9 min read

Trump’s shadow Cabinet

Who would Trump pick for key roles in a second term in the White House? The answer could be more important than you think.
Trump’s shadow Cabinet
Former (and future?) Trump adviser Steve Bannon. (Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, November 14, 2023. The 2024 elections are 357 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

I guess I’ve been on something of a British kick lately. First, just before Kevin McCarthy’s ouster, I wrote about the merits of coalition government. Then, during the three-week process of replacing him, I mused about adopting the non-partisan speaker seen in the UK’s House of Commons.

This morning, a different feature of the British political system is on my mind: the shadow Cabinet.

In the UK, as well as other Westminster-style governments, the opposition party selects a group of senior party members who form an alternative Cabinet, with each member “shadowing” the policy role of a specific member of the real Cabinet.

In our system, it would be as if Republicans had a transportation policy spokesman to counter Pete Buttigieg, or someone charged with drafting and articulating a GOP foreign policy that would contrast with Tony Blinken’s.

When the opposition party eventually wins power, often members of the shadow Cabinet become members of the real Cabinet, having established themselves as their party’s leading voice on their specific issue.

I’ve been thinking about the shadow Cabinet lately because perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst idea to know who the out-party plans to elevate to positions of power, or at least have a clearer understanding of the policies they plan to implement once in office.

In this election, it could be doubly important. On one side, you have Joe Biden; at 80, he will obviously need help running the show for a second term. Politico’s Jonathan Martin recently argued for elevating his Cabinet secretaries on these grounds:

The governors, the senators, the cabinet secretaries and the infrastructure czar should be the faces of Biden’s campaign, along with the president and vice-president. The message: with Democrats remaining in power, it’s not just an 82-year-old at the helm but also this group — Team Normal when compared to Trump and his Star Wars bar term two.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who has evinced little interest in the mechanics of government despite being the Republican Party’s dominant figure for the past eight years. “Personnel is policy,” as Elizabeth Warren likes to say; knowing who Trump plans to place in key roles around him could tell us a lot about how he plans to govern.

It certainly ended up making a big difference last time. Trump campaigned in 2016 as a populist/nationalist Republican, but — because there weren’t many such figures yet on the GOP bench, save for Jeff Sessions — ended up stocking his government with normal party types like Rex Tillerson, Dan Coats, Antonin Scalia’s son, and Mitch McConnell’s wife.

They steered him in a more traditional Republican direction, forming an administration that was never as isolationist as he intended and which counted a standard-issue Republican tax-cut bill as its greatest domestic accomplishment.

Trump is unlikely to make the same mistakes again. He now frequently rails against the “weak and pathetic” figures who formed his first administration, promising that he now knows better than to accept the Cabinet picks proposed by the GOP establishment.

The next Trump administration, if it comes to fruition, is unlikely to have quite so many members of Team Normal, either because many conservatives — having seen how Tillerson, Sessions, and others were treated — won’t want to take part or because Trump is now hyper-sensitive to the possibility his appointees won’t be super-loyal.

Who does that leave us with? Secretary of State J.D. Vance? Attorney General Jeffrey Clark? Secretary of Homeland Security Stephen Miller? White House chief of staff Steve Bannon?

It’s worth thinking through now, because Trump’s next administration is likely to be much more extreme than his first. Bannon once called Trump his “blunt instrument”; as someone with few firmly-held policy beliefs, the former (and maybe future) president is susceptible to merely signing off on the ideas of those around him. We should start considering who might be around him.

We are also, perhaps, not giving enough consideration to the possibility of a constitutional crisis being sparked by Trump’s Cabinet formation. Even if Republicans retake the Senate in 2024, it will be with Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in their majority. Neither senator is likely to accept the likes of Clark or Miller, potential nominees who would have seemed far-fetched in 2017 but now seem like the exact types of officials Trump would propose in 2025.

Trump already showed a willingness in his first term to test the boundaries of who could legally serve as an acting Cabinet secretary (and for how long). If his initial picks are spurned in a second term, perhaps he would merely govern without any permanent Cabinet at all, injecting immense uncertainty into our government.

The fact that we wouldn’t learn about Trump’s picks for key positions until after he’s already been elected is symptomatic of the problems with how we choose our presidents.

I’m not really a yelling-at-the-TV type, but when I found myself audibly expressing exasperation during the Republican debate last week, it was often at the moderators, not the candidates. That was because of questions like these, which were both lobbed at our potential chief executives:

What would you do the moment you take office to help Americans manage the cost of living? 
What can you do as Commander-in-Chief on the first day to stop fentanyl and the waterfall of it into this country?

