Donald Trump has explained on multiple occasions how he picks his closest advisers. He seems to like well-qualified, dependable people (“I surround myself with good people, and then I give myself the luxury of trusting them,” he wrote in 1990). Then again, trustworthiness may not be a prerequisite (“My motto is ‘Hire the best people, and don’t trust them,’ ” he wrote in 2007). And now, there are even reports that he is seeking a particular “look” for staffers, as the Washington Post reported on Dec. 22.
Numbers give a more concrete sense of how he is choosing his advisers, though. For instance, Trump’s Cabinet looks a lot like one might expect from a fiercely anti-establishment candidate: He has relatively few appointees with government experience. Instead, he has reached out to people from the business community.
So here’s what his Cabinet looks like by the numbers. Thus far, Trump has put forth nominees for 18 of the 22 current Cabinet-level positions. For the sake of apples-to-apples comparisons, we’ve compared all of those 22 posts across five presidents’ initial Cabinets (for Trump we only count everything as a percentage of 18, as he has only chosen 18 people, and for Reagan and Clinton, we only count 21 appointees, as there was no Department of Homeland Security during their presidencies).
Trump’s Cabinet breaks with a trend toward diversity
Of the 18 people he has chosen thus far, Trump’s Cabinet has 13 white men. That’s roughly in line with Ronald Reagan’s initial Cabinet. However, it’s also a swing away from a trend toward diversity over the last few presidents. President Obama’s Cabinet in particular gained notice for its relative lack of white men.
To draw a line between white and nonwhite, we used Census Bureau race and ethnicity categories, though unlike the census, we counted all Hispanics as nonwhite (the Census Bureau counts Hispanic as an ethnicity and not a race, meaning a person can be white and Hispanic).
The Census Bureau’s system undersells diversity in some ways, though. For example, Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, George W. Bush Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and Clinton HHS Secretary Donna Shalala are all Arab-American. In the census, that counts as white, though some Arab-Americans disagree (and the Census Bureau itself is considering adding that category).
Furthermore, it’s not that the trend toward diversity has been as steady as the above chart seems to show; after all, these are just the presidents’ first Cabinets. President Obama took some criticism for a less diverse circle of advisers in his second term.
Diversity can mean bringing different perspectives to the administration. Of course, white men can be empathetic and open-minded, as National Urban League head Marc Morial recently told PBS NewsHour, but many Americans also look to the Cabinet as a sign of whether they are well-represented.
“The question is, do people feel their voices are heard? That’s really important, that communities feel someone is at the table with my point of view,” he said.
Trump has chosen the outsider Cabinet
Of course, there are other types of diversity — geographic, socioeconomic and experience, for example. And while Trump’s team has been criticized for its economic profile (i.e., it includes multiple billionaires), it does break with usual Cabinet norms by being relatively light on established government figures.
We’ve attempted to quantify this by classifying each Cabinet member by his or her most prominent jobs prior to joining the Cabinet (for example, Colin Powell had spent much of his working life in the military before joining George W. Bush’s Cabinet).
This required more than a few judgment calls — Glenn Hubbard (George W. Bush’s CEA chair) had spent two years at the Treasury, but we decided he was primarily an academic, as he spent many more years in that field. Some of these are arguable: Was Hillary Clinton’s career more prominently in “government” — that is, her time as senator — or as a first lady (which we’d classify as “other,” a category that includes people who are in politics but are not officeholders, like Reince Priebus)? We made her one of the few listed as more than one, as she straddles the line between the two worlds.
Here we can see not only whose Cabinets were particularly heavy with people from the public sector (Obama) or the business world (Reagan, Trump), but also where different presidents have broken with tradition.
Trump, like most of the last five presidents, will have someone from the business world heading the Small Business Administration. However, he will be the only president out of these to have a defense secretary (Mattis) with a chiefly military background. True, Donald Rumsfeld had been in the military, but afterward he made a career of working in government, while Mattis remained in the military through retirement.
For a more holistic count of these Cabinet secretaries’ careers, here is a breakdown of four different distinctions that Cabinet secretaries commonly hold. We counted up the initial Cabinet members who have had any experience in the military or government (at any level, from city to federal), as well as those who have served as CEOs or have earned Ph.D.’s. (This means these numbers will differ from those in the above table. Someone known best for government service may also have served in the military or have a Ph.D. or have been a CEO, for example — or even all four.)
Once again, there were some judgment calls — does serving as the “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools — as Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan did — really count as being a CEO? (We decided no; we’re trying to count a type of business experience here, and public schools are a government entity. A similar but tougher call went into deciding that Timothy Geithner’s time as New York Fed CEO didn’t count either.)
This is not meant to imply that these are the only four ways someone might be qualified to serve as a Cabinet secretary. Rather, these are four ways of measuring what type of a Cabinet a president has. A Cabinet that’s relatively heavy with academics (Obama, Clinton) might work and think differently than does a Cabinet with more CEOs (Trump, George W. Bush).