Suck it up
Back in my single days, I considered marrying Naomi Campbell. If word had credibly spread about this supermodel-bride desire, my bachelor credentials would have been huge. And so it is with Donald Trump’s transition team. A steady drip of established and competent names trickling out to join the Cabinet gives a veneer of seriousness to the former reality-TV star that has been lacking since he started his presidential bid by calling Mexicans rapists in June 2015.
The most prominent corporate leader to surface as a possibility was JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, as Treasury secretary. Notwithstanding the controversy he or others like him would elicit from foes of the banking industry, and even Trump supporters who reckoned that by casting their ballot for him they were revolting against the establishment not embracing it, such experienced captains of industry or government would add much-needed professionalism to the president-elect’s team. There’s no indication any would be willing to attach his or her personal brand to a politician whose campaign was laced with bigotry and thuggish behavior.
Yet as odious as the idea may chime to Dimon and other qualified men and women of the private and public sectors or the defense and intelligence communities, their country – nay, the entire world – may depend on them swallowing their pride, holding their noses and signing up to a Trump administration.
Though Trump has amassed personal riches of undisclosed dimensions and vanquished Hillary Clinton, a practiced politico, the New York real-estate developer will, by a wide margin, be the least experienced man to ever occupy the Oval Office and control the world’s reserve currency and America’s nuclear codes.
This brings a historical urgency to recruiting world-class talent to help him run the federal bureaucracy and to sweat policy details, a task the curiosity-deficient Trump has no demonstrated inclination, nor capability, of performing. Given this squalid reality, the greatest chance of avoiding failure for the U.S. economy may reside in Trump adopting the sort of corporate approach that has proven to work in the business world, one where he acts as a sort of chairman of the board, delegating unprecedented authority to Cabinet chiefs, they way he did hoteliers and construction contractors at the Trump Organization.
The alternative is unfathomable. A highly centralized Trump administration staffed by the second-rate guns for hire, white supremacist-leaning extremists on the right and cronies from his campaign would present unquantifiable geopolitical and financial risk. At a minimum, such a legion of the hapless would find it difficult to work with members of Congress, even with both the House and the Senate leadership claiming to share the same party affiliation, to turn even Trump’s more sensible campaign ideas – and there are some – into legislation.
While the majority of Americans who voted for Trump’s Democratic rival would disagree, the president-elect signaled an understanding that he will need to make concessions to recruit good people when he named Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, as the next White House chief of staff on Sunday. He beat out Stephen Bannon, who followed a career as a Goldman Sachs partner to lead a propaganda outfit masquerading as a news organization, Breitbart News.
This is a minor triumph for the center. As a senior adviser to the president, Bannon will be able to dole out nights in the Lincoln Bedroom to lobbyists like Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, but Priebus will control access to the Oval Office and oversee hundreds of staff. Priebus also has strong ties to the two politicians who probably will play the role of co-chief executives to Chairman Trump in governing: fellow Wisconsin native, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the vice-chairman in the corporate analogy.
Trump may yet decide to follow predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush in centralizing decision making and curtailing the authority of Cabinet members. The elevation of Priebus over Bannon, however, suggests the president-elect knows he will need strong ties with Capitol Hill to transform his varied pledges involving taxes, immigration and infrastructure into actual policy.
What comes next is more complicated, though. Priebus can help conscript the more impressive names under consideration to run the Departments of Treasury, State, Defense and so on, but not without promises that they will be, in some ways, unshackled from the capriciousness of the commander-in-chief. Equally, they won’t want to come aboard an operation already crowded with second-rate talent.
Indeed, the first recruits to top positions will have to be impressive and surprising. That means holding off on appointing Sarah Palin, who dropped out of governing Alaska to launch a derisive reality-TV career, as secretary of the interior; Rudy Giuliani, who traded a legacy as New York’s mayor after the Sept. 11 attacks to become the campaign’s attack dog, as attorney general; or Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who insisted the Egyptian pyramids were built as granaries and not tombs for pharaohs, for health and human services. Their devotion is perhaps better rewarded with ambassador roles, to Moscow, the Vatican and Cairo, respectively.
Enlisting candidates with credible résumés, who nonetheless are willing to embrace the sort of disruptive and unconventional thinking he promised on the stump, would be a way for Trump to show he can move beyond the notion that he is the most puerile and intemperate president in American history. And by putting some much-needed moral and experiential checks and balances into the executive branch, it might even go some way to making America greater.