Evan Vucci / AP
Billionaire’s Row. All the President’s Generals. The Congressional Cabinet.
President-elect Donald Trump has assembled a government-in-waiting that has plenty of money, plenty of military expertise, and plenty of time in politics—but not much experience in the sprawling federal departments they have been tapped to run. Trump has, thus far, chosen five wealthy business leaders, two generals, and four Republican politicians for his Cabinet. All but two are white, all but two are men, and just one—Elaine Chao—has run a federal agency before.
Now they all must navigate the gauntlet of the U.S. Senate, where a slim Republican majority and an aggressive Democratic opposition will determine whether they get the jobs for which they’ve been nominated. The Senate hasn’t formally rejected a Cabinet pick since it voted down President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of John Tower for defense secretary in 1989. But no new president has gotten all of their nominees confirmed in the last 30 years; those that become enmeshed in controversy or partisan brinkmanship (it’s often both) usually withdraw before a vote.
Trump may have more luck with the Senate than his immediate predecessors, and he has Democrats to thank. When they held the majority in 2013, they changed the rules so that executive-branch nominations are no longer subject to the 60-vote threshold for filibusters. That means Trump could conceivably win Senate approval of his entire Cabinet without a single Democratic vote. But even without the filibuster threat, Republicans will have just a 52-48 majority come January, and three GOP defectors could join unified Democrats in thwarting a nominee.
Will that happen? Check back here throughout January and February as we update each Cabinet pick through confirmation hearings, committee consideration, and ultimately the final votes on the Senate floor.
Department of State
Trump’s pick: Rex Tillerson
Background: He’s an oil executive. Tillerson has been the CEO of Exxon Mobil for the last decade after working his way up the ranks since 1975. It’s the only company Tillerson has ever known; the Texas native started at Exxon after graduating college. He’s also an Eagle Scout who served as a past president of the Boy Scouts of America.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: He’s a big-time businessman who makes big deals—including with the same foreign governments with whom he’ll have to engage as secretary of state. “The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments,” Trump tweeted.
Liabilities: Tillerson’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the biggest potential obstacle to his confirmation by the Senate. In 2012, Putin awarded him the “Order of Friendship”—a high honor in the Kremlin, but one that will not sit well with Russia hawks in Congress.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Dicey. A number of Senate Republicans are worried about Tillerson’s coziness with Putin, including Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Chuck Grassley. Rubio said he was “seriously concerned” about Tillerson, and he is significant as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee that will hold the first vote on his nomination. With Democrats expected to oppose Tillerson en masse, the opposition of just three Republicans could sink his nomination. He benefits from the support of the Republican leadership, and endorsements from Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates and James Baker.
Department of the Treasury
Trump’s pick: Steven Mnuchin
Background: He’s a banker. Specifically, Mnuchin is a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund manager who bought the failed mortgage lender IndyMac from the government in 2009. He spun it off into OneWest and sold it for a huge profit five years later. Mnuchin is also a Hollywood producer whose credits include Avatar, American Sniper, and the X-Men movies.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: Spot the pattern yet? He’s a successful businessman. But perhaps equally as important, Mnuchin was a relatively early convert to the Trump cause and joined the campaign as national finance chairman back in April, just as the Republican was shifting from relying on his own funds to setting up a more traditional fundraising apparatus. Mnuchin made clear early on he wanted the Treasury job, and Trump rewarded him.
Liabilities: Goldman Sachs and foreclosures. Economic populists will see Mnuchin’s nomination by a candidate who ran against Wall Street and the “rigged” system as the ultimate betrayal. If Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for the speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs, how can he turn around and pick a man who got rich there for treasury secretary? Moreover, while Trump hailed Mnuchin for his business savvy in making a boatload off IndyMac at the depth of the Great Recession, Democrats will savage him for the foreclosures that resulted and highlight stories like that of an 89-year-old widow who blamed hounding by the bank for her husband’s death.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Decent. This is a fight Democrats are eager to have, since it buttresses their early critique of Trump as a con artist who ran on populism but plans to govern by oligarchy. Yet Senate Republicans are by and large a business-friendly bunch, and it’s not clear that Mnuchin’s critics can persuade three or more GOP senators to join them in opposition. Those to watch include Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Dean Heller of Nevada, who sits on the Finance Committee and is up for reelection in 2018.
