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What Do Trump’s Cabinet Picks Say About His Presidency?

In this week’s politics chat, we talk about what we know about the incoming Trump administration. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, all! We’re now officially three weeks past Election Day, and Donald Trump’s administration is starting to take shape (including a couple of Cabinet appointments announced or reported today). So it seems like a good moment to take a step back from the drip, drip, drip of transition news and talk about what we’ve learned — if anything — about how this administration will work, the policies Trump will pursue and the way the media will cover it all.

So let’s start with staffing. What do you make of his appointments so far and the way he’s gone about making them?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Just so we’ve got it all out there, as of this writing, he’s officially announced: Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Tom Price to Health and Human Services, Mike Pompeo as CIA director, Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador, Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education. Then of course, there’s Reince Priebus as chief of staff and Steve Bannon as chief strategist. (Elaine Chao is said to be Trump’s pick for transportation secretary, although there’s been no official announcement as of yet.)

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): It’s a mixed bag. You have your establishment-like selections, such as Chao and DeVos. You have more extreme candidates like Sessions and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (though that’s not official yet). But I think the most shocking thing (and I don’t mean shocking as in surprising) is how the whole battle for secretary of state has gone on. Having Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, publicly blast picking Mitt Romney? That’s something else.

micah: And the Conway hit on Romney was reportedly Trump-sanctioned.

harry: My understanding is he said it was all right that she made that attack. Not that he agreed with it.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I don’t think the reporting on that’s been very authoritative, TBH.

clare.malone: One thing I will say is that he’s been considering a lot of military types (generals), though not necessarily picking them, which has been interesting to me.

micah: Yeah, can we say anything about the group as a whole?

natesilver: It’s more establishment-y than one might have thought.

clare.malone: Yeah, I think that’s right. His instinct seems to have been to go with the big personalities, the general types, and then he’s sort of moderated a bit. The final choices seem to indicate the behind-the-scenes talks, perhaps the influence of people like Vice President-elect Mike Pence who talk “normal Republican” a little more fluently?

harry: Chao, Price, Pompeo and DeVos are all establishment-friendly. Heck, even Sessions is to some degree. Carson, Flynn and Bannon are not. So even if it is more establishment-y friendly than we expected, there are plenty of folks who we wouldn’t otherwise expect to be selected. Well, not me anyway.

clare.malone: He is choosing the hardline of the establishment — Sessions was the OG immigration hardliner.

micah: Price is hardline on Obamacare. Chao is hardline on transportation. (Just kidding — I don’t even know what that means.)

harry: Perhaps, we can say it is a more conservative Cabinet.

clare.malone: I mean, if he appointed David Petraeus at State, that would be a more down-the-middle person. Petraeus was appointed to head U.S. Central Command during the Bush years, and he of course served as CIA chief under Obama, so he’s worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations to one degree or another.

natesilver: I think it’s important to look at the overall balance in the Cabinet, especially given that Trump has a reputation for doing whatever the last person he spoke with tells him to do. And I think Conway — from her vantage point — is somewhat rationally worried about the balance tipping away from her and Bannon and Trump becoming a vessel for more conventional Republicans.

micah: Does the balance matter, though, Nate? The policies that Chao pursues won’t really soften the hardline approach Sessions is likely to take, right? Is that really even a useful way to think about a president’s Cabinet?

harry: The balance is hard right, I think. Price and Sessions are both in positions in which ideology really matters, and they are solidly conservative.

natesilver: I think you may be thinking too conventionally. The question I’m thinking about is where people’s loyalties would be if there’s some sort of crisis within the administration, which there’s a fairly high chance of at some point in the next four years.

micah: But there have been plenty of Trump loyalists among his picks so far.

clare.malone: Yeah, but people like Price and Sessions are in more high-profile, powerful positions — their loyalty matters more, right? And they’re indebted to Trump for being elevated from the fringes to the marble halls of Cabinet power (or are they mahogany halls if they’re in a Cabinet)? Regardless.

natesilver: To continue down my line of unconventional thinking: The 25th Amendment requires the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to declare a president unfit for office. How likely is that to actually come up? Probably not too likely (that section of the 25th Amendment has never been invoked before). But I do think a useful heuristic is to think in terms of whether Cabinet members might be more loyal to Trump or more loyal to Pence in a crisis.

harry: OK, now this is interesting.

micah: This seems really premature.

clare.malone: So we’re talking democratic coup here, basically?

harry: The coup is not of interest to me, haha. But the idea that this Cabinet may reflect Pence’s ideology more than Trump’s is.

natesilver: Yeah, Pence has become a weirdly under-covered figure.

clare.malone: He’s a more telegenic Cheney. In the sense that he’s going to wield a lotta lotta power.

