Donald Trump Is Building the Most Conservative Presidential Cabinet In U.S. History

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Ben Carson and President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower, New York City, August 25. Carson has been nominated by Trump to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

A lot was written during the presidential campaign about the end of norms. It was a norm for a presidential candidate to release his or her taxes; now it isn’t. It was a norm to divest one’s assets and put them in a blind trust; now it isn’t. It was a norm for a president-elect to sit through daily or almost daily intelligence briefings; now it isn’t.

To understand the new ground that Donald Trump is plowing in terms of his cabinet, look at the Labor Department. The department was established more than 100 years ago under President Howard Taft, a Republican, to separate the labor bureau from the business-oriented Commerce Department, in part to assuage the concerns of a growing union movement. A single secretary of labor and commerce, one union leader said, “was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Taft was no fan of the department, but he reluctantly signed the law anyway during his last hours in office.

In the century since, the department’s responsibilities have grown to cover everything from compiling labor statistics to ensuring mine safety to overseeing the nation’s pension programs. When it comes to appointing labor secretaries, there’s been an unwritten rule: Democrats don’t appoint union leaders and Republicans don’t appoint CEOs.

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So, the job generally has been filled by politicians: George H.W. Bush appointed Rep. Lynn Martin, an Illinois moderate, and Barack Obama gave it to Rep. Hilda Solis of California. Or academics: Nixon appointed George Shultz and Bill Clinton appointed Robert Reich. There have also been government officials with business backgrounds, like Elaine Chao and Elizabeth Dole, as well as some businessmen, including Ray Donovan, a New Jersey construction executive (not the TV show).

It’s generally been a no-no to appointing a CEO or union leader; until now

The president-elect’s choice to head the department is Andrew Puzder, the CEO of CKE Enterprises, a restaurant chain that includes Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. It’s telling that the chain is owned by Roark Capital, a private equity concern that was named after Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead, written by Ayn Rand. In the novel, Roark is the heroic architect and builder of a skyscraper who is forever being stymied by moochers and takers, Rand was a hero to libertarians, who treat her attacks on government benefits as scripture. Puzder reportedly enjoys reading Rand in his spare time, and that makes sense when one learns he opposes the Obama administration’s efforts to raise it the minimum wage as well as its plans to expand overtime benefits.

To be fair, most any labor secretary appointed by a Republican president was bound to oppose his Democratic predecessor’s policies. But Puzder has praised automation that displaces restaurant workers and has been an active opponent to efforts that would make the parent companies of franchisees open to lawsuits. We can’t be sure exactly how he will manage the $12 billion department or its 17,000 employees if confirmed. His ex-wife had accused Pudzel of spousal abuse, but she has recently rescinded that charge via a letter distributed by the Trump transition team. Perhaps Puzder will prove to be the practical-minded businessman that supporters insist he is, but given his positions and the startling choice of a CEO as labor secretary, expect a more dramatic lurch to the right than anything seen under the Bush presidencies.

During the presidential campaign, there was always considerable wonder as to what Trump’s governing philosophy would be. After all, it was only a few years ago that he was praising the Clintons, donating to their foundation and denouncing “wackos” like Pat Buchanan, the Nixon/Reagan official turned commentator who ran for president on a platform of restricting immigration and erecting tariff barriers. Many wondered whether Trump was really a Republican, He broke with his party’s orthodoxy on trade and immigration, but he also offered succor to liberals and his working-class base when he said he would never touch Medicare and Social Security. Now every indication is that Trump will govern as a very conservative Republican, kind of a Ted Cruz who tweets.

Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under Ronald Reagan, has called Trump’s cabinet picks the most conservative ever. And that’s hard to dispute. Trump said he doesn’t want to touch entitlements, but his choice for secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia and a physician, is a believer in making Medicare a voucher system, transforming it from an insurance program that offers a defined set of hospital, physician and prescription benefits into a “premium support” program under which the elderly are given a subsidy to buy private insurance. As for Medicaid, the government health program for lower-income Americans, he’s favored turning it over to the states. This is far to the right of anything pursued by George W. Bush, who actually expanded Medicare more than any president since Lyndon Johnson when he proposed and passed a prescription drug benefit. Maybe Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina would have appointed Price, a House leader on health care, but this is not the hands-off Medicare policy that Trump promised.

Scott-Pruitt Donald Trump is expected to nominate Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Brendan McDermid / REUTERS

Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is unlike any since the first days of the Reagan administration. George W.. Bush appointed moderate New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman to be his first EPA head. His father appointed William Reilly, then head of the World Wildlife Fund. Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, is a climate change denier who became infamous for having written a letter of complaint to the EPA about what he said was an overestimation of pollution figures for his state. The letter, it emerged, was written by staff at Devon Energy. Any Republican was going to shift Obama’s policies on climate change, although it’s worth remembering that Senator John McCain used to talk about climate change and supported cap-and-trade measures to stem it. The EPA has never seen an administrator so fundamentally hostile to its mission. It’s the environmental equivalent of handing the Labor Department to Puzder.

At the Education Department, the appointment of Betsy DeVos marks a turning point—she would be the first education secretary who has never attended public school nor has their children. DeVos is a fierce advocate for offering vouchers to allow parents to send their children to private schools. The idea has wide currency among Republicans and some Democrats alarmed at the state of some poorer school districts. Most Republican secretaries of education, such as Lamar Alexander and Margaret Spellings, have recognized the political realities of trying to institute a national voucher program and have instead focused on choice within the public school system and the creation of charter schools. The Obama administration has largely continued this idea, albeit in a way more friendly to the American Federation of Teachers and other education unions. But Trump hasn’t talked charter schools so much as total take-it-anywhere-you-want vouchers, and DeVos will pursue that idea as well as ripping up the common core standards developed by states and private industry during the Bush years.

jeff_sessions_trump_1118 Jeff Sessions with Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York City, October 7. Mike Segar/Reuters

Likewise, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Trump’s pick to be attorney general, can be expected to carry over all of the most controversial policies of the Bush-Obama years when it comes to surveillance and civil liberties. But as the Senate’s leading advocate of restricting immigration, legal and illegal, he’ll take the department in a direction that it never saw under the last two Republican attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. Concerns over Sessions’s commitment to civil rights as U.S. attorney in Alabama led to his being denied a federal judgeship by the Senate in 1986. In modern times, no president has nominated an attorney general who had previously been rejected by the Senate for a post.

It’s not that every proposed member of the Trump cabinet represents a dramatic shift to the right. Some are ciphers. Nikki Haley, the amiable governor of South Carolina who Trump has nominated to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations, has never lived outside South Carolina. Who knows whether she’ll be a firebreather like John Bolton, George W. Bush’s representative to the body, or more moderate, like his successor Thomas Pickering, an esteemed career diplomat? James Mattis, the retired general tapped to be defense secretary, and John Kelly, the general picked to be homeland security secretary, don’t represent dramatic swings to the right. (Obama appointed no fewer than two Republicans to be defense secretary, Chuck Hagel and Bob Gates.)

In general, though, this is shaping up as the most conservative cabinet ever. It’ll also be the richest, with at least $14 billion in personal wealth. Depending on where you sit, that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a much more solidly conservative Republican assemblage than Trump intimated he’d pursue during the campaign. Unless our protean president does another flip, we now know who he is.

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