Political Outsiders, Controversial Nominations, Unclear Responsibilities: Donald Trump's Team


While U.S. President Donald Trump has been able to fill several key positions in his cabinet, the road remains long and rocky to a fully functioning administration. The heated debates in the House and the Senate around the confirmation of Trump's candidates, including the confirmation of Supreme Court judge Neil Gorsuch, shows that Republicans and Democrats remain deeply divided.

Lots of Outsiders and Some Establishment

For many of the key positions in his cabinet, U.S. President Donald Trump has chosen political outsiders: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was previously CEO of ExxonMobil, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was an investment banker, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was an investor, and Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were high-ranking military officers. All of them have little political experience.

However, there are not only political novices in the Trump team. For example, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (previously a Senator), Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (both former Governors) as well as Health Secretary Tom Price and CIA Director Mike Pompeo (both previously Congressmen) have belonged to the Washington establishment for years, some of them for decades.

Many of Trump's nominations were extremely controversial. For example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate only because Vice-President Mike Pence casted the deciding vote – a first in U.S. history. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions did not get a single vote from Democrats. Neil Gorsuch could only be confirmed because Senate Republicans abolished a long-standing Senate rule for Supreme Court nominations.

Contradictions Within the Administration

During the Senate hearings, many members of the Trump administration contradicted the views of the President on central issues: James Mattis described Russia as one of the main threats for the United States and spoke out in favour of retaining the nuclear deal with Iran. Moreover, he confirmed his support for NATO. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson depicted climate change as real threat and expressed his support for the Paris climate agreement. CIA Director Pompeo strongly rejected the use of brutal interrogation methods against terrorists (waterboarding). Thus it remains to be seen what line the Trump administration will take on these central foreign- and security-policy issues.

Unclear Responsibilities in Trade Policy

Donald Trump has nominated the lawyer Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative. Lighthizer served previously under President Ronald Reagan as acting U.S Trade Representative. While in the past he has supported free trade agreements in principle, he has also spoken out in favor of tariffs to protect domestic industries. The newly established Trade Policy Council at the White House is headed by the economics professor Peter Navarro. During the election campaign, he helped draw up Trump's economic programme and is a prominent advocate of the claim that trade relations with China are the reason for the decline of U.S. manufacturing. The lawyer Jason Greenblatt is in charge of coordinating international negotiations, but it is unclear if this will include trade policy. Moreover, Commerce Secretary Ross is to have competence over trade policy: he – rather than the U.S. Trade Representative, for example – is to bear overall responsibility for renegotiating the NAFTA agreement. Ross, too, had already served as an adviser to Trump during the election campaign and played a major role in defining the president's protectionist agenda. While these individuals are united in favouring a tough trade-policy stance on China, there is an evident wrangling over competences in U.S. trade policy – an area that Trump has identified as central to his Presidency.

It remains to be seen just how much influence members of the Trump administration will, in fact, have. What is clear, though, is that these individuals will be important points of contact for America's partners. German policymakers and German industry are well advised to stay in close contact with them.