Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Anti-establishment Trump surrounds himself with political insiders

The big outsider sure has an affinity for insiders.

For months, Donald Trump railed against the political establishment, regarding it as a cancer on the body politic, vowing to sweep away the cobwebs of complacency that he said entangled the U.S. government. Now his transition team is headed by a governor who is a former member of the House of Representatives, one of his top advisers is a former speaker of the House, and another is a former mayor of New York.

But although many Trump critics revile former speaker Newt Gingrich, a onetime Republican lawmaker from Georgia, and consider former mayor Rudy Giuliani a danger to civil liberties, the emergence in recent days of established political figures – including Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, selected this week as White House chief of staff – in the Trump inner circle is prompting a (restrained but unmistakeable) sigh of relief among Washington insiders.

Story continues below advertisement

Related: Who will Trump pick for his cabinet? A list of some likely contenders​

Related: Trump stokes uncertainty with Reince, Bannon picks for White House staff

Read more: Who is Stephen Bannon? How he fits in Trump's unusual inner circle, and why he worries so many

If, as Sartre wrote, hell is other people, politicians in the wilderness consider it hell to see other people in office. That is one reason the imminent Trump appointments are being watched so carefully in the capital and beyond. Political appointments are the living, breathing expression of political intent.

In the week since he was elected, Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with former officials, lobbyists and denizens of a capital city he singled out for perfidy in his campaign. One of them is Ed Meese, 84 years old, who was appointed attorney-general by Ronald Reagan a third of a century ago. Others are familiar characters around the capital, some with ties to former vice-president Dick Cheney, others with deep roots on K Street, the site of powerful lobbying suites in Washington.

Some two dozen years ago, president-elect Bill Clinton vowed to create a cabinet that, he said, "looked like America." Forty per cent of the female cabinet officers in U.S. history, including Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, were appointed by George W. Bush. Barack Obama appointed by far the most women – eight, including Ms. Clinton as secretary of state, Loretta Lynch as attorney-general, and Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security.

But the North American champion of female appointees is Justin Trudeau, whose opening cabinet was equally split between men and women. No one expects Mr. Trump even to approach that standard, although on Monday there were indications he was considering appointing a gay man and a woman to top jobs, perhaps as a public-relations antidote to his selection of the assertive right-wing agent provocateur Stephen Bannon as White House counsellor.

Story continues below advertisement

"Based on Donald Trump's track record with women, I'd be surprised if he makes an intentional effort to diversify his cabinet," said Dana Brown, who heads the Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University. "There's not going to be pressure from the Republican Party to force Trump to include women or minorities. His rhetoric isn't inclusive, so why should we expect his actions to be?" Capital observers, who over eight years of the Obama administration grew accustomed to Democrats playing the principal roles in the executive branch, are seeking to determine the character of the Trump administration by examining the appointees.

They expect, for example, to see GOP Senator Jeff Sessions play a crucial role either inside the administration or on Capitol Hill. Ordinarily, presidents are reluctant to appoint sitting senators of their own party to White House or cabinet positions for fear their replacements will be from the rival party, but Mr. Sessions is from Alabama, where the governor, Republican Robert Bentley, can appoint an interim senator until a special election is held two months later. Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1996, when veteran Howell Heflin retired, and has voted Republican the past 10 elections in a row, so there is little danger a Democrat would replace Mr. Sessions.

"If I'm Trump, I would take a look at the big offices – attorney-general, treasury, state, commerce – and look to my supporters," said former Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, a Republican who assembled a cabinet in the state capital of Harrisburg after eight years of a Democratic governor. "I would also look to people who have knowledge in those specific areas. You can't beat background. It's important to have some fresh faces around, too – especially since the country seems to be saying, 'We want new people.'" It's unclear who those fresh faces will be, beyond Mr. Bannon, who Mr. Trump appointed senior counsellor and White House strategist on Sunday. Mr. Trump has long and deep ties in business, and vowed, in debates and on the campaign stump, to attract what he called "the best people," but his personal acquaintances are few in the areas where appointments must be made, many almost certainly before the month is out.

Earlier outsiders, such as Jimmy Carter, the onetime Democratic governor of Georgia, and Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, had spent at least some time in Washington attending National Governors Association meetings and coming into contact with government officials. They also had many ties to figures proficient in the far-flung areas of government, especially social and human services and governmental budgeting.

Mr. Carter, for example, appointed a Georgia lawyer, Griffin Bell, who grew up in the town adjacent to his, as attorney-general, and selected Bert Lance, who was state highway director in the Carter gubernatorial years, as his budget director. Mr. Reagan selected several Californians he knew well for his inner circle, including Mr. Meese, who was his gubernatorial chief of staff and became counsellor to the president before being named attorney-general; Michael Deaver, a former political field director for the California Republican Party and Reagan gubernatorial insider who became deputy White House chief of staff; and Caspar Weinberger, former chairman of the California Republican Party who became secretary of defence.

Mr. Reagan also selected, against the counsel of his transition team, Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, who had been his running mate in his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, as secretary of health and human services. And he chose William French Smith, a Los Angeles lawyer who was part of Mr. Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" in the gubernatorial years, as his first attorney-general.

Story continues below advertisement

"A president needs a friend somewhere," said Republican Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a close Reagan confidant who was present when Mr. Smith was selected.

Mr. Trump will, too. But he lacks the kind of friendships that make for good cabinet members and White House advisers.

So, too, did Dwight Eisenhower, who had been the supreme commander of Allied troops in Europe during the Second World War, president of Columbia University, and head of NATO. Like Mr. Trump, the general was at ease among wealthy men, especially on the golf course. His original cabinet was heavy on business executives, plus Martin Durkin, the president of the plumber's and pipe fitter's union who became labour secretary – and the reason the Eisenhower cabinet was described as "nine millionaires and a plumber."

Report an error
About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at