Trump’s kitchen Cabinet – Politico
When Donald Trump wants Obamacare advice, he talks to John Ridings Lee, 79, an insurance company CEO and Mar-a-Lago Club regular, who likes to say Obamacare should be “pitched out the window.”
For energy advice, Trump turns to oil tycoon Harold Hamm, 70, who shares his belief about the need to expand oil and gas drilling.
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On trade, he relies on former steel company executive Dan DiMicco, 66, who has warned that NAFTA and TPP are ruinous for American workers.
Trump and his top lieutenants are leaning on a network of CEOs and private-sector executives who have built personal relationships with the nominee, often over golf games or hobnobbing at swanky events at his resorts and homes — choosing them over veteran Washington policy wonks for whom the candidate has expressed distaste, according to interviews with people close to Trump’s campaign and presidential transition team.
These men — and almost all are older, white men seen as titans of business — have served as a de facto kitchen Cabinet to a candidate with a famously short attention span and an impatience with detailed policy discussions. Far more than any advice he is receiving from professional policy experts in Washington, D.C., he relies on them to inform his perspective on policy.
People close to Trump say the nominee hasn’t made any final decisions about his Cabinet picks, and the release of a tape featuring his boasts about groping women has shifted the focus away from planning for the presidency. But Trump continues to surround himself with top business executives who are expected to influence his decisions.
Should he manage to win in November, Republicans say they expect him to assemble a CEO-heavy Cabinet, filled with many of the men he regards as peers and who agree broadly on the imperatives of lowering taxes and rolling back regulations.
A Trump Cabinet might include Hamm as Energy secretary and Forrest Lucas, CEO of oil products company Lucas Oil, as Interior secretary (although Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. is also said to be in the running for the Interior job). Both Bruce Rastetter, who has made a fortune in pork, ethanol and farm real estate, and Chuck Conner, the president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, are seen as possibilities for Agriculture secretary.
While business leaders have held Cabinet positions in both Republican and Democratic administrations, Trump’s reliance on the CEO class for policy advice is unprecedented — and could raise complicated questions about conflicts of interest.
“I think you will see successful, experienced business people compose a much higher percentage of the Cabinet than we have seen in recent administrations,” one Republican business executive who has spoken with high-level Trump campaign officials told POLITICO.
He added that the nominee wants “a more business-friendly and business experience-heavy Cabinet, not just a token business person.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on its nominations process.
Norm Eisen, the former ethics czar in the Obama administration who also served as the deputy general counsel for the Obama-Biden transition team, predicts conflicts aplenty if businessmen are confirmed as the nation’s top regulators and their interests become intertwined with those of the government.
“A Trump administration would be like the Abramoff scandal but on steroids,” he predicted, referring to the 2005 scandal involving Native American casino gambling.
On the economic front, Trump is receiving advice from a collection of donors, hedge fund executives, and CEOs like Stephen Feinberg, co-founder and CEO of Cerberus Capital Management, and Howard Lorber, president and CEO of Vector Group, a publicly traded company with products ranging from hotels, property-management and mortgage services to tobacco and alcoholic beverages.
For advice on tax policy, Trump invited G. Brint Ryan, owner of a Dallas-based firm that advises companies on how to minimize their tax bills, to lunch at his Beverly Hills home. Ryan told POLITICO this week he’s continuing to support Trump even after the release of the video of Trump disparaging women because “I find Hillary Clinton to be at least as morally repugnant if not more.”
Trump is also talking to J. Larry Nichols, the chairman emeritus of Devon Energy Corporation; coal executive Joe Craft; Donald Hoffman, CEO of Excel Services Corp.; and Wilbur Ross, who heads the investment company WL Ross & Co.
That emphasis on Beltway outsiders and business people has frustrated some alumni of Republican administrations, who are eager to return to government after eight years in exile — and who believe their own experience is better-qualifying.
“If Trump were to win, there would be this tension between the folks in New York, who are going to be more inclined to put people in high-ranking positions who don’t have government experience,” one person on the Trump presidential transition team said.
Trump’s focus on recruiting wealthy executives also raises questions about the way his administration would navigate conflicts of interest and ethical quandaries that arise with political appointments — especially for those positions that must be confirmed by the Senate.
Candidates for top Cabinet positions must, for instance, turn over their tax returns, unlike presidential nominees, for whom it is customary but not mandatory. They must also recuse themselves from matters that are directly or substantially related to the financial interests of their former employers, including contracts and grants.
