When George W. Bush assembled his first cabinet in 2001, news reports dubbed them a team of millionaires, and government watchdogs questioned whether they were out of touch with most Americans’ problems. Combined, that group had an inflation-adjusted net worth of about $250 million – which is roughly one-tenth the wealth of Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary alone.
Trump is putting together what will be the wealthiest administration in modern American history. His announced nominees for top positions include several multimillionaires, an heir to a family mega-fortune and two Forbes-certified billionaires. Rumored candidates for other positions suggest that Trump could add more ultra-rich appointees soon.
Many of the Trump appointees were born wealthy, attended elite schools and went on to amass even larger fortunes as adults. As a group, they have much more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies.
Their collective wealth in many ways defies Trump’s populist campaign promises. Their business ties, particularly to Wall Street, have drawn rebukes from Democrats. But the group also amplifies Trump’s own campaign pitch: that Washington outsiders who know how to navigate and exploit a “rigged” system are best able to fix that system for the working class.
“It fits into Trump’s message that he’s trying to do business in an unusual way, by bringing in these outsiders,” said Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. But Trump and his team, she added, won’t be able to draw on the same sort of life struggles that President Barack Obama did, in crafting policy to lift poor and middle-class Americans.
“They’re just not going to have any access to that” life experience, she said. “I guess it will be a test – does empathy actually matter? If you’re able to echo back what people are telling you, is that enough?”
Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary is industrialist Wilbur Ross, who has amassed a fortune of $2.5 billion through decades at the helm of Rothschild’s bankruptcy practice and his own investment firm, according to Forbes.
Ross’s would-be deputy at the Commerce Department, Todd Ricketts, is the son of a billionaire and the co-owner of the Chicago Cubs. Steven Mnuchin, who Trump named to head the Treasury Department, is a former Goldman Sachs executive, hedge fund executive and Hollywood financier.
Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who was nominated as Trump’s education secretary, is the daughter of Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Amway. Her family has a net worth of $5.1 billion, according to Forbes. Elaine Chao, the choice for transportation secretary, is the daughter of a shipping magnate.
It is a group that has long spent big to influence politics. Mnuchin, Ross and DeVos each made hundreds of thousands of dollars of political contributions within the last two years, according to OpenSecrets.org. In Ross’s Manhattan office, next to a window overlooking Central Park, there is a table filled with pictures of Ross with candidates to whom he has contributed, including John Boehner, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Clinton.
On Wednesday, Democrats seized on Ross’s and Mnuchin’s Wall Street ties to accuse Trump of undermining his populist pitch.
“I’m not shocked by this. It’s a billionaire president being surrounded by a billionaire and millionaire cabinet, with a billionaire agenda . . . to hurt the middle class,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “The appointments suggest that he’s going to break his campaign promises.”
In their first interviews Wednesday after being unveiled as cabinet nominees, Mnuchin and Ross pitched their business experience as beneficial to the goals of boosting workers.
“I think one of the good things about both Wilbur and I, we have actually been bankers,” Mnuchin told CNBC, adding, “We’ve been in the business of regional banking, and we understand what it means to make loans.”
On the campaign trail, Trump pledged lift up Americans who have seen their economic prospects dim with the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs. And indeed, voters by and large ignored Trump’s own opulence, which never became the baggage that it did for the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
Still, the question now is whether public officials who come from such privileged backgrounds will favor policies that benefit the rich.
“This isn’t a criticism or a conspiracy . . . but it’s important to recognize that everyone’s perspective and policy and government is shaped by the kind of life you’ve lived,” said Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke University. “The research really says that when you put a bunch of millionaires in charge, you can expect public policy that helps millionaires at the expense of everybody else.”
Future appointments could further increase the wealth of Trump’s cabinet. Harold Hamm – a self-made oil industry executive who ranks 30th on the Forbes 400, a list of the wealthiest Americans, with a net worth of $16.7 billion – is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of energy. Andrew Puzder, a restaurant industry executive, has been floated for labor secretary.
Trump is hardly the first president to dole out cabinet positions to wealthy Americans. The Commerce and Treasury departments in particular tend to be headed by politically connected donors or Wall Street executives, said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
“Of course, it’s not uncommon for the wealthy to be overrepresented in political positions of all kinds, and in appointment processes you tend to get people who are already well-connected to the incoming president,” he said.
Penny Pritzker, the current commerce secretary, comes from one of America’s wealthiest families, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $29 billion. Former treasury secretaries Henry Paulson Jr. and Paul O’Neill both had personal wealth in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
The tradition goes back in history. Andrew Mellon, one of the wealthiest Americans in the early 20th century, served as treasury secretary under three administrations. Eisenhower’s cabinet garnered the nickname “nine millionaires and a plumber.”
Mellon was first appointed by President Warren G. Harding, and he helped steer the U.S. economy through the “Roaring Twenties” – and into the Great Depression.
He is widely credited with pioneering an early version of the tax policies that form part of Trump’s economic agenda, which proved successful in the 1920s. It was the notion that the government could speed up the economy – and increase federal revenue – by cutting taxes on the rich.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Jim Tankersley, Ana Swanson