One fear about the Trump administration is that it will become a means by which nasty elements are smuggled into American government: the alt-right, say, or goons from Moscow Centre. But after reading Trump’s early musings about who might be in his Cabinet, there’s a more banal concern. Trump is recruiting a class of Republicans who — through scandal, incompetence, or sheer hackery — had been all but expelled from political life. Now, they could become the most powerful people in Washington. Call it the revenge of the deplorables.
In 2000, when general manager George W. Bush was building his roster, he picked from top conservative talent: Colin Powell, Tommy Thompson, and, eventually, Condoleezza Rice. True, John Ashcroft, who served as Bush’s first attorney general, had just lost a Senate race to a dead man. But Ashcroft’s poor prospects were the exception. Eight years later, Barack Obama had a similarly deep pool to choose from and persuaded Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state.
Trump’s talent problem first became apparent during the Republican primaries. Trump was very, very popular with GOP voters and all but toxic to the GOP professional class. “He couldn’t even staff the campaign because no one wanted to be associated with him,” one pal told Politico. Ironically, this proved to be a great boon to Trump. He sold his mantra for “change” by running against Bush’s administration as much as running against Obama’s.
But now, with thousands of positions to fill, Trump is left with a tiny, bedraggled group of loyalists. Take Chris Christie. Christie’s non-Trump political fortunes are terrible. Two of his political associates have just been convicted in the Bridgegate scandal. According to a new poll, Christie’s approval rating in New Jersey is just 20 percent. This spring, six New Jersey papers demanded that Christie resign and, failing that, stumped for a recall.
But Christie — through a knack for picking winners, or because he never would have gotten a job in, say, the Marco Rubio administration — attached himself to Trump. Only Paul Manafort’s 11th-hour intervention stopped him from becoming Trump’s vice president. Now, after months of loyal, humiliating servitude, Christie is being considered for attorney general or White House chief of staff.
Newt Gingrich also made Trump’s veep short list. It’s likely the only short list Gingrich will ever make, thanks to his affairs and general unpopularity. Wednesday, on Fox News, Gingrich consigned GOPers who rejected Trump to the “ashbin of history.” This would be a convenient outcome for Gingrich, who, in the absence of real competition, is being considered for secretary of state.
Rudy Giuliani has become a favorite for attorney general, bragging, “[T]here’s probably nobody that knows the Justice Department better than me.” Giuliani proved this during the campaign by admitting to Fox that news of the renewed Clinton email investigation had been leaked to him from within the FBI. (He later walked it back.) If he gets the job, the man who accused Hillary Clinton of “serious crimes” would be in charge — if Trump keeps his campaign promise — of locking her up.
Sarah Palin has been floated as a possible secretary of the interior. (“Palin has made no secret of her interest,” Politico reported.) “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona — a nasty, anti-immigrant sheriff who made some of his prisoners wear pink underwear — has come up as a possible Homeland Security secretary. Arpaio lost his election for a seventh term Tuesday but could actually get a promotion. Similarly, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller could get a bump up to secretary of agriculture. Before the election, Miller called Hillary Clinton a “cunt.” Trump has called Miller a “star.”
In a few cases, Trumpites are actually working against the policy goals of the agency they are ostensibly trying to staff. Trump’s EPA transition team is being led by Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic. “It’s pretty black and white,” Ebell said of Trump’s policies.
Another feature of Trumpland is that Trump cashiers loyalists when they become too toxic for public consumption, but the loyalists never actually leave Trump’s orbit. Corey Lewandowski, who allegedly manhandled a reporter during the campaign, exited Team Trump after a power struggle. Despite working as an “analyst” for CNN, Lewandowski reportedly continued advising Trump — see this damning Kellyanne Conway tweet from last week. Now, he’s in the mix for an unspecified job.
Of course, outsiderdom lies at the core of Trump’s appeal. And sometimes a great résumé is a poor predictor of competence. Donald Rumsfeld and Timothy Geithner came to Washington with sterling CVs, and their presidents would have loved to be able to take those picks back.
The problem with the names Trump is considering is that they were really bad at governing. Christie is an unpopular governor with a highly dubious track record. Palin exited Alaska in the middle of her term, which began her descent from Republican rock star to Facebook troll.
Trump’s reported picks don’t seem like Cabinet secretaries at all. They seem like — and, in Palin and Gingrich’s case, have been — TV pundits. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Emily Steel have noted that the Trump campaign thought of a possible media brand as a complement to the Trump administration. Trump might build a lousy government and a crackling cable channel. Roger Ailes — another deplorable recently run out of Fox — is available.
Trump has a few slim hopes. One is that people like Jamie Dimon, who reportedly waved away interest in becoming treasury secretary, can be persuaded to change their minds. Another can be seen in the case of Lanhee Chen. Chen, a former Mitt Romney policy director, is the model of GOP respectability. In addition to working for Romney and Rubio, Obama put Chen on his Social Security advisory board. For the past year, Chen has been one of the most quotable GOP voices questioning Trump’s lack of policy acumen, popping up in CNN, Politico, and other places.
But after Trump’s victory and the GOP sweep, Chen has gotten curious. Asked Wednesday by Politico if he’d take a job in the administration, Chen said, “I’d be lying to say I wasn’t open to it.” For many conservatives, signing up someone like Chen would come as a relief. Trump would benefit from a quirk that unites both his band of deplorables and the more respectable D.C. power class. When a plum job is dangled before them, they are equal in their ambition and their shamelessness. Fill the swamp!