Perhaps Donald Trump’s longest-held political belief is his conflation of wealth and suitability for public office. “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” he told ABC News in 2011 when he was considering running for president the following year. He reiterated this point when he announced his candidacy for the 2016 election. “I’m really rich, I’ll show you that in a second,” he said. “And by the way, I’m not even saying that in a braggadocios [way]—that’s the kind of thinking you need for this country.”
Since taking office, Trump has constructed his government on the same principle, choosing what is shaping up to be perhaps the wealthiest cabinet in history. “I want people that made a fortune!” Trump said to a rally crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, in December. “Because now they are negotiating [for] you, okay?”
Like other Republican presidents before him, Trump believes in the corrective power of the deregulated private sector, and has drawn heavily from the business world to fill out his cabinet. But the political inexperience of his key appointees, the extent and opacity of their conflicts of interest, and the sheer magnitude of their wealth are all without precedent in recent history. Trump’s approach in choosing the personnel in his government suggests a president convinced of a special mandate for the wealthy to run government as they please. This is further emphasized by his refusal to take a salary, his disregard for proper vetting procedures and conflicts of interest, and his reticence with his tax returns.
The numbers are staggering. The Boston Globe estimated that, including Trump and “cabinet-rank” level appointees, the new cabinet may be worth as much as $13 billion—about five times greater than Barack Obama’s cabinet. Neither Obama nor George W. Bush had billionaires among their cabinet and cabinet-rank appointees, but Trump has three: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ($5.1 billion), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ($3.7 billion), and, ironically enough, Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon ($1.35 billion). His inner circle of advisors includes some 17 additional billionaires. Additionally, 71 percent of Trump’s cabinet is White and male, the most since Ronald Reagan. This was the case for just 36 percent of Obama’s cabinet.
Four of Trump’s 15 cabinet secretary appointees (27 percent)—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross—are former corporate executives with no prior public sector experience. This number was originally five, but Trump’s choice for Secretary of Labor, fast food CEO Andrew Pudzer, withdrew his nomination on February 15 and was replaced by federal attorney Alexander Acosta. This makeup is rare, but not unprecedented; that percentage is surpassed only by the cabinets of Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and William McKinley, according to a Pew study. Historically, just seven percent of all cabinet secretaries have fit this profile.
“Other presidents have appointed people from the business community for particular kinds of positions,” said Jeswald Salacuse, a professor of international negotiation, law and development and former Dean of the Fletcher School. “For example, Secretary of the Treasury: [Bill] Clinton appointed Robert Rubin, who was one of the leaders of Goldman Sachs, and then President George W. Bush had Hank Paulson, also from Goldman Sachs.” Eleven Secretaries of Commerce and nine Secretaries of the Treasury have served previously without previous public sector experience.
However, no Secretaries of State or Education have lacked public service experience before Tillerson and DeVos. Tillerson spent his entire career as an executive at ExxonMobil before his appointment.
“Exxon is an international company, so he is used to dealing in international matters, but how that’s going to affect the way he runs the State Department is another matter,” Salacuse said. Tillerson has committed to putting his deferred shares in Exxon in an independently managed trust, but the document outlining this appears to include a loophole that could allow him to return to Exxon in the future.
His inexperience in government is not the only cause for concern. “Tillerson has sold his stock or put it into a trust, but he’s still going to think like an oil man,” Political Science Professor Jeffrey Berry said. The New York Times reported that under Tillerson, ExxonMobil “struck lucrative deals with repressive governments in Africa, clashed with China and befriended Vietnam over disputed territory in the South China Sea [. . .] and built a close rapport with Russia at a time of deepening mistrust between the Kremlin and the West,” all of which contravened the interests of the United States.
DeVos, a hardline advocate of the school privatization movement, has a sprawling web of financial holdings that are in direct conflict with her ability to faithfully serve the public interest. But unlike Tillerson, DeVos, an heiress to a massive fortune, lacks serious management experience of any kind. That Trump would choose her despite this is telling, Salacuse said. “Trump is attracted to people who are wealthy,” he said. “She was not a corporate manager. She’s [just] rich.”
Such dubious interests in the private sector have taken similar forms in past administrations. “Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, had previously been GM’s CEO and is associated with the famous quote: ‘What’s good for GM is good for America,’” said John Burgess, a professor of international law and finance at the Fletcher School.
But even among the most business-oriented administrations in American history, the equivocal priorities and ineptitude of many of Trump’s cabinet members is unusual.
“Reagan did the same thing; Reagan said ‘the problem is the government,’” Salacuse said. “That was the problem. On the other hand, Reagan reached out to some pretty decent people. George Shultz was a pretty good Secretary of State […] He’d been a PhD at MIT, taught at MIT, he taught at the University of Chicago.”
Trump, on the other hand, has chosen a cabinet mostly devoid of experts and intellectuals. “There are no academics,” Salacuse noted. “Henry Kissinger was an academic. Condoleezza Rice was an academic. George Shultz under Reagan was an academic.” While 23 percent of Obama’s cabinet held PhD’s, no members of Trump’s cabinet do, according to NPR. Nearly the exact reverse is true of former CEOs—none of Obama’s cabinet members were former CEOs, and 24 percent of Trump’s are.
According to Burgess, this cabinet is “somewhat more business-skewed” than Reagan’s famously anti-regulatory administration. Some examples: Mnuchin oversaw more than 36,000 foreclosures while running OneWest Bank, which used the sort of aggressive tactics one judge called “harsh, repugnant, shocking, and repulsive.” Mick Mulvaney, the new White House budget director, has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” DeVos’ family spent $1.45 million on an effort to prevent Michigan from increasing oversight for charter schools. And Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, sent letters to President Obama that were secretly drafted by oil producer Devon Energy of Oklahoma when he was the state’s Attorney General.
The administration’s earliest policy proposals augur something similar: Mnuchin said that “there would be no absolute tax cut for the upper class,” but an independent analysis of Trump’s tax plan suggests 47 percent of all tax cuts would go to the richest 1 percent, and no group would suffer as much as low and middle-income single-parent families. Trump also vowed to “dismantle” Dodd-Frank regulations intended to prevent another financial crisis, and banks have seen their stocks soar, as have private prisons.
Whose interests will such an administration serve? For many Americans, its priorities are coming into focus: a recent Pew study found that 64 percent of Americans think that wealthy people will gain influence under Trump and 74 percent think corporations will gain influence. Few, on the other hand, said they expect poor people, women, Black people, Hispanic people, LGBTQ people, or “people like themselves” to gain influence under Trump. For a candidate who promised normal Americans “will be forgotten no longer,” the duplicity seems evident.