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One of the early signs that Trump’s cabinet appointments reeked of eccentricity and unprofessionalism was when organized labor and congressional Democrats gave tentative approval to naming Elaine Chao (former Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush) as President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation. The Senate confirmed her by a vote of 93-6.
Not that the unions and Democrats were impressed with the hyper-ambitious Chao, because, clearly, they weren’t. Elaine Chao (wife of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell) is best described as a “climber,” one of those dedicated resume-builders who obsessively jump from one high-profile job to another. Like a shark, they must keep moving forward in order to survive.
Ms. Chao has done everything. In addition to her stint as Secretary of Labor (during whose tenure she was viewed as virulently “anti-union”), Chao was a banking executive, Ronald Reagan’s chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, CEO of United Way, and a ranking fellow at the Heritage Foundation. She also managed to squeeze in a brief stay as Director of the Peace Corps. A shark.
So why did these Democrats and labor leaders reluctantly welcome Elaine Chao to the cabinet? For the simple and demoralizing reason that, unlike the majority of Trump’s picks, Chao seemed the most “qualified” to actually run a governmental agency.
Let us consider some of the other appointments, beginning with the two weirdest.
First, we have Rick Perry, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Energy. By now most of us remember Perry campaigning on the promise that, if elected president, one of the first things he would do is dismantle three government departments that were wasteful, unnecessary, and burdensome.
Alas, even though he embarrassed himself by being able to remember only two of the three, one of those “burdens” happened to be the Department of Energy (established by President Carter). So, naturally, Trump puts Perry in charge of running an agency whose very existence he objects to. He was confirmed by a vote of 62-37.
And then there’s Dr. Ben Carson, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s hard to get a clear read on Dr. Carson. Yes, he has been labeled a “genius,” but besides having virtually no experience in housing and urban development (he was confirmed by a vote of 58-41), he has also has a propensity for saying some dumb things.
For example, he referred to the avuncular former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite as a “left-wing radical.” He clumsily compared antebellum African slaves to the voluntary immigrants we have today. And he boldly insisted that the brain was “incapable of forgetting, and could be electrically stimulated into perfect recall,” an opinion that was challenged by his peers. (Too bad Rick Perry didn’t ask to get zapped when he couldn’t remember that third agency).
Granted, none of these remarks automatically render Dr. Carson “unfit for duty,” but they do raise questions. For one thing, why HUD? Why not HHS (Health and Human Services)? Or why not simply appoint him Surgeon General? The man doesn’t have a housing background. Presumably, even Dr. Carson would agree that you don’t ask a podiatrist to perform heart surgery.
And then there’s Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education. She’s a billionaire (her husband was CEO of Amway, a company her father-in-law founded) who has always preferred private and charter schools to traditional public schools. Naturally, Trump named her Secretary of Education, whose primary job is looking after the nation’s public school system. The vote was 50-50. It took the vice-president to confirm her.
Trump’s choice for Administrator of the Small Business Administration was Linda McMahon, another billionaire (we see a pattern here). McMahon made her fortune as a wrestling promoter. Wrestling was just becoming popular, and McMahon cashed in on it big-time. Give her credit for recognizing an opportunity.
But how does that qualify her for running a meat-and-potatoes government agency? She got rich on pro wrestling. Fine. But putting her in charge of the Small Business Administration seems a stretch.
Unless McMahon stands on her hind legs and recommends that everyone do what she did—lock onto a fast-rising entertainment source—what’s she going to bring to the table? It’s like the Rubik’s Cube guy telling people that the best way to get rich is to go out and invent a cool new puzzle. (Gee, why didn’t we think of that?)
And then there’s Wilbur Ross, Trump’s new Secretary of Commerce. Not so much “unqualified” as sleazy. Ross was not only “intimately involved” with the Sago coal mining disaster (the one that caused the death of 12 miners), he was also a fiduciary officer with another company when he was forced to pay $81 million to settle a lawsuit by stockholders.
It seems that Ross “forgot” to mention that he was majority owner of the two companies he was actively urging the shareholders to agree to merge. After the merger, they learned of his secret ownership. They sued him and won. Nice.
So after a quick look at Trump’s cabinet, it appears that those Democrats and labor union leaders were correct about Elaine Chao. Compared to some of the others, she indeed looks like a true “professional.” As for comparing the “professionalism” of President Trump to the professionalism of his predecessors, that’s a whole other conversation.