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Donald Trump survivors: Six Cabinet officials who stuck it out

That’s a remarkable level of turnover for just one term. Trump’s immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, saw just a handful of departures each in their first terms.

What may be more remarkable than all the people who left are the ones who stayed for the duration of Trump’s time in office. Only six look poised to have lasted from the beginning to the end — Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Sonny Perdue at Agriculture, Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, Elaine Chao at Transportation and Betsy DeVos at Education.

These six Trump survivors have little in common. Some are veterans of government, while others were political novices when they joined the administration. A few accomplished a lot during their tenure and played key roles on important issues. Others faded into the background.

They all however managed to do the one thing that has seemed to be the most difficult in an exceedingly chaotic administration — avoid Trump’s ire. They have, by and large, escaped major scandal, survived internal fights, and perhaps most importantly, remained unfailingly loyal to the boss. That’s not always kept them from getting on Trump’s bad side. But on net, the survivors have stayed in his good graces, and in many cases, safely out of his sight.

Here’s a look at the legacy of the Trump administration survivors from the last four years.

Steven Mnuchin

One of the original Cabinet positions, the Treasury Secretary is often a close political ally to the President. Treasury’s headquarters is literally next door to the White House. Steven Mnuchin, a veteran of Goldman Sachs and hedge-fund management, has certainly filled that role. An early supporter of Trump’s, Mnuchin joined the campaign in 2016 as finance chairman and was rewarded with the plumb appointment.

Intensely loyal to Trump, Mnuchin has not veered out of his lane at Treasury and shuns the spotlight. Early in the administration, it was his new wife, the Scottish actress Louise Linton, who attracted more attention in the nation’s capital. And with every controversy, from the President’s response to the 2017 Charlottesville protests on, Mnuchin has not offered one bit of daylight between him and Trump.

He has also been a savvy operator within the Cabinet, forging strategic relationships with others, including Trump’s one-time favorite, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

While Mnuchin often remained out of Trump’s public crosshairs, the President often derided him privately for recommending appointing Jerome Powell as the chair of the Federal Reserve. He often joked — semi-seriously, sources said — that no matter how good of a deal Mnuchin brought him, he was still responsible for Powell.

Among Mnuchin’s achievements are the 2017 tax bill, which he helped draft and advocated for on Capitol Hill. He’s also been a dutiful executor of tariffs and sanctions on China, fulfilling a chief priority of Trump’s to put the squeeze on Beijing.

Mnuchin drew criticism from some Republicans for his negotiations with congressional Democrats on the first round of pandemic-related economic relief. His efforts, however, helped ensure the inclusion of small-business assistance loans in the initial relief package.

Mnuchin has been less successful in the latest negotiations on Capitol Hill for economic relief. The impasse is more reflective on the partisan divide between the Democratic House and Republican Senate, as well as to Trump’s seeming indifference to finding a compromise. Mnuchin has approached this last big effort as he has for most of the Trump era, hewing closely to what the President wants.

Sonny Perdue

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue listens as US President Donald speaks during a roundtable with farmers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on April 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. During the meeting Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

Sonny Perdue came to the Trump Cabinet, as Secretary of Agriculture, as something of an elder statesman for an upstart, outsider President. The first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, he had been a state senator and, in his pre-political career, a veterinarian and agriculture transportation business owner.

At Agriculture, Perdue’s work and agenda did not often make the front page, but the secretary was a quiet force behind the scenes from the beginning. Just a day after being sworn into office in April 2017, Perdue was at the White House urging Trump to back down from his pledge to withdraw the country from the North American Free Trade Agreement, as the President told the Washington Post at the time. Perdue, who quickly figured out how to speak the President’s language, warned him that doing so would harm plenty of rural voters in areas that supported Trump in the election.

That moment was reassuring to agriculture interests concerned Trump might threaten the benefits they had under the freer trade regime, said Dale Moore, the executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. It also set the tone for smoother relations between the administration and the farm industry once Trump’s trade war with China began to have real negative impacts domestically.

Perdue was often willing to acknowledge publicly the damage being done to farmers by China’s retaliatory tariffs. He also defended the President’s trade push as good for American agriculture in the long-term, a message that had a mixed reception among farmers during the escalation of the trade war in mid-2019. But his support for transfer payments to farmers (which Trump falsely claimed were being paid by China) and his in-person appeals helped keep farmers and agriculture lobbyists alike in the fold.

“Even our folks who were frustrated with the situation were very confident in Secretary Perdue,” said Moore.

And despite the grumblings from individual farmers, Trump’s support in most of the country’s rural areas increased in the 2020 election.

Perdue was one of the first people in the administration to refer to the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic in February.

“Hopefully we can get past this coronavirus pandemic very quickly and get back to the trade,” Perdue said while speaking to farmers in San Antonio on February 28, before anyone else in the administration had publicly referred to it as such.

Wilbur Ross

More than any secretary in the Cabinet, Wilbur Ross at Commerce was the most reliable advocate for Trump’s protectionist trade policies. Allied with top White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Ross ultimately won the internal fight inside the White House with Trump’s free trader advisers, including Gary Cohn, who resigned as national economic adviser in March 2018.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks at the SelectUSA 2018 Investment Summit June 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. The investment summit encourages direct foreign investment in companies across the United States.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
At Commerce, Ross implemented tariffs and other protectionist actions without reservation — which probably did a lot to temper Trump’s frustration with the octogenarian’s poor performances on television. It was Ross who recommended Trump invoke his broad national security authority to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on China and, later, on allies in North America and Europe.
Ross also played a big role in administering the 2020 Census, which is run out of the Commerce Department. Most controversially, the Trump administration was pushing to include a question on the Census about the respondent’s citizenship. Despite Ross initially telling Congress in 2018 he had not discussed adding the question with anyone from the White House, contradictory evidence showed he had discussed it with Trump adviser Steve Bannon in 2017.
The question, which several state attorneys general sued about over concern it would undercount undocumented immigrants in their states, was eventually removed from the Census by a federal judge and the administration’s appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

The Census will have lasting effects on apportionment of congressional seats and the distribution of federal funds.