natesilver: Unlike most vice presidents, he really might be the second-most-powerful person in America, depending on how interested Trump is in actually governing, as opposed to just enjoying the perks of being POTUS.

clare.malone: It’s actually the way a lot of powerful organizations work! There is a person who’s a figurehead who knows how to charm or have a presence in public, and then there are the behind-the-scenes workhorses.

micah: Right, just how like Nate is the face of FiveThirtyEight but I’m really the brains/person that makes everything work.

natesilver: The other day, I tweeted out an article about mentally ill presidents, and one big theme there is that the Cabinet can wield an incredible amount of power.

clare.malone: I watched a documentary about Silvio Berlusconi recently, and it was interesting to me that he first came to power on a similar wave of media intoxication from the public in a relatively short period of time. But his first time as Italy’s prime minister was cut short because he clumsily navigated shifting political alliances, given that he was pretty new to politics. The American presidency doesn’t make the head honcho mess as much with Congress if he doesn’t want to, which is great news for Trump.

harry: Pence is a hard-core conservative. He is basically a Ted Cruz-like figure in terms of ideology. (Remember, he endorsed Cruz in the Republican primary.) Pence was also someone willing to take the job of vice president, so he probably has a good bit of loyalty points with Trump. What’s interesting to me about the mentally ill article is that Cabinets can wield a lot of power when the president doesn’t know what’s going on. And whether you like him or not, Trump is an outsider. He isn’t used to Washington. He’ll have to lean on others, most likely. And to me, many of these Cabinet picks have Pence’s fingerprints on them.

clare.malone: Agree with Harry re: Pence influence.

natesilver: Just as a general point — I also strongly disagree with the idea of this sort of speculation being premature. I don’t think people should be covering Trump under the paradigm of “let’s pretend everything is normal until something breaks.” This is all deeply abnormal compared with recent American history, although there are precedents in distant history and around the world.

micah: That’s a straw man, Nate.



natesilver: OK, let’s play a game then. What are the chances that Trump finishes his four-year term? According to some betting markets I’ve seen, they’re only about 60 percent.

micah: I think talking about the removal of Trump is waaay premature. That’s not the same thing as saying we should pretend everything is normal. Instead, I think focusing on his appointments and the huge effect they could have without Trump going anywhere seems way more productive.

I guess my point is that right now the most important question isn’t whether Trump will finish his term. It’s who he’s putting in charge of these agencies and what they believe/want to do.

harry: I’d argue Trump’s selections are important for the immediate term because of what Trump believes and for the longer term given a higher than normal chance of something going crazy.

clare.malone: There’s always that sort of out-of-the-hat number of what an administration accomplishes in its first 100 days. Could be interesting to see where things stand as far as 1) Trump’s use of the executive office and its particular powers and 2) his relationships with the congressional leadership. Then I think we can try to make more educated guesses as to the way things unfold.

But to return to Nate’s betting markets point … Micah just said this out loud in the room we’re all sitting in — if he gets bored with the job, i.e., he “Palins it,” he can just delegate more and more authority.

micah: OK, so let’s approach things this way: Have Trump’s appointments so far jibed with his campaign promises?

Let’s go one by one on the main ones: Sessions for attorney general — yes, right?

clare.malone: Yes. Immigration hardliner, as previously stated. Had to come through on that one.

harry: Sessions most certainly jibes.

micah: Price for Health and Human Services.

clare.malone: Also jibes. Price actually has a replace plan for the “repeal and replace” line about Obamacare.

harry: It jibes, but I wonder if some of the people who voted for Trump understand what it would mean for them to replace Obamacare. Side note: Whether you like Price or not, he is a serious selection. In that sense, Trump found someone who isn’t just a talker.

micah: Let’s combine the national security picks. Pompeo as CIA director and Flynn as national security adviser.

harry: That’s like combining “Rookie of the Year” and “Schindler’s List.” Yes, they both came out in 1993, but they are very different.

micah: But didn’t Trump campaign, somewhat, on pulling back internationally?

harry: Sorta. He also said he’d “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State.

natesilver: I’d note that Flynn and Bannon don’t require Senate confirmation. So that’s another dimension to think about. Maybe Trump plays it pretty safe/establishment with those picks that require Senate confirmation — Haley, Pompeo, DeVos, etc. — and then picks various oddballs for the unconfirmed but nevertheless important positions.

harry: Yeah, he picks loyalists for the “Kitchen Cabinet” positions.

clare.malone: Just to loop back to Pompeo — he was a conservative voice on the Benghazi committee and is opposed to the Iran deal. So he’s certainly a “stance” appointment, right? Benghazi was a huge campaign issue, something that Trump’s base really responded to.

micah: And Trump hit the Iran deal repeatedly.

