“I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people. We want top of the line professionals…” “We’re getting credit for having one of the great[est?] Cabinets ever picked, people of great distinction, great success…And we have tremendous people joining the Cabinet and beyond the Cabinet.” —Donald J. Trump.
Yet it seems that the most defining quality of the new Cabinet is not seriousness, professionalism, distinction, or success, but sheer situational irony.
Betsy DeVos, chosen for Secretary of Education, seems to be lacking in the department which she will be running — she displays a startling lack of knowledge on basic issues pertinent to education policy. When asked whether all schools receiving federal funding should be made to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, DeVos called that a “matter best left to the states.” When further pressed on whether she was unaware that the law is federal, and not state-imposed, DeVos replied that she “might have confused it.” Unfortunately, this was neither her only moment of inappropriate deferment to state’s rights, nor her only moment of confusion. Asked about whether guns should be permitted in schools, she again said that the decision is “best left to locales and states to decide,” referring back to a mention of a Wyoming school, stating “I think probably there, I would imagine there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies,” and failing to consider any and all non-ursine aspects of the issue. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah aptly noted that perhaps schools should have bears to protect against school shootings and not guns to protect against bear attacks. In a startling display of unfamiliarity with the educational system, DeVos was asked for her thoughts on proficiency vs. growth standardized testing, DeVos replied “I think if I am understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would correlate it to competence and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area.” DeVos did not clarify her position so much as she confounded the terms, defining proficiency as both mastery and progress, even though progress is equivalent to growth, the alternative for testing distinct from proficiency. It’s not that she doesn’t have an opinion or has the wrong opinion; it’s that she’s fundamentally unfamiliar with the terms of the debate, and seemingly could not even reconstruct them from clear context cues. Regardless of which type of testing she would prefer, it is doubtful that DeVos could demonstrate either requisite proficiency or requisite growth. Irony identified: Our presumptive Secretary of Education is uneducated, with regards to the distinction between federal and state law, the basic concepts of education policy, and apparently the facts on bear attacks.
Jeff Sessions, soon to be Attorney General, has a proven track record only in making derogatory racial remarks, of which this is only the most infamous: “I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot.” In 1986, Sessions was refused for appointment as a federal judge as a result of some such comments, but it appears that the standard for judgeship in ’86 was higher than that for the the leader of the Department of Justice over thirty years later. Irony identified: A man deemed too racist for a federal post will now be running the department responsible for prosecuting civil rights violations ranging from racially-tainted selective enforcement to hate crimes (fingers crossed that the KKK keeps smoking pot).
Ben Carson, nominated as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, appears the token minority on the cabinet that is the whitest since 1988 and includes at least one accused racist in Sessions, not to mention his future boss, who has faced similar accusations. Carson, after having spent his career as a neurosurgeon, is extremely, though not uniquely, unqualified for his future job. When asked about his seeming lack of subject-matter knowledge, Carson replied “a good CEO doesn’t necessarily know everything about the business, he’s not a marketing specialist, he might not be a financial specialist, there are many things he doesn’t know but he knows how to pick those people and how to use them.” Carson’s point is valid and well-taken, except for the fact that Trump himself made the same argument as to why he is qualified to be President. Carson was supposed to be one of those people, the marketer or finance guy, not select them himself. We’ve certainly come a long way from the era of ‘the buck stops here.’ And hopefully, the undersecretaries do not adopt the same creed. Further, Carson claimed he was taking himself out of the running for a Cabinet post in November, his long-time confidante stating that “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.” Irony identified: Ben Carson has taken a position for which he himself says he is unqualified, and justified that decision with the very same claim that led to his hiring.
Rick Perry, tapped to run Energy, has a particularly ridiculous relationship with his Department. In a less-than-stellar debate performance in the 2012 primaries, Perry began to name the three government agencies he would eliminate as President: “Commerce, Education, and the… what’s the third one there? Let’s see.” After jumping at Ron Paul’s lifeline suggestion that it was the EPA, Perry rejected that idea per the moderator’s question, and several minutes later remembered: the Department of Energy. Irony identified: Perry is running a Department whose existence he could not remember, then wanted to end. He now says that he regrets the comment; one wonders whether that is just because the new job seems cushy enough (maybe more so even than a gig on Dancing with the Stars).
Rex Tillerson, presumptive Secretary of State, is known for his overtly, and perhaps overly, amicable relationship with the Russian government. The former CEO of ExxonMobil had extensive interaction with Russian state-run enterprises in the business world and often cooperated with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, on various projects both inside and outside of Russia. For these efforts, Tillerson was awarded an Order of Friendship on behalf of Russia by Putin himself. Tillerson, in his confirmation hearing, characterized these ties as “assets, not liabilities.” But old habits die hard, and there are valid concerns over where Tillerson’s allegiances will lie. Irony identified: Tillerson will be Secretary of State, but of which State is a troubling question.
James Mattis, now confirmed for DoD, is perhaps one of only two Trump choices both qualified and competent, but nonetheless carries more than his fair share of the ironic weight. As a four-star general, retired for only four years, he will be assuming the position of Secretary of Defense, the supposed bastion of civilian control of the military. In fact, his doing so required a Congressional waiver from a federal law requiring that a military officer not hold said position within 7 years of resigning his post. Irony identified: Civilian control is being carried out by a recent general.
Scott Pruitt, likely to run the Environmental Protection Agency, a Cabinet-level job, fundamentally does not believe in the purpose of his employer. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt is taking the EPA to court over it’s Clean Power Plan, which is intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power-plants. Irony identified: A man who has shown no inclination of being in favor of environmental protection will be heading up the agency tasked with exactly that, while it fights the lawsuit that him himself started.
Michael Flynn, selected as National Security Advisor, an office which is non-Senate confirmable but as powerful as many in the Cabinet, has a reputation for unsettling statements quite pertinent to national security. His February 2016 tweet, reading “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” is one among many; Flynn also retweeted fake news. In his career in intelligence, he became known for so-called ‘Flynn facts,’ indicating untrue, hyperbolic, or conspiratorial information conveyed as if it were well-founded truth. Irony identified: the National Security Advisor cannot screen real national security threats from fake, and the man responsible for conveying pieces of intelligence to the President is a notorious over-extender and/or inventor of ‘facts.’ Then again, perhaps he too simply traffics in ‘alternative facts.’
Unless the Secretary of Agriculture had a hand in the Irish Potato Famine, it is hard to imagine that the backstories of Cabinet appointees could be more riddled with ironic information.
Perhaps Trump’s 2007 comments on hiring practices will be more reflective of reality than those made since he has entered politics. “I hear so many times, ‘Oh, I want my people to be smarter than I am.’ It’s a lot of crap. You want to be smarter than your people.” That sounds more like it. Mission accomplished, maybe…?