Department of Defense
Trump’s pick: General James Mattis
Background: Mattis is a four-star Marine Corps general who led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. He commanded forces in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mattis also worked with General David Petraeus to produce the field manual on battling counterinsurgents in Iraq.
Government experience: Forty-four years in the military, though none in civilian posts.
Why Trump likes him: For a guy who once said he probably knows “more about ISIS than the generals do,” he certainly likes hiring them for top positions. Mattis is known as a straight-shooter and a voracious reader, and Trump has gushed that he is “the closest thing to George Patton that we have.” Like Trump, Mattis is someone whose blunt talk occasionally crashes through the line of political correctness, and he has criticized the Obama administration stance toward Iran and its strategy across the Middle East. Trump seems to value his opinion: He told The New York Times that he was “impressed” when Mattis pointedly told him that torture does not work, though it did not change the president-elect’s support for the practice. Trump also seems fond of his nickname, Mad Dog.
Liabilities: Mattis’s more colorful, trigger-happy quotes may get some attention at his confirmation hearings, including this piece of advice he gave to Marines under his command in Iraq: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” But they don’t come close to the kinds of things Trump has said, and he won a presidential election. The bigger issue for Mattis is likely to be concerns over the tradition of civilian control of the military and having a retired general lead the Defense Department for the first time in 65 years.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Good. They would be even higher but for the fact that unlike any other Trump Cabinet pick, Mattis will need to clear a higher hurdle in Congress. That’s because both the House and Senate must pass legislation granting him a waiver to head the Pentagon, since the law forbids military officers from holding the position of defense secretary within seven years of their retirement. Unlike normal nominations, that legislation would be subject to the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. But although some Democrats are likely to oppose that bill, the party as a whole is unlikely to try and block Mattis from being confirmed.
Department of Justice
Trump’s pick: Senator Jeff Sessions
Background: Sessions has represented Alabama in the Senate for 20 years, building up a record as a staunch critic of illegal immigration and expanded legal immigration. He’s been a conservative all around, opposing the Obama administration at nearly every turn. Before his election to the Senate, Sessions served as a federal prosecutor and then Alabama attorney general. He might have had a lifetime appointment to the federal bench had the Senate not rejected his nomination in 1987 over allegations that he made racist comments and praised the KKK while criticizing the NAACP and the ACLU.
Government experience: Extensive. He served in the U.S. Senate since 1997 and held public office in Alabama beginning in 1981.
Why Trump likes him: Loyalty. In February, Sessions became the first senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy, and he has been a surrogate and close adviser ever since. Sessions’s top aides are working in the Trump transition and at least one, policy adviser Stephen Miller, might snag a senior post in the West Wing. Sessions has made his name opposing comprehensive immigration reform and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and Trump adopted similar positions that helped vault him to the top of the GOP primary field.
Liabilities: The same comments that derailed Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship in the 1980s are likely to be front-and-center at his confirmation hearings, as will the staunchly conservative record he has amassed in the Senate. In his 1986 hearing before the Senate, Adam Serwer wrote for The Atlantic, “witnesses testified that Sessions referred to a black attorney as ‘boy,’ described the Voting Rights Act as ‘intrusive,’ attacked the NAACP and ACLU as ‘un-American’ for ‘forcing civil rights down the throats of people,’ joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana, and referred to a white attorney who took on voting-rights cases as a ‘traitor to his race.’” Sessions will face scrutiny over how he intends to enforce civil- and voting-rights laws as attorney general.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Decent. Most if not all Democrats will oppose Sessions based on his record on civil rights and immigration, and his nomination might have been untenable were he not a sitting senator. But the Senate is a political country club, and members rarely reject one of their own. So while some Republicans will face pressure to oppose him and Democrats will subject him to intense questioning at his confirmation hearings in January, Sessions is likely to win approval unless newer damaging comments emerge in the next few weeks.
