If past is prelude, America has a lot to look forward to. Sound cabinet choices across the board by President-elect Trump seem to be emerging, and with regularity. Controversial, at a time when everything is controversial, perhaps. But scrolling back the rhetoric, these choices are rational, thoughtful, experienced and – in a word – appropriate for the times.
Consider the President-elect’s selections to date. Vice President Mike Pence is a rock-solid, tested, proven national leader. The press says little of him, because he is principled, no-nonsense, dispassionate, hard worker. We need more of those in government. Pence was in Congress, was a thoughtful Governor, and will be a credit to America as our Vice President.
Ditto, high quality and record attend the 21 named, potential US Supreme Court nominees. While we can look forward to Reid-like “oppose everything” reactions, a more dispassionate expectation is Democrats affirming the dignity, respect, intellectual honesty, professionalism and work ethic of these prospective nominees, even if they do not agree with all rulings. What matters is sound judgment, and these jurists possess it. That reflects well on the President-elect.
Enter cabinet picks. If humanity is imperfect, this group represents thoughtful choices, whether the press believes this or not. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is a practiced, highly respected and historically effective litigator on behalf of the public – and civil rights. He is a former 12-year United States Attorney, former State Attorney General, and cerebral, if outspoken United States Senator. Far back, he was an Army Reserve Captain, Eagle Scout.
Against him, comes an argument from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that he should not be confirmed, saying she will “exercise fundamental moral leadership” to stop him, since his nomination to a federal judgeship was politically blocked 30 years ago, at the same time Ronald Reagan’s two Supreme Court nominees, Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsberg, were similarly rejected. The former was tagged a “racist” by then-Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Senator Warren says, “there can be no compromise with racism; no negotiation with hate.”
The Warren attack is characteristic, brazen and – of course – outsized. Today, the label “racist” is applied quickly, and removed slowly. That is unfortunate, but seems modern politics. That label, rooted in decades’ old hearsay, tipped a narrow committee vote against Sessions in 1986. Curious is the vehemence of the Massachusetts Senator against Sessions, and somewhat ironic.
What if the shoe were on the other foot? How would she feel if, because her entourage assaulted a cameraman in 2012, she were tagged “prone to assault.” Or because she claimed to be “the first nursing mother to take the bar exam,” rather stretching credulity, she were labeled self-aggrandizing or delusional? Or seeing claims about her grandmother, concerns over a book she wrote, and assertions of “Native American” status by on an unprovable “one thirty-second” of heritage, she were dubbed a consistent exaggerator or fibber? Surely, Senator Warren would take offense.
And in a sense, she would be right to take offense. In all human lives, regrettable statements are made, but these do not comprise, define or make permanently objectionable the person who said them. Jokes in poor taste, poorly expressed ideas, exaggerations and verbal missteps are part of being human. We may object and seek apologies, clarifications and growth, which often follow such statements, but ancient and objectionable comments do not make a person inherently evil, or deserve perpetual rejection.
A better approach for the good Senator from Massachusetts might be to take a deep breath, practice more dispassion, allow a good man to serve the Nation well, as he has already served – with distinction. Senator Sessions will make a thoughtful Attorney General, as the vast majority of his Senate colleagues know.
Enter next, a “blue chip” nominee for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Pompeo (R-KS). He too is a seasoned, principled and cerebral, if outspoken choice. A West Pointer, he holds Harvard Law degree and is plainly not a moral nor intellectual slouch. Against him are defenders of President Obama’s Iran deal, which he opposed.
And against him, too, are his resolve to restore CIA morale, effectiveness, reach and protective capacity. An assiduous student of Benghazi, member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, subcommittee on CIA, he is versed in the facts. Opposition is likely to circle his Second Amendment support, opposition to abortion, Obamacare, and closing Guantanamo. But a CIA director does decide these issues, and much of America would agree anyway. Again, a sound choice, and good fit.
Finally, for National Security Advisor, to replace a person who brought no military or intelligence experience, President-elect Trump has proffered a former lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn. While not subject to Senate confirmation, his naming has produced reflexive opposition – for reasons quintessentially Washington, further elevating him in the minds of many.
Bottom line: Every president is entitled to counsel from those they trust, whose backgrounds they trust, and who can help guide them in leadership. General Flynn fits the times and President he will serve. President Obama wanted someone of pedigree, without military, intelligence, congressional, business, or senior administrative experience, and he got that person. Today, we live with his preferences – for another two months – then we live with President Trump’s. Of 24 past national security advisors, three-quarters had military experience.
Other potential nominees stand out, although just rumors. For Secretary of Defense, perhaps General James Mattis or Senator Tom Cotton. For Secretary of State, perhaps a page from “Team of Rivals?” For Veterans’ Affairs, a seasoned veteran who reflects America’s outrage, either Rep. Jeff Miller or Senator Scott Brown? For Office of Management and Budget, a cutter and balancer. For Treasury, depth in finance or big business. Homeland Security, an expert manager, operational security, or intelligence background.
A deep bench of expert loyalists also lies beyond these posts, incisive health care minds for Health and Human Services, which needs radical transformation. A businessman, optimally also a Governor, Congressman, and conservative lawyer, would make a great fit for Commerce, Transportation, Energy, Labor or Trade, former surrogates like conservative Governors Bob Ehrlich, Jan Brewer, and John Sununu fit that bill. To address a national drug crisis, Office of Drug Control should be returned to Reagan’s Cabinet rank, leadership needed.
Net-net, Americans should be optimistic. The Trump/Pence team is ahead of schedule, on sound footing, leaning into concentric circles of talent, more savvy than the press anticipated – or much wanted. They are ahead of most transitions, and selections reflect the election mandate.
However, there is one very serious, entirely undiscussed and perhaps important element on which critics may – at this moment – seize. You may have figured this out by now, and yet there is every reason for curious minds to wonder: With Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Flynn already in the Cabinet room, will there be a conspiracy of Mikes?
Robert Charles is a former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, former commercial litigator, US Navy Intelligence Officer, and Assistant Secretary of State under George W Bush. He writes widely on national security and legal issues.