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Donald Trump’s rumored Cabinet picks are his most dedicated sycophants

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Donald Trump with retired Gen. Michael Flynn 
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If elected, Donald Trump is planning to stock his Cabinet with a group of ex-presidential candidates and businesspeople who are personally loyal to him, NBC News's Katy Tur and Benjy Sarlin report.

The shortlist includes a number of names that should be very familiar to anyone following the campaign, particularly on cable news, this cycle:

  • Newt Gingrich as secretary of state
  • Rudy Giuliani as attorney general
  • Reince Priebus as chief of staff
  • Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as secretary of defense or national security adviser
  • Steve Mnuchin, Trump's finance chair, as secretary of the Treasury
  • Lew Eisenberg, RNC finance chair, as secretary of commerce

Most of these people are actually at least somewhat qualified for their assigned positions, with the notable exception of Mnuchin, whose only qualification seems to be his years spent at Goldman Sachs.

Giuliani was the third-ranking Department of Justice official under Reagan and then a US attorney; Flynn was a high-ranking general who led a major intelligence agency in the Defense Department; Gingrich has no specific foreign affairs specialty, but high-profile political veterans are often picked for State regardless; Eisenberg is exactly the kind of party apparatchik who always gets the Commerce job.

But it’s worth reflecting on what this group has in common. It is a list, first and foremost, of people who have defended Trump personally again and again this election. Gingrich and Giuliani, of course, are, along with Chris Christie, his most adamant and dedicated surrogates from within the party, eagerly stepping in for Trump on Sunday shows and cable TV and other press appearances.

Flynn has spent much of the campaign trying to give Trump a patina of seriousness on security issues, but has recently crossed into outright flacking on miscellaneous issues as well, as evidenced by his take on the FBI’s Clinton emails investigation:

Mnuchin and Eisenberg raise money for Trump; they’re performing this same role behind closed doors with big donors. And Priebus has consistently been the most Trump-positive member of the central Washington establishment, coronating him as the nominee as soon as he reached the requisite delegate total and surrogating for him the way he would’ve for a normal candidate. He played a big role in prevented a full-on Republican anti-Trump revolt, and making him chief of staff would be a great reward for this loyalty.

Who’s not in contention, it would seem, are any of the plethora of qualified veterans of Republican administrations who’ve advised past candidates but aren’t close to Trump. If you go through shortlists of likely Cabinet picks for Mitt Romney in 2012, you get names like former Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for attorney general; former Sen. Jim Talent and former Secretary of Navy John Lehman for Defense; former World Bank President Robert Zoellick or Sen. Joe Lieberman for State; former Council of Economic Advisers Chair Glenn Hubbard or Sen. Rob Portman for Treasury.

This isn’t a list of nonpartisan technocrats. Portman, Talent, and Lieberman are all politicians by training, and even policy specialists like Zoellick and Hubbard are clear Republican loyalists. But that decidedly is not a list of Romney cronies. It’s not a list of people who endorsed him early and are being rewarded for that. It’s not possible to point, for each one, to a specific action they took benefiting Romney that he would be paying back by naming them to his Cabinet.

Romney was doing what candidates normally do when thinking up Cabinet shortlists: look through elected officials and past Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees in earlier administrations. This doesn’t guarantee good policy — George W. Bush’s Cabinet was pretty damn qualified on paper — but it is a basic guard against excessive nepotism. One or two picks born of favoritism aren’t too corrosive to government, but when the only variable deciding whether you have a job is your willingness to tell the president what he wants to hear, that’s dangerous. That encourages groupthink, and makes even a well-credentialed Cabinet all but useless as an advisory body.

And it sure seems like Trump is planning to staff his Cabinet based not on merit but on closeness to Trump.