Department of Homeland Security
Trump’s pick: Retired General John Kelly
Background: The military. Like Mattis, Kelly is a veteran of more than 40 years in the Marine Corps, having served as commander of the U.S. Southern Command for the final three ending in January. The jurisdiction included South and Central America, as well as the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Kelly also has the sad distinction of being the highest-ranking military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan. His son, Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, was killed after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010.
Government experience: Four decades in the military, including assignments as a liaison to Congress.
Why Trump likes him: Aside from being a general, Kelly’s deep knowledge of border security and the challenges posed by illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America are likely the reason Trump selected him. He has warned about the danger of terrorists using known drug smuggling routes to send operatives to the United States through Mexico, which was a theme for Trump on the campaign trail.
Liabilities: Kelly’s military background will draw concerns from those who oppose Trump’s move to populate his Cabinet with generals. But he enters the confirmation process with no obvious red flags that could sink his nomination.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Excellent. Democrats are picking their battles against Trump nominees, and they aren’t signaling a major fight against Kelly. For the most part, they are relieved that Trump didn’t pick either Kris Kobach, the ultra-hawkish secretary of state of Kansas, or David Clarke Jr., the outspoken sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Democrats might also be saving their fire in case Trump nominates either of them for a deputy post at DHS.
Department of Health and Human Services
Trump’s pick: Representative Tom Price
Background: The deeply conservative, six-term Georgia congressman is chairman of the House Budget Committee, a leading critic of the Affordable Care Act, and an architect of Republican proposals to replace the health law. Before entering politics in the 1990s, Price was an orthopedist for 20 years in Atlanta.
Government experience: Twelve years in Congress and another eight in the Georgia state Senate before that.
Why Trump likes him: The two men don’t have much of a personal history, but Price is a close ally both of Vice President-elect Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan from their years together as conservatives in Congress. Price will be instrumental in working with Republicans on Capitol Hill to devise and pass a replacement for Obamacare. In the meantime, Price’s experience in federal health policy could allow him to begin dismantling the Affordable Care Act from the inside at HHS.
Liabilities: Medicare, Medicare, Medicare. The biggest obstacle to Price’s confirmation is not his fervent opposition to Obamacare but his support for Ryan’s longstanding desire to convert Medicare into a voucher program. Democrats will do their best to make his confirmation hearings a referendum on this plan, particularly since Ryan has said he wants to try to pass it at some point during Trump’s first term.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Decent. Price’s ideological conservatism and his support for overhauling healthcare entitlement programs mean he is likely to gain very little, if any, support from Democrats. Republican senators like Susan Collins of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia will be ones to watch. But Price is well-liked personally, and his relationships with Republican lawmakers as a veteran member of the House make his confirmation chances better than even.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Trump’s pick: Dr. Ben Carson
Background: The conservative former Trump rival for the Republican presidential nomination has no formal experience in housing policy. He’s a retired neurosurgeon renowned for pioneering a procedure to separate conjoined twins. But what Carson would bring to HUD is the personal experience of having grown up poor in Detroit. He has written and spoken extensively about his upbringing, saying that his hard work and passion for reading, along with the firm encouragement of his single mother, helped him to escape the poverty of the inner city.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: Again, loyalty. Carson endorsed Trump after he dropped out of the presidential race, and though he wasn’t his most effective surrogate, he stayed with him through the ups and downs of the general election. Trump lambasted him during the primary, mocking his childhood struggle with what Trump described as “a pathological temper.” The two have long since patched things up, however. Carson was pegged for a Cabinet post early on, but it figured to be the Department of Health and Human Services, given his deep experience in medicine. Trump and Carson do appear to share an up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy toward combatting poverty, where government programs play a smaller role than they do now.
Liabilities: Experience, or lack thereof. Carson’s most formidable challenge may be explaining his own assessment of his qualifications to lead a Cabinet department, as explained by his spokesman, Armstrong Williams, to The Hill shortly after the election: “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
Chances at Senate confirmation: Decent. Republicans may be predisposed to support Carson, but how he addresses this issue at his confirmation hearings could be crucial to his chances of Senate approval. Democrats are likely to challenge him both on his lack of experience in housing policy and his specific vision for running the agency and combatting poverty. They will also force him to address the sharp criticism Trump has levied at the state of urban America and his misstatements about the crime rate nationwide.
