He could nominate someone with diplomatic or foreign policy experience, like Richard Armitage, as secretary of state. He could nominate Stephen Hadley, who was George W. Bush’s very highly respected national security adviser in his second term, as secretary of defense. These names are reportedly in the mix, though they’re not currently frontrunners.
If the president-elect doesn’t change his mind, however, it will be up to the Republican-controlled Senate to decide whether they want every Cabinet post and executive agency appointment to be filled by a Trump hack.