Trump’s Cabinet Picks Break with a Tradition Going Back to George Washington (Does He Realize This?)News at Home
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California, Davis.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article discussing how George Washington established cabinet precedent that has guided presidential administrations throughout American history. The cabinet was entirely Washington’s creation: the Constitution does not mention it and Congress has never authorized it. Following Washington’s example, every president has chosen his own cabinet members and decided how to interact with them with little or no public oversight. President-Elect Trump is now enjoying the benefit of Washington’s cabinet legacy as he chooses his department secretaries and cabinet members. Yet, in at least one crucial way, Trump has bucked a long-standing cabinet trend that began with Washington and ran nearly undisturbed for twenty-two decades.
In the 1790’s, Washington recognized that his cabinet appointments presented a rare opportunity to build governing coalitions, patch up divisions that erupted during the election, and present a vision of qualified, prepared statesmanship to the nation and the world. Accordingly, Washington chose his appointments carefully. First and foremost, he worked to bring talent, knowledge, and experience into his administration. But he also went out of his way to pick nominees who represented different states and regions so that he could make them feel a part of the new federal government. Washington further sought to assure all American citizens – that is, different groups of land-owning whites – that they would be represented in the new nation.
Washington’s original cabinet nominees reflected these goals. Washington selected accomplished statesmen to reassure the American public that experienced officials would run the federal government. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton brought military expertise into the administration. Both Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph had served at the state level for many years, and Jefferson had recently completed a lengthy appointment as minister to France. These four secretaries also contributed regional appeal. Knox, originally a self-educated bookstore owner in Boston, was then building an expansive homestead in Maine and represented broader New England. Hamilton, an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean, made his home in New York City and was a well-known friend to the banking and merchant classes. Jefferson hailed from the wealthy, slave-owning plantation class in Virginia. Randolph also called Virginia home, but came from a much more humble background.
Washington continued to select his appointments thoughtfully throughout his administration. In 1795, Washington struggled to fill open cabinet positions. Esteemed public officials including John Marshall, Patrick Henry, and Rufus King all declined appointments. On September 21, 1795, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering recommended that Washington appoint Samuel Dexter as the next Attorney General. Despite the lack of willing prospects, Washington rejected this proposal because Dexter had recently lost re-election in the House of Representatives. Washington believed that appointing a defeated congressman would stir up controversy, which he avoided whenever possible.
Washington’s successors followed his example. Although President Jefferson only selected Republicans for the highest offices, he considered the nation’s varying regions and interests when nominating cabinet secretaries. His Secretary of State, James Madison, was widely recognized as one of the chief architects of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and represented the large, southern slave-holding interests. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was born in Switzerland, settled in western Pennsylvania, and spoke for the more radical wing of the Republican Party. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn brought moderate political views and New England roots to the cabinet. Dearborn first held political office in Washington’s administration and Jefferson hoped the appointment would bring Federalist-leaning regions in Massachusetts into the Republican fold. Attorney General Levi Lincoln also came from Massachusetts and offered similar appeal. Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith of Maryland represented the mid-Atlantic region, but more importantly was a notorious Anglophile whose family nurtured many Federalist ties. His appointment signaled to Federalists that the new administration would not ignore their concerns.
Some years later, Abraham Lincoln famously embraced Washington’s precedent when compiling his cabinet. Several southern states had already seceded by Lincoln’s inauguration on February 21, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet selections reflected his desire to hold together the Union and shore up support in critical states. Attorney General Edward Bates represented Missouri, a border state Lincoln was eager to keep in the Union, and held more conservative political views. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had lived in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, valuable western territories. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase grew up in New England and was the most radical abolitionist in the cabinet. Finally, Secretary of State William Seward hailed from one of the most powerful and wealthy northern states, New York.
Recent presidents have continued to honor this tradition by using their cabinet positions to boost approval ratings, win over voters from the other party, and build political capital before their inauguration. For example, President Obama’s appointments demonstrated an effort to reach across the political aisle. Obama kept George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, until Gates retired in 2011. Obama also drew on every region of the nation. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, served as Obama’s Secretary of Defense from 2013 to 2015. Obama’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, was born in New York and identified as an Independent. His first Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, grew up in Colorado. Obama also selected female, African American, Asian American, and Latino nominees.
Like Washington, recent Presidents have also tried to avoid controversy (with mixed success). Public outcry forced both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to rescind certain nominations. Clinton withdrew his nomination of Zoë Baird for Attorney General after the New York Times broke the news that she employed two illegal immigrants to care for her children. Clinton’s next choice for Attorney General, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood, withdrew her nomination after an FBI investigation uncovered that she too had employed an illegal immigrant in her house. Because of these scandals, Clinton’s disapproval ratings shot up just two weeks into his transition. Bush faced similar issues when evidence surfaced that his nominee for Secretary of Labor, Linda Chavez, provided boarding and monetary support to an illegal immigrant. These controversies wasted valuable political capital and hindered both presidents in their efforts to pass legislation in the early stages of their administrations. In keeping with Washington’s traditional goals for cabinet appointments, neither Clinton, nor Bush intended for these issues to sidetrack their transition and quickly backed away from the uproar as soon as possible.
President-Elect Trump, however, appears to have broken from these traditions in selecting his cabinet nominees. Thus far, Trump’s picks include very little diversity; few of Trump’s nominees are women or minorities, and those who are have been selected for lower-level cabinet positions only. Trump has not shown much desire to represent different socio-economic classes; his cabinet would be the wealthiest in history. Trump also seems unmoved by the idea of bridging the divisions that flared during a vicious election; several of his choices, such as Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions, risk alienating ethnic, racial, and religious communities. Taken as a whole, Trump’s cabinet selections thus far give the impression of a paradigmatic shift away from the goals pursued by Washington and so many presidents after him.