Department of Energy
Trump’s pick: Former Texas Governor Rick Perry
Background: Perry served two terms as the governor of Texas, succeeding George W. Bush after he became president. He then ran for president twice, failing to win the Republican nomination in 2012 and then again in 2016. His experience in energy-rich Texas would, on the surface, seem to make him a natural fit, but the Energy Department is actually more of a national security agency that’s responsible for designing and protecting the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. The last two energy secretaries were award-winning scientists.
Government experience: Two terms as governor of Texas, a short stint as lieutenant governor, and eight years as Texas agriculture commissioner.
Why Trump likes him: Perry is another example of a Republican who fought bitterly with Trump only to make amends. Early in the 2016 race, Perry was actually more confrontational with Trump than any other Republican. He gave an entire speech devoted to attacking him in July 2015, during which he said Trump was “a cancer on conservatism.” But Perry was out of the race a few months later, and he came around to Trump once he secured the nomination and campaigned for his election.
Liabilities: “Oops.” As Democrats will undoubtedly remind the public to no end, the Energy Department was the Cabinet post that Perry infamously forgot he wanted to eliminate during a Republican primary debate in 2011. The mocking, however, will quickly turn serious as senators force Perry to explain how he plans to lead a department that he doesn’t believe should exist. As with a few other Trump nominees, expect to hear the words “fox in the henhouse” more than a few times.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Very good. The “oops” moment will cause Perry some embarrassment, but barring another Texas-sized gaffe, it’s hard to see it blocking his confirmation. He should win strong support from Republicans and even a few red-state Democrats looking for a bipartisan vote.
Department of Labor
Trump’s pick: Andrew Puzder
Background: Puzder is best known as the chief executive of the parent company for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., the fast-food chains. He worked his way up in the business world originally as a lawyer and general counsel, the position he first held at CKE Restaurants. He’s also a frequent conservative commentator and a critic of minimum-wage laws and the Obama administration’s overtime rule.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: He’s been a "vocal defender of Trump’s economic policies,” and shares a rhetorical style with the president-elect. As brash businessmen, they seem like two peas in a pod. Under Puzder’s leadership, Carl’s Jr. has relied on sexually-suggestive ads featuring women eating burgers in swimsuits. “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American,” he told Entrepreneur last year.
Liabilities: Puzder’s confirmation will be a rough ride for a number of reasons. On policy, his opposition to a minimum-wage increase will be a target for Democrats, who will argue that placing a wealthy executive atop the Labor Department is an insult to working-class voters who supported Trump. And his politically-incorrect comments about women could pose problems, along with reports that he repeatedly abused his wife during the 1980s. (The ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, has since said she regretted making the allegations in their divorce proceedings and said, according to New York Magazine, that Puzder is “a wonderful father, a great person, and was a good husband.”)
Chances at Senate confirmation: Decent. Expect Democrats to put up a big fight against Puzder over his position on the minimum wage and overtime pay as well as his lack of government experience. Portraying him as an out-of-touch multimillionaire will dovetail with their critique of several of Trump’s Cabinet picks and the broader message they want to send to working-class voters. So far, however, Republicans have yet to break away, so Puzder’s nomination is not in jeopardy.
Department of Transportation
Trump’s pick: Elaine Chao
Background: As labor secretary for the full two terms of the George W. Bush administration, Chao brings more civilian experience in the federal government than anyone else in Trump’s Cabinet. Before that, she directed the Peace Corps and led United Way. During the first Bush administration, Chao also served as a deputy secretary in the department she is poised to lead.
Government experience: Extensive: see above.
Why Trump likes him: While Trump surely appreciated Chao’s deep experience in government and Washington, there is probably another factor in his decision to nominate her for transportation secretary: Chao is married to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and a man who will hold wide sway over whether Trump’s agenda makes it into law. In particular, she’ll be a key player in Trump’s push for an expensive infrastructure package that McConnell and his conservative allies are cool to.
Liabilities: Virtually none. Given her government experience and obvious qualifications for the post, Chao might be the least controversial of any of Trump’s choices so far. Her selection even won praise from Vice President Joe Biden.
