Quora Question: How Does Trump's Team Compare to Prior Cabinets?

Rex Tillerson secretary of state hearing
Rex Tillerson (C) takes his seat between former Senator Sam Nunn (L) and Senator Ted Cruz (R) for his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 11. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Answer from Ross Cohen:

Has there been an administration with less experience than Donald Trump's in recent history? It depends what you mean by experience. If you mean government experience, then no, certain senior positions are being filled by people with significantly less experience than their predecessors. However, this is not true of every position.

For our purposes, let’s define recent history as 20-30 years (5 presidents).

The following senior administration positions are being filled by individuals with little experience relative to their recent predecessors:

President: Trump has no experience in government at any level. All others served as governor, vice president or senator, in addition to other public service roles.

The Secretary of State is the president’s chief diplomat on the world stage and highest appointee in the line of presidential succession. Trump nominee Rex Tillerson has never served in government in any capacity or studied relevant fields. He holds a bachelors in Civil Engineering and spent his entire career at Exxon.

All others were either senators, national security advisors, U.N. ambassadors, deputy secretary of state, White House chief of staff, or secretary of the Treasury, often in addition to other relevant experience in government, such as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several of them also had PhDs in International Relations or Economics. Some of them served in the State Department earlier in their career. 

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Trump nominee Ben Carson has never served in government at any level. His education and professional experience is in medicine.

Most others had previously held highly relevant government roles such as leading cities as a mayor or city-level HUD equivalents like the Orlando Housing Authority, Dallas Housing Authority, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, chair of the New York City Homeless Commission, or had served within HUD itself as deputy assistant secretary for Multifamily Housing or Federal Housing Administration commissioner, or something similar like as assistant director of President Johnson’s Model Cities program for urban revitalization.

Most HUD Secretaries held more than one of the above positions. One had a master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a PhD. in Public Administration.

Three exceptions were that Reagan and both Bushes each had a HUD Secretary lacking relevant experience, but all had government experience: one had led the the U.S. Small Business Administration, one was a nine-term congressman, and one served in several cabinet departments.

Ambassador to the United Nations: Trump nominee Nikki Haley does have experience as governor of South Carolina, but no experience or education in international relations, diplomacy, or anything else relevant. She holds a bachelor's in Accounting.

Others had relevant experience on the National Security Council (some as National Security Advisor), as diplomats, staffers, and top level officials at the State Department, as ambassadors, as staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a foreign policy advisor, as a Senator, and one was a war correspondent.

Most had more than one of the above positions. Some also had relevant master's degrees and PhD.s and one was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author about genocide. 

(That said, not all experience automatically makes them a better pick. One of Haley’s predecessors had State Department experience, but he also famously joked that “if the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.” That was John Bolton, a Bush 43 nominee who was not confirmed by the Senate but served as a recess appointee for a time. His appointment was kind of a giant F-U to the UN. Trump actually had him under consideration for Secretary of State. “Several Trump associates claim Bolton was not chosen, in part, due to Trump's disdain for Bolton's signature mustache.” )

Secretary of Energy: Trump nominee Rick Perry does have experience as governor of Texas, but nothing in his background relates to nuclear technology or related sciences, which is what the majority of the job deals with, although he did study animal science in college.

01_08_17_DeVos Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to tip the scales toward college rapists, not their victims, an assault victim says. Mike Segar/Reuters

The three most recent energy secretaries (spanning 12 years) were highly accomplished PhD. scientists, one of whom won a Nobel Prize for Physics.

Some of the people in the role had previously had jobs with titles like: Under Secretary of Energy, Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President of the United States, Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, Director of the Energy Initiative, Director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular & Cellular Physiology, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Assistant Administrator of the Federal Energy Administration.

However, some also have more general government backgrounds like Perry. Surprisingly, Perry won’t even be the first Energy Secretary to propose abolishing the department as one of George W. Bush’s appointees had as well, although he presumably never forgot the name of it on a national debate stage.

I left out those positions that are being filled by people with relevant experience.

Some of Donald Trump’s other appointees are problematic for one reason or another, but most do actually have some kind of experience that makes them reasonable choices by historical standards. 

There are two positions I failed to mention.

First, Secretary of Education. I initially excluded it from my list because Trump’s nominee, Betsy DeVos, does have a background in education, in a way, but it’s been more as a political activist as she doesn’t appear to have ever worked in any government role or in any education administration role. Her full-time job is in business and her side passion has been education (although perhaps not passionate enough to have followed the most salient issues), specifically advocating for charter schools and vouchers. 

Previous education secretaries had served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, New York Commissioner of Education, Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, Houston Board of Education Trustee, and as state governors. There were some exceptions under Bush and Reagan (and sometimes with controversy), but all had experience in either government or as a senior education administrator. 

White House Chief of Staff is arguably the second most powerful person in the federal government. Some people call it the co-president. They help the president run the country and have enormous importance and influence. Reince Preibus has zero government experience. He ran for Wisconsin state Senate once but lost. He’s spent his entire career as a political operative. As vitally important as it always is for the White House Chief of Staff to have experience in the federal government, it’s even more necessary in an administration where the president has never worked in government, either.

It’s also understood that Trump’s Senior Counselor Steve Bannon will be on essentially equal terms with Priebus in terms of authority in the administration. Like Trump and Priebus, Bannon has never worked in government at any level (though he was in the Navy in the late 70’s-early 80’s), just at Breitbart, Goldman Sachs, and as a Hollywood investor. 

The previous 10 Chiefs of Staff have all had experience in the federal government at very senior levels, as Cabinet secretaries, Congressmen, White House Budget Directors, Deputy Chiefs of Staff, etc. You’d have to go back 11 people in the job to find one that didn’t have senior level federal government experience and that person still had state government experience (and he was still replaced for not cutting it). [11]

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