Donald Trump’s education secretary nominee is a huge critic of public schools and has pushed to steer taxpayer dollars to charter schools and voucher programs. His Health and Human Services pick wants to dismantle Obamacare and privatize Medicare.
His attorney general nominee would crack down on "sanctuary cities" and increase deportations of undocumented immigrants. And his choice to run the CIA believes shutting down “black site” prisons was a mistake, while his national security adviser contends Islam is a threat to Western civilization.
Add them all up, and the president-elect is well on his way to building a conservative dream team that has Republicans cheering and liberals in despair.
“It’s the most conservative [Cabinet] since Reagan,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth. “But I don’t think he’s using an ideological lens to pick people. I think he’s genuinely looking for people who share his priorities for these agencies.”
Indeed, even his so-called establishment pick for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, has conservative credentials from her time advising the Heritage Foundation and her eight-year tenure at the Labor Department, where admirers and critics say she took a very pro-business approach.
With Mitt Romney still in the mix for secretary of state and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley getting the nod for U.N. ambassador, Trump is also adding some moderate voices to his administration. Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick for education secretary, also wins points from the GOP establishment as a longtime Republican megadonor.
But conservative activists and think tanks say his early picks have inspired confidence that his administration will take action on their long-standing priorities, including repealing Obamacare and reining in regulations.
“This is the shakeup that we need,” said Adam Brandon, president of the influential group FreedomWorks. “The conservative grass-roots movement has developed the bench, and you’re seeing a lot of that bench coming out on the field now.”
“You’re never going to get a field this good. This is bases loaded with maybe one out. If you can’t get a run or two home right now, you’ve got a crisis,” he said. “But what I’m hoping is you’ll get four or five runs in.”
The Trump lovefest marks an evolution for conservative activists, who once viewed Trump with deep skepticism, pointing to his earlier, liberal iterations and past statements on everything from abortion to health care to Social Security.
Liberals, meanwhile, are as dismayed as conservatives are thrilled with the appointments so far. “Any progressive who was thinking that there was going to be common ground with Trump because he ran to the left in the Republican primary on economic issues has been disappointed,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a left-leaning group trying to ensure that appointees are skeptical of the industries they’ll regulate.
“Progressives are in a weird situation where normal Republicans who have no relevant experience, like Gov. Nikki Haley, are essentially the most praiseworthy appointments so far,” he added.
Trump has yet to reveal his nominees for the Defense Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture Department and several other major Cabinet posts. But at this rate, with cooperation from a Republican Congress, Trump will have the support to dismantle a significant portion of President Barack Obama’s legacy and set his sights on Great Society programs that have been the linchpin of the social safety net for nearly 50 years.
The hope among conservatives is that Trump can deliver in a way that President George W. Bush did not.
“In the early 2000s, we saw a Republican president, House and Senate who did not live up to the promises that had been made throughout the 1990s and prior to that,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the grass-roots group Tea Party Patriots. “The actions Trump is taking right now with the transition are showing us he intends to live up to his promises, especially those in the Contract with the American Voter.”
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s pick for HHS secretary, is one of Trump’s most conservative appointments to date. Price has a nearly 1.000 batting average for conservative causes with his House voting record. And he has also released detailed plans for unwinding Obamacare, privatizing Medicare and turning much of the U.S. health insurance system into a free-market Republican’s dream.
While liberals have been quick to denounce Trump’s picks, their condemnations have done nothing to sway the president-elect’s conservative base.
Neera Tanden, a Hillary Clinton campaign adviser and the president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Price is not qualified to lead HHS. “His ideas are so extreme and out of touch with the mainstream that he shows no concern for improving the health and livelihood of working Americans,” she said.
Other Trump nominees also have records that have inflamed liberals. DeVos previously chaired the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group that has pushed aggressively to expand charter schools and school voucher programs that steer taxpayer money to private schools, including parochial schools.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was rewarded with the attorney general nomination for his early support of Trump’s presidential campaign, wants the federal government to take far tougher stances on immigration and terrorism. Liberals fear he could roll back years of progress on civil rights.
On the national security front, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, has been a dogged critic of Clinton, suggesting at one point that Clinton’s response to the GOP probe of the 2012 attack on a Benghazi diplomatic compound was “worse, in some ways” than Watergate. And he is a vocal advocateof expanding U.S. surveillance efforts.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has tweeted a link to a YouTube video titled “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” and expressed admiration for Russia.
To be sure, Trump has some moderates in the wings. His incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is the ultimate establishment pick, coming off his stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum who’s expected to be named treasury secretary, and Wilbur Ross, a billionaire private-equity investor who Trump is expected to tap as commerce secretary, might give some conservatives pause. Conservative groups had been hoping Trump would name House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) as treasury secretary.
Several others on Trump's shortlist might also raise eyebrows on the far right, including Republican Sen. Bob Corker, a candidate for secretary of state, or Frances Townsend, a candidate for Homeland Security. Despite her conservative record, Chao has deep ties to the Republican establishment, having worked for Bush and as the spouse of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Conservative groups said they’ll be watching the rest of Trump’s picks closely, specifically his choices for the Securities and Exchange Commission, Energy Department and EPA.
“We want to see more. He hasn’t gotten to the whole set of economic appointments yet,” McIntosh said.
But so far, they are feeling pretty gleeful.
“I have to say that there’s some vindication for those of us who spent the last year and a half trying to give Donald Trump a fair shake,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who has spoken to Trump several times over the past year. “These choices demonstrate that his instinct and his gut is to go with people who think that government is too big and does too much in our lives.”
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