Chances at Senate confirmation: What is better than excellent? It would take a scandal of seismic proportions for the clearly qualified wife of the Republican majority leader not to win confirmation by the Senate.
Department of Education
Trump’s pick: Betsy DeVos
Background: DeVos is a longtime philanthropist and Republican donor and the former chairwoman of the state party in Michigan. She’s been a major advocate for education reform centered on expanding charter schools and private-school vouchers. She led the advocacy group, American Federation for Children, that pushes for increased school choice for parents. The New York Times reported on her successful effort to kill legislation in Detroit that would have imposed tougher accountability standards on charter schools.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes her: Trump has shown that he favors plucking people from the private sector who will come in and shake up a government agency, and DeVos fits that bill. She has strong support among Republican school reformers, especially those who favor both expanding charter schools and vouchers. (Democrats favor the former but not the latter.) She is further to the right on education than two other women Trump interviewed: Eva Moskowitz, a charter school leader in New York, and Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools.
Liabilities: Teacher unions will aggressively oppose DeVos over her support for unfettered and largely unregulated expansion of charter schools and vouchers. That likely won’t matter much to Republicans, but it will hurt her chances of winning broad bipartisan support. Conservatives who favor reduced federal power over education will question her previous support for Common Core standards and her affiliation with organizations that have championed Common Core. Anticipating that issue, DeVos has said that while she supports “high standards and strong accountability” for schools, Common Core “got turned into a federalized boondoggle.”
Chances at Senate confirmation: Very good. Key Republicans have already come out in support of DeVos, including the chairman of the relevant committee in the Senate, Lamar Alexander. Most Democrats will likely oppose the pick, but barring a controversy that erupts during her confirmation hearings, she should win approval.
Department of the Interior
Trump’s pick: Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana
Background: Zinke is a Republican member of the House who was just reelected to his second term in November. He had been expected to run for the Senate in 2018, but at least for now, he’s headed for Trump’s Cabinet. Zinke served for more than 20 years in the Navy Seals before entering politics, earning numerous medals. In Congress, he has opposed the sale of federal lands but supported mining and drilling on them.
Government experience: Two decades in the military and two years in Congress.
Why Trump likes her: Trump was, not surprisingly, impressed with Zinke’s military background, and the congressman reportedly impressed Trump’s son Donald Jr., an avid sportsman who was influenced by the recommendation of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Liabilities: Environmentalists immediately denounced the Zinke nomination, citing his support for mining and drilling and his skepticism about climate change. But there were no other immediate obstacles to his confirmation.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Excellent. Many Democrats will oppose Zinke over his environmental record, but don’t expect a major fight over his confirmation. The party has a political reason for letting him go through: Serving in Trump’s Cabinet may remove him as a threat to challenge Senator Jon Tester in 2018.
Department of Commerce
Trump’s pick: Wilbur Ross
Background: Another billionaire, Ross is the chairman of a private equity firm that he founded and later sold. For 25 years, he led Rothschild Inc., where he made a reputation as a turnaround specialist who bought up and restructured steel, textile, and mining companies, among other industries.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: The two businessmen go back many years together and share a critical view of U.S. trade policy in the last two decades. Ross, who specialized in turning around manufacturing firms, served as an adviser to Trump during the campaign. Ross, the president-elect said in nominating him, “is a champion of American manufacturing and knows how to help companies succeed. Most importantly, he is one of the greatest negotiators I have ever met, and that comes from me, the author of The Art of the Deal.”
Liabilities: Yes, Ross may have turned around companies, but at what cost to workers? He will get the Mitt Romney treatment from Democrats, who are portraying him as an out-of-touch plutocrat who outsourced jobs and slashed benefits at the companies he restructured. He’ll also face questions over the 2006 explosion at a mine run by one of his companies, which killed 12 workers.
Chances at Senate confirmation: Very good. Expect Democrats to paint Mnuchin and Ross with the same brush, but the bigger fight will probably occur over the bigger job, treasury secretary.
Department of Agriculture
Trump’s pick: TBA
Department of Veterans Affairs
Trump’s pick: TBA