President-elect Donald Trump plans to give his Cabinet secretaries and top aides significant latitude to run their federal agencies, marking a sharp departure from Barack Obama’s tightly controlled management style, according to people involved in and close to the transition.
Members of Congress, transition team officials, real estate lawyers, lobbyists and executives in New York who know Trump expect him to be a chairman-of-the-board style manager in the White House.
Trump, they say, doesn’t usually like getting into day-to-day minutiae or taking lengthy briefings on issues. He doesn’t have particularly strong feelings on the intricacies of some government issues and agencies, these people say, and would rather focus on high-profile issues, publicity and his brand.
And he’s expected to grant his Cabinet lots of autonomy — at least until he sees something as a problem or an issue involves significant publicity or money.
The approach comes with both upsides and downsides. On the one hand, Trump’s top leaders will likely be given plenty of latitude to act quickly and decisively without being constantly micromanaged by the big boss. But on the other, Trump’s top leaders will always carry with them the risk of being blindsided when the incoming president decides on a whim to weigh in on some topic in their portfolio.
“He’s running it much like he’d run a Fortune 500 company. He’s finding the best people he can and he’s going to turn the reins over to them to see what they can do. He wants them to perform,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who recently met with incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon at Trump Tower to discuss a role in the Agriculture Department.
Trump is encouraging his top administration officials to make a splash in the first six months of his presidency, according to people involved in the transition and others who have spoken to them. “He wants them to totally shake these agencies up,” one person involved in the transition said. “He doesn’t want them to do business the same old way.”
Miller predicted that Trump’s Cabinet secretaries will be encouraged to quickly make radical changes at federal agencies. “It won’t take six months. It’ll be less than that. They’ll look different in 30 days,” Miller said.
Whether these Cabinet secretaries can dramatically change a vast government bureaucracy remains unclear. The gears of government are notoriously slow moving. And Trump’s administration could face resistance from veteran career public servants, Democrats and even some moderate Republicans, who worry that the wealthy executives and hard-right ideologues in his Cabinet will target crucial federal programs.
For now, transition officials have encouraged Trump’s nominees to keep their heads down and get through the confirmation process, which begins this week with a marathon series of Senate committee hearings.
People close to the transition say Trump chose largely wealthy business executives and generals in part because he expects them to be decisive — and that he is drawn to people who make decisions quickly and with gusto. One person close to Trump said Cabinet sessions will often feel like board meetings at large companies and that Trump will often give members difficult orders – with little direction on exactly how to get something done — and will show little patience for reasons something can’t happen.
In the two months since he won the presidency, Trump has underscored his arms-length approach. He’s left most of the congressional wrangling to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and other top aides. He doesn’t jump on weekly calls to discuss strategy, members of the transition team say. And he’s told top aides he doesn’t need to know about every problem, according to people who have spoken with them.
It’s an open question how much Trump’s style will ultimately mark a significant break from his predecessor. Obama, like many presidents before him, came into office with lofty hopes of assembling a powerful Cabinet that would challenge his decision making. But in the end, many of his Cabinet secretaries felt marginalized by powerful White House aides who nurtured closer relationships with the president.
Aware that Trump’s picks to lead federal agencies could have significant sway over fleshing out Trump’s agenda, the president-elect’s top aides, including incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, have been deeply involved in the hiring process. They are increasingly focused on finding deputy secretaries with government experience to counterbalance Trump’s business executive-heavy Cabinet.
Trump transition staffers have shuffled through hundreds of resumes — and are trying to make sure political allies land in the administration. The team’s desire to help pick agency officials has annoyed some of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries, who want to choose their own team, sources told POLITICO.
Deeply involved in hiring is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, according to people familiar in the process. Rick Dearborn, a top Trump aide, is signing off on agency hires, people involved in the transition said, and the transition team is putting central staff in key agencies to liaise with the West Wing.
A transition official said the West Wing staff was shoring up personnel for key positions that are central to Trump’s agenda, but is leaving other agencies and departments alone, and said tensions were overblown.
Trump’s Cabinet secretaries are expected to play a big role in building out Trump’s ambiguous — and in some cases non-existent — positions on key issues. Trump is a political novice who has has sometimes strayed from Republican orthodoxy, particularly on trade and economic issues. And he often listens to the last person he’s spoken with, according to people who have done business with or advised him.
Their answers to questions during confirmation hearings over upcoming weeks could shed new light on how Trump will govern. Groups like the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity have tried to cultivate ties with transition staff members and agency heads, knowing they will likely set the policy on many issues.
Washington Republicans say Trump will need to find a balance between letting his Cabinet secretaries make decisions and reining them in. While secretaries complained in the Obama administration that they didn’t have enough power, giving Cabinet officials too much authority can be dangerous because the president will ultimately take the blame for any missteps.
“I do think that the agencies need a strong ombudsman in the White House — somebody that really does know what the president is thinking and how he’s feeling about certain things and is regularly available to Cabinet secretaries,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican who has met with Trump. “Otherwise, you can get on the wrong side of your boss.”
Pence and Trump’s top White House aides, including Priebus and Dearborn, are expected to play a central role in coordinating with Cabinet secretaries.
People who have worked with Trump for decades say he often talks about big-picture strategy with his executives but then leaves details and execution to others.
“You’d go several days when you wouldn’t hear from him,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide. “Then, he’d ask you ‘Are we on this? What’s going on with this? What’s happening there?’ If there’s something he wants done, he doesn’t do well with you telling him it’s not done yet.”
Trump likes to tell several people to handle an issue, creating competition, and seems to enjoy the chaos of his top advisers and aides disagreeing, people close to him say. He often likes playing people off one another, current and former aides say.
He can become obsessed with seemingly unimportant details — like the color of a floor in a hotel, or the exact dollar amount of a check, these people say. But unless he becomes interested in a project or issue, or unless it involves large sums of money or publicity, he stays away. “He tends to micromanage the budget,” Nunberg said.
He doesn’t like to be presented with long manuals and often has a short attention span, these people say.
“He’s not going to be bogged down in a 3,000-page bill,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican on his transition executive committee. “That’s not his style.”
Yet he can also jump in at a minute’s notice and change the playbook.
“They’ll have as much room as they need — until they don’t,” one transition official said of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries, noting that Trump has a tendency to insert himself into issues that pique his interest in dramatic fashion.
Some appointees are already getting a crash course in potential pitfalls of serving Trump as they prepare for their confirmation hearings and are peppered with questions by staffers playing the role of Democratic senators.
Secretary of state appointee Rex Tillerson, for one, was asked during a recent prep session conducted near the White House what he would do in a situation where he awoke in a foreign country to learn of a tweet by Trump that had undermined his negotiating position, according to a source close to the process. The typically unflappable former Exxon CEO was momentarily tongue-tied when searching for a response.
One former Trump Organization executive, who said he didn’t support Trump and didn’t think he would be a good president, still said he was often an ideal boss and would give executives significant latitude. “You just didn’t want him paying too much attention to you,” he said.
Louise Sunshine, a former Trump Organization executive who worked with directly for 15 years, said he rarely told her “exactly what to do.” Trump, she says, will be involved in overall strategy, giving some direction but letting “Pence and Reince take care of most of it.”
Eli Stokols contributed to this report.