OK, let’s move away from staffing now and talk about the other main defining feature of this transition period: Trump’s Twitter feed. He’s been all over the place, criticizing the cast of “Hamilton,” lying about massive vote fraud, etc. This morning, he uncorked this beauty seemingly out of nowhere:

clare.malone: Yeah, do they take away his Twitter?

natesilver: :bird:

clare.malone: Or do they try to accommodate him? Obama was accommodated on the BlackBerry front, though this seems VERY DIFFERENT.

harry: I still cannot believe he’s tweeting.

natesilver: I guess the broader question is whether there will be an … ahem … pivot toward Trump behaving more presidentially once he’s in office. My default answer is probably not.

micah: FiveThirtyEight has a no pivot talk policy.

harry: People said he’d be more presidential after he started winning states. People said he’d be more presidential once he started the general election campaign. People said he’d be more presidential once he won the presidency. Maybe we should stop predicting he’ll become more presidential.

clare.malone: What’s the Maya Angelou line? When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

natesilver: In most ways, Trump is a very WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) guy. Which — by the way — is why I’m not a fan of the “Trump’s tweets are just a distraction from Story X” take.

micah: But the attention paid to Trump’s tweeting does seem like one of the most prominent features of the period since the election. These will be a permanent feature of the political world while Trump’s in office.

clare.malone: Yeah, you and I disagree on that, Nate. I think some of the tweets are stories, but very many of them are not.

micah: Let’s take his tweet today on flag-burning as a case study.

clare.malone: Complete T-bone steak thrown to get the internet base all riled up.

micah: On this one, I’m with Clare that it’s a distraction.

natesilver: OK. What’s the big story that tweet is supposed to be distracting us from?

micah: Everything else. (And btw, intent here is beside the point.)

clare.malone: Every business conflict of interest story, every lawsuit settlement. Every non-protocol-following phone call taken with a world leader.

micah: What do congressional Republicans think of Bannon or Flynn or Sessions?

natesilver: Those aren’t big stories, at this point. They’re mishmashes of small stories, which collectively become important. In the same way that Trump’s various erosions of democratic norms — including on Twitter — collectively become important.

clare.malone: Yeah, but, Nate, why would we just hip hop around to notions about free speech that have already been settled instead of writing about actually important things that are still to be resolved with the incoming president? They’re not small stories so much as newly forming beats.

natesilver: I think potential erosions to the First Amendment are a lot more important than Trump’s business conflicts.

clare.malone: I think they are equally important and both pose unanswered questions as to their effect on the office of the presidency and the way our democracy functions.

We didn’t codify a lot of things surrounding the presidency — they’ve relied on people acting “responsibly,” and I think there is some worry that the shifting norms could become more than shifting, but unmoored from the intent of the founders and our constitution.

natesilver: I’m more concerned about things that appear on this list, which are signs that Trump could become an authoritarian leader. The first one is: “systematic efforts to intimidate the media.”

harry: You mean like his tweet about CNN’s Jeff Zeleny?

clare.malone: But we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The media is right to be their own guardian when it comes to free speech rights, but I’m frankly just as worried about the ability of foreign governments to co-opt the power of the American presidency in ways that haven’t been available before.

micah: Here’s the central problem, IMO: What a president says is typically allotted a ton of news value, by default, and rightly so. But it has been assigned news value because it traditionally has had a very high signal-to-noise ratio. Presidential remarks are normally so considered, vetted, poll-tested, etc. They usually are a somewhat reliable guide to the policies a president will pursue, how they’ll pursue them, etc. But Trump isn’t like that. He throws a ton of stuff out there, on Twitter and off. The signal-to-noise ratio in Trump’s public statements is uncommonly low. So I do think this is a new problem for the media to some extent.

Does Trump really support anti-flag burning legislation? Will he spend political capital on it? If Obama sent out that tweet, I think we could safely say “yes.” With Trump, I’m not sure.

harry: Presidents can support a lot of policies that they don’t spend capital on.

micah: Does he even support it? Look back through his Twitter feed — it’s littered with positions he reportedly no longer holds.

That’s my main point: If you want to know what Trump is going to do, is his Twitter feed really that helpful?

harry: It’s that tired old line about taking Trump seriously but not literally

natesilver: I just don’t want to be the frog in boiling water if and when he actually starts shredding the Constitution.

clare.malone: Yes, that is fair.

micah: We gotta wrap up. Closing thoughts?

harry: My main thought: There’s nothing that Trump has done so far that has made me doubt my assessment before his election of what type of president he would be.

micah: Yeah, I think that’s right.

natesilver: Journalists ought to shed their presumption that everything will turn out fine in the end. We’re in substantially uncharted territory with Trump.

micah: That’s a good, happy note to end on.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.