President-elect Donald Trump shocked many observers when he tapped Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education.
DeVos quickly accepted the nomination, which continues a trend that officials involved in previous transition teams say is concerning because, like many of Trump’s other early picks, she has no previous experience in government.
“When we were in the Obama transition, one of the big concerns we had that there were a lot of people coming into government who did not necessarily have federal government experience,” said Norman Eisen, a former ambassador who worked on President Barack Obama’s White House transition team in 2008. “The Trump transition has that problem on steroids.”
Indeed, Trump’s roster of key White House advisers and cabinet officials could, in the end, rank among the least experienced in recent presidential history.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, headed right-wing news site Breitbart News before chairing the president-elect’s campaign. Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, previously ran the Republican National Committee. And Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a key presidential campaign strategist who is now being discussed as a White House adviser, ran his family’s real estate business before entering politics.
None of those individuals has worked in government.
In addition, Trump tapped South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) Wednesday to be his United Nations Ambassador. She has little, if any, official foreign policy experience.
To Trump, who pledged to “drain the swamp” of the nation’s capital, and his allies, this may be a key selling point of his picks. To Eisen, who now works at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C., it points to potential problems ― both in the development of policy and in terms of simple governance.
“Government is like any other profession ― it requires expertise,” Eisen told The Huffington Post. “I don’t think you’d want that gang, if they had a similar lack of expertise in surgery, operating on you with that level of comparable of medical experience. And the same is true in government.”
While DeVos has never worked in a school or agency that dealt directly with education policy, she has served as the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and headed organizations that focus on education reform.
By contrast, Dr. Ben Carson. ― Trump’s preferred choice to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development ― has no identifiable expertise in housing policy. And he’s never served in government, let alone atop a federal agency. Carson himself has worried that his lack of experience could potentially “cripple the presidency” if Trump tapped him to serve in the cabinet, his senior adviser admitted.
“Unlike Betsy DeVos who at least has some experience with the issue, I think Carson’s experience with the sorts of things that HUD does is very, very top down ― to put it gently. Housing is a very complicated issue for example,” said William Galston, who was previously a policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton. He now heads governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Galston suggested that inexperienced cabinet appointees would likely select more seasoned deputies. He likened it to the chief executive of a company having a chief operating officer with greater knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the business’s operations.
“Frankly, I’m more concerned about what people stand for than I am about their lack of experience,” Galston said. “My assumption is that unless people are really stupid, if they want to move an agenda, then they will pick senior deputies who know how to move agendas through the machinery of government.”
Galston raised concerns, however, about the outsize role that Trump loyalists and family members were likely to play in the incoming administration.
“When you bring in so many friends and family into your inner circle that can easily create a circle the wagons phenomenon,” he said. “That can have the effect of slowing or even discouraging the free flow of information on which every president depends. The last thing any president needs is a palace full of courtiers.”
Other Trump choices are raising eyebrows for reasons other than experience. Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for two years. But Flynn was fired in 2014, in part because of concerns over his management style, which one former Pentagon official called “disruptive.”
A figure close to the Trump transition team said he’s concerned about this nomination, because being national security adviser requires a diplomatic style that appears lacking in Flynn.
“What’s worrisome is that the NSC job is a traffic cop job. He should be coordinating policy, not dictating it. Imagine how this will go: Mattis (who outranked Flynn and whom everyone seems to like) disagrees with Flynn. Does Flynn then scream at him or spend time undermining him? Same with Secretary of State Romney,” said the source, referencing Trump’s consideration of former Gen. James Mattis for Secretary of Defense and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for the top diplomat post.
“And when it come time to brief Trump how does Flynn handle a situation where all of the cabinet is unified and Trump disagrees?” the adviser added.
Jay Lefkowitz, who advised former President George W. Bush on domestic policy and later served as the administration’s special human rights envoy to North Korea, was less concerned about the relative inexperience of Trump’s selections thus far.
Lefkowitz noted that DeVos’ lack of federal government experience made her the ideal pick for an agency “in desperate need of reform.”
“There is a little bit of institutional knowledge ― how things actually work. It actually helps to have been through this a little bit,” Lefkowitz said. “There are some really good people who have been in the White House before and been on the Hill before who I hope he takes a look at.”
“On the other hand, one of his appeals was that he was going to break away from conventional politics and conventional bureaucrats,” Lefkowitz added.
From this perspective, having fresh faces in key posts, he concluded, is “a net positive, not a net negative.”
But Eisen, who noted that Trump is himself inexperienced, as the first president-elect who hasn’t served either in the government or the military, isn’t convinced.
“You have either no experience or the wrong kind of experience,” he said. “That starts at the top, and it’s very troubling.”
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.