Trump often told people he wanted to get rid of Ross in the fall of 2019, but kept him around because the two run in the same circles and he couldn’t bring himself to fire his old friend, he told associates.

Ben Carson

HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson speaks before U.S. President Donald Trump signed a proclamation to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. day, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, on January 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. Monday January 16 is a federal holiday to honor Dr. King and his legacy.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Trump appointed two of his GOP primary rivals in 2016 to his Cabinet: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to Energy and famed neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson to Housing and Urban Development. While Perry (who left last year) had decades of political experience, including 14 years as a governor, Carson came to Washington like Trump, as a total newbie.

Under Carson, the department has faced a series of minor scandals and scrutiny. Carson himself has been scrutinized for his approval of what turned out to be a $31,000 dining-room set at HUD headquarters and the unusual roles members of his family and their friends have had at the department. And Carson’s signature initiative — a system of centralized social-service hubs for low-income residents called EnVision Centers — has struggled to get off the ground, NBC News reported.
But Trump seems to have spent little to no energy on housing issues, relegating Carson and the department to an afterthought and a place to deposit loyalists. Carson inadvertently put his frustration with the personnel issues on display at a campaign event this fall, when he exposed notes to news cameras that suggested he intended to talk to Trump directly about the White House’s personnel office and its director, John McEntee. “I am not happy with the way PPO is handling my agency,” read Carson’s note, according to the Associated Press.
There are also the exploits of a high-ranking HUD political appointee, longtime Trump family event planner Lynne Patton. Patton was accused of using her sleepover tour of New York public housing as a publicity stunt for a potential reality TV show. She has made other attention-grabbing appearances, including at Michael Cohen’s congressional hearing, and was chastised for violating guidelines barring political activity by federal officials.
This fall, Carson tested positive for Covid-19 and described himself as “desperately ill” before he recovered. According to Carson, Trump, who had also been hospitalized with Covid earlier in the year, made sure his HUD secretary had access to the same experimental drug treatment the President received.

Elaine Chao

Unlike the outsider President, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is a consummate Washington insider. Until Barr’s confirmation, she was the only veteran of a previous President’s Cabinet, serving as George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary, and she has held political appointments in previous Republican administrations.

Chao is also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Like others among the survivors, Chao has passed the loyalty test, though that’s been made a bit more complicated by her marriage.

In 2017, after McConnell joined other Republican leaders in condemning Trump’s Charlottesville response, the President publicly criticized the GOP leader. Chao was asked by reporters for her thoughts on her boss going after her husband.

Secretary of the Department of Transportation Elaine Chao speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference 2020 on February 28, 2020 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Getty Images)
“I stand by my man — both of them,” Chao said.
That loyalty, along with the President’s lack of interest in federal transportation policy, has helped insulate Chao. This, even as questions about conflicts of interest and controversy over the firing of the department’s inspector general have clouded her tenure.
Chao and the department were a focus of the administration’s ever-standing “infrastructure week.” But despite promises that the White House would pursue some kind of infrastructure legislative package, nothing of the sort ever materialized.

Betsy DeVos

President-elect Donald Trump looks on as Betsy DeVos, his nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A major Republican donor from a wealthy Michigan family, Betsy DeVos came into the job at the Education Department as an activist for charter schools and school choice. Her tenure has largely satisfied conservatives in the education policy world while frustrating liberals and advocates for more federal regulation and oversight.

Frederick M. Hess, an education policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called her a “trust buster” and a threat to the education establishment. That includes her advocacy for charter schools as well as rolling back of numerous Obama-era regulations and guidelines. Among these was the institution of new protections for college students accused of sexual assault, which her department called a restoration of due process.
It’s also been boom times for for-profit colleges and education enterprises under DeVos, who relaxed regulations requiring institutions to demonstrate their graduates could find gainful employment to keep receiving federal aid. The Education Department also issued a rule that consumer groups said have made it harder for students to receive debt relief from colleges accused of or closed over fraud — the majority of which are for-profit institutions.

Stephanie Riegg Cellini, a scholar with the Brookings Institution and a critic of unregulated for-profit colleges, characterized DeVos as a savior for an industry that was struggling to meet transparency requirements and seeing falling enrollment numbers thanks to Obama-era regulations.

“She really changed the trajectory for this sector,” said Cellini.

DeVos has often been the object of intense criticism from the education community and has made her share of embarrassing public statements. But her eagerness and effectiveness at delivering on conservative priorities has kept allies of Trump happy — keeping Trump himself happy with his Education secretary, too.

DeVos had fallen out of favor with the President on multiple occasions, though he ultimately kept her on the job. DeVos faced intense criticism internally for rarely attending coronavirus meetings, despite the heavy focus on whether schools should remain open in the spring or open as scheduled in the fall. Trump’s lashed out at her multiple times in April, multiple sources told CNN, often arguing she had the worst confirmation hearings of any of his Cabinet secretaries.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak contributed to this article.


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