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Trump’s Team of Rivals

By John-Walt Boatright  —

As President Obama was cultivating his own Cabinet, he derived inspiration and counsel from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which recounted the great Abraham Lincoln’s approach to selecting advisors who were former rivals for the presidency.  Spielberg filmed an award-winning movie based on the book in 2012.

Despite the policy differences and emotional tensions, Lincoln’s selections channeled a passion for public service.  Furthermore, it signaled a willingness to engage in an exchange of ideas that changes policy for the better.  Perhaps he also knew that with the seismic challenges facing the country, he would need to enlist extraordinary servants who shared the same passion that he did.  Contemporary, limited examples of this “team of rivals” model include Reagan’s inclusion of James Baker for multiple posts and Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Obama also retained Robert Gates from the Bush administration and appointed a Republican Transportation Secretary.

Critics argue the incorporation of past rivals in the Cabinet can be inauthentic.  Campaigns are nasty.  Tough things are said, and strong feelings are harbored.  The Clinton/Obama primary is a testament to the evident personal dislike the two had for one another.  However, Obama recognized talent, shared policy views, and a penchant for service in Hillary.  Genuine or not, they now brag about a warm friendship.  The truth is, personal attacks are levied often without knowing the individual.

The authenticity lies in love of country, not necessarily in fondness for another individual.  We all have experienced the classic workplace scenario of interacting with a coworker who is hard to tolerate.  But obviously, like you, that person brings something to the table, right?  Like you, they have a job to do.  They have something to contribute.

Trump’s transparency in considering former GOP rivals and Democrats for his team conveys a desire to find common ground.  A couple of Democratic senators are under consideration for Energy and Interior.  Ben Carson, a onetime primary rival, accepted a HUD nomination after endorsing Trump early and agreeing to a targeted approach on the inner cities for community improvement.  Trump nominated a tough critic in Gov. Nikki Haley to be UN ambassador.  These should be encouraging signs for the Trump haters.

That being said, the expected policy of rewarding loyalists in the Trump campaign is alive and well, as has been common in past transition teams.  For instance, Jeff Sessions was the first U.S. Senator to endorse Trump and the only one to actively campaign for him.  He will now likely be the next Attorney General.  Steve Mnuchin, a Democrat in fact, is nominated for Treasury Secretary after serving successfully as the campaign’s national finance chairman.

Other picks have served to double down on his policy positions.  Tom Price, a chief Obamacare critic, will carry out “repeal and replace” at HHS. General James “Mad Dog” Mattis embodies the tough “America First” defense policy that is integral to Trump’s nationalist views.  His nominee for Education is an advocate for more competition in the industry, a view Trump strongly shares.  Again, personnel is policy, and the policies are unmistakable.

His Secretary of State selection will be telling.  Will he choose a former critic, his toughest, like Mitt Romney or a loyalist in Guiliani?  If a president can overcome personal animosity to develop productive working relationships by harnessing the talents and experiences of others, history tells us the nation stands to gain.  

Historians consistently rank Lincoln as the most admired and greatest president.  The circumstances, the challenges, the personal adversity, culminating in the sacrifice of his life, are unlike anything another president has had to face.  While historians judge the man, the reality today is that the presidency is hard to reduce to just one individual.

These advisors are important taskmasters charged with implementing the Trump agenda.  They will tell you a lot about the next four years.