And often, CEOs face pressure to turn over private information about their companies to prove there are no conflict of interests — a task that not every privately held company is excited about, says Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007 who is now a Clinton supporter.
“If any of Trump’s nominees act the way he has been acting on disclosures, then they will be dead on arrival in the Senate,” says Painter.
The prospect of oil industry executives like Hamm and Lucas making decisions about the federal government’s lands, drilling and environmental policy has environmental activists worried. They fear the executives would put the interests of the oil industry over those of the general public.
“It will face fierce contention in the Senate, and I think that standard will be applied hopefully not just by Democrats, but by Republicans,” Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund President Rhea Suh told POLITICO in an interview. “We need people who will serve the public, not people who will serve the polluters.”
The man who helped run George W. Bush’s presidential transition team was dubious about the prospects of getting an oil company CEO confirmed to lead an agency like the Department of the Interior or the Department of Energy. “It probably wouldn’t be approved” by the Senate, said Clay Johnson III, who went on to become deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration
This trend of consulting CEO pals and special interests worries self-described ethics nerds like Eisen. “It is pretty amazing that he claims to be the candidate of change,” Eisen said. “His job is to represent us, not K Street. Trump is not even elected yet, and he’s already subject to a friendly takeover by the moneyed special interests.”
If elected, Trump wouldn’t be the first president to rely on wealthy CEOs to fill key Cabinet positions. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet was often described as “nine millionaires and a plumber” because the only person who wasn’t a wealthy businessman was Secretary of Labor Martin Durkin, the president of a plumber’s union.
Ronald Reagan named Don Regan, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch, as his Treasury secretary and chief of staff. Robert Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive, served as Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary and mentored a whole crew of public servants who now run key agencies, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, was the former CEO of Halliburton, while Hank Paulson, one of Bush’s Treasury secretaries, came straight from Goldman Sachs and had to sell about $500 million of Goldman Sachs stock following his confirmation.
Obama has tapped several former business executives to serve in his Cabinet, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the former CEO of outdoor retailer REI, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, founder of the investment firm PSP Capital Partners and the Pritzker Realty Group. Obama’s former Commerce secretary, John Bryson, previously served as the CEO of Edison International.
Still, the process of vetting CEOs for conflicts of interest and financial skeletons is laborious for many nominees, not just CEOs, and it has tripped up even longtime public servants. Former Sen. Tom Daschle, for instance, withdrew his name for HHS secretary in February 2009 after it came to light that he had failed to pay about $140,000 in back taxes related to his use of a car and driver paid by a private equity firm.
CEOs, if nominated, would have to be game for that level of scrutiny.
Robert Lenhard — a member of Covington & Burling LLP’s election and political law practice group, which advises political appointees on the government’s vetting process — said business executive nominees have several options to avoid conflicts of interest, including selling their assets or placing them in blind trusts.
But Lenhard said nominees tend to avoid using blind trusts, if possible, because they are strictly regulated and give people almost no control over their assets.
“That’s very difficult for people to do, especially people who are businessmen and women. It’s very hard to give that up,” he said.
Chase Untermeyer, who served as director of the Office of Presidential Personnel during the George H.W. Bush administration, said the financial and personal disclosures required for a CEO to get a Cabinet position can be exhausting, especially for executives who aren’t used to that level of public scrutiny.
“I sometimes thought that if people had known all that was going to hit them, they might not have wanted to seek the job in the first place,” he said.
And while CEOs often bring strong management experience, they often lack detailed knowledge about how government works.
“Life in government is not like ‘The Apprentice,’” said Mark Abramson, who has written extensively about the complexities of the presidential-nominations process, adding, “There’s a level of hubris to CEOs. ‘I can do anything.’ And some of them can and some of them can’t.”
“Limiting yourself to just to CEOs of major corporations is a big mistake,” said Ed DeSeve, a former Obama administration official who is running a project focused on the transition at the National Academy of Public Administration. “Your priorities are not necessarily determined by you. They’re determined by the president. There’s a lot of differences in the world of the CEO and the world of the Cabinet secretary.”
Asked by reporters recently about her experience moving from business into government, Pritzker emphasized the importance of scrubbing conflicts of interest. “Even if there is the appearance of a conflict of interest, it is just not healthy for the organization,” she said.
Mel Leonor contributed to this report.
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