Because, of course, there is little a president can do their first day in office. In fact, there is little a president can do by themselves at all: a president cannot wake up and reshape the whole economy. Most salient policymaking in this country incorporates not just the president, but the bureaucracy, the Congress, and the Supreme Court as well. Even within the administration, a lot is left to functionaries.

In his book, “Hardest Job in the World,” John Dickerson proposes that presidential debates should be more like simulations, placing candidates in hypothetical commander-in-chief scenarios and making them explain in real-time how they’d react (Russia is conducting a cyberattack on the U.S. power grid. You’re in the Situation Room. What do you do?). Maybe we should also be asking our would-be presidents to name their top appointees, giving us a sense of who they’d surround themselves with in office.

Right now, after all, the only member of their Cabinet presidents have to name ahead of time is the least powerful one. Trump himself paved powerful ground in this area by publicizing his Supreme Court short list ahead of the 2016 election. Why not go the next step and announce who will be shaping his domestic and foreign policy, from within the White House and key agencies?

It’s not as if candidates aren’t already preparing for their potential administrations. Trump, especially, has gotten an early start on the personnel planning, a far cry from his haphazard 2016 transition after junking Chris Christie’s careful planning. Here’s Axios yesterday:

Former President Trump’s allies are pre-screening the ideologies of thousands of potential foot soldiers, as part of an unprecedented operation to centralize and expand his power at every level of the U.S. government if he wins in 2024, officials involved in the effort tell Axios.

“Trump himself spends little time plotting governing plans,” the report continued. “But he is well aware of a highly coordinated campaign to be ready to jam government offices with loyalists willing to stretch traditional boundaries.” (Trump aides later released a statement clarifying that the planning was by outside groups without a formal connection to their campaign.)

Trump’s reported plans for his second administration include using the Justice Department to investigate his critics, detaining undocumented immigrants in camps while they are deported by the millions, and upending the modern civil service system.

Trump’s first Cabinet would have balked at such extremes. His second — apparently already being picked behind closed doors — might not, at least if they can make it through Senate confirmation. Perhaps presidential campaigns should include a few more questions about who those future stewards of policy might be.

More news to know.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his Supreme Court colleagues released a code of ethics. (Defense Department)

Democrats appear poised to help push House Speaker Mike Johnson’s “laddered CR” across the finish line. After initially bashing the proposal, which would fund some government agencies through January 19 and others through February 2, Democratic leaders seem to have dropped their opposition, pleased that the plan would continue current funding levels instead of slashing spending.

A familiar group of Republican troublemakers (Matt Gaetz, Tim Burchett, etc.) have signaled plans to vote against the measure, which means Johnson — like McCarthy before him — will soon be pushing through a “clean CR” opposed by many in his conference. Even the House Freedom Caucus, which came up with the “laddered” idea, has announced its opposition, a reminder that the same GOP splits that took down McCarthy remain very much alive.

Speaking of House GOP divisions, the lower chamber failed to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday. Eight Republicans joined all Democrats to defeat the measure, which was proposed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

After months of pressure, the Supreme Court released an ethics code on Monday. The eight-page document — which you can read here — was signed by all nine justices, who pledged to avoid outside activities that “reflect adversely on the Justice’s impartiality” and to comply with gift restrictions followed by lower court judges. The code made no mention of a mechanism to ensure its enforcement.

The rate of price increases in the U.S. remained flat between September and October, according to the monthly inflation report released this morning. Compared to a year ago, prices rise 3.2% in October, a drop from 3.7% in September.

Israel and Hamas are reportedly nearing a deal to free dozens of hostages. According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Hamas will likely release most of the Israeli woman and children kidnapped on October 7, in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and young people held in Israeli prisons. A five-day ceasefire would likely come along with the exchange, per Ignatius.

More headlines:

The day ahead.

House Speaker Mike Johnson will rely on Democratic votes to pass his stopgap funding bill. (Gage Skidmore)

White House: President Biden will deliver remarks on climate change this morning, before departing for San Francisco. After arriving, he and Vice President Harris will headline a campaign fundraiser.

Senate: The Senate has no votes scheduled, although one is possible on a GOP resolution to block President Biden’s student loans income-driven repayment plan. The Senate Rules Committee will take up a proposal to circument Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) blockade on Defense Department nominees.

House: The House will vote on the “laddered CR,” keeping some government agencies open through January and others through February. The chamber will vote on the measure under “suspension of the rules,” which means a two-thirds majority — 290 members — will be needed for the bill to pass.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe