Loyalists, Lapdogs, and Cronies


When Donald Trump first took office, he put a premium on what he called “central casting” hires—people with impressive résumés who matched his image of an ideal administration official. Yes, he brought along his share of Steve Bannons and Michael Flynns. But there was also James Mattis, the decorated four-star general who took over the Defense Department, and Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs chief operating officer who was appointed head of the National Economic Council, and Rex Tillerson, who left one of the world’s most profitable international conglomerates to become secretary of state.

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Trump seemed positively giddy that all of these important people were suddenly willing to work for him. And although his populist supporters lamented the presence of so many swamp creatures in his administration, establishment Washington expressed pleasant surprise at the picks. A consensus had formed that what the incoming administration needed most was “adults in the room.” To save the country from ruin, the thinking went, reasonable Republicans had a patriotic duty to work for Trump if asked. Many of them did.

Don’t expect it to happen again. The available supply of serious, qualified people willing to serve in a Trump administration has dwindled since 2017. After all, the so-called adults didn’t fare so well in their respective rooms. Some quit in frustration or disgrace; others were publicly fired by the president. Several have spent their post–White House lives fielding congressional subpoenas and getting indicted. And after seeing one Trump term up close, vanishingly few of them are interested in a sequel: This past summer, NBC News reported that just four of Trump’s 44 Cabinet secretaries had endorsed his current bid.

Even if mainstream Republicans did want to work for him again, Trump is unlikely to want them. He’s made little secret of the fact that he felt burned by many in his first Cabinet. This time around, according to people in Trump’s orbit, he would prioritize obedience over credentials. “I think there’s going to be a very concerted, calculated effort to ensure that the people he puts in his next administration—they don’t have to share his worldview exactly, but they have to implement it,” Hogan Gidley, a former Trump White House spokesperson, told me.

What would this look like in practice? Predicting presidential appointments nearly a year before the election is a fool’s errand, especially with a candidate as mercurial as this one. And, whether for reasons of low public opinion or ongoing legal jeopardy, some of Trump’s likely picks might struggle to get confirmed (expect a series of contentious hearings). But the names currently circulating in MAGA world offer a glimpse at the kind of people Trump could gravitate toward.

One Trump-world figure with a record of deference to the boss is Stephen Miller. As a speechwriter and policy adviser, Miller managed to endure while so many of his colleagues flamed out in part because he was satisfied with being a staffer instead of a star. He was also fully aligned with the president on his signature issue: immigration. Inside the White House, Miller championed some of the administration’s most draconian measures, including the Muslim travel ban and the family-separation policy. In a second Trump term, some expect Miller to get a job that will give him significant influence over immigration policy—perhaps head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or even secretary of homeland security. Given Miller’s villainous reputation in Democratic circles, however, he might have a hard time getting confirmed by the Senate. If that happens, some think White House chief of staff might be a good consolation prize.

For secretary of state, one likely candidate is Richard Grenell. Before Trump appointed him ambassador to Germany in 2018, Grenell was best-known as a right-wing foreign-policy pundit and an inexhaustible Twitter troll. He brought his signature bellicosity to Berlin, hectoring journalists and government officials on Twitter, and telling a Breitbart London reporter early in his tenure that he planned to use his position to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe.” (He had to walk back the comment after some in Germany interpreted it as a call for far-right regime change.)

Grenell’s undiplomatic approach to diplomacy exasperated German officials and thrilled Trump, who reportedly described him as an ambassador who “gets it.” Grenell has spent recent years performing his loyalty as a Trump ally and, according to one source, privately building his case for the secretary-of-state role.

One job that Trump will be especially focused on getting right is attorney general. He believes that both of the men who held this position during his term—Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr—were guilty of grievous betrayal. Since then, Trump has been charged with 91 felony counts across four separate criminal cases—evidence, he claims, of a historic “political persecution.” (He has pleaded not guilty in all cases.) Trump has pledged to use the Justice Department to visit revenge on his persecutors if he returns to the White House.

“The notion of the so-called independence of the Department of Justice needs to be consigned to the ash heap of history,” says Paul Dans, who served in the Office of Personnel Management under Trump and now leads an effort by the Heritage Foundation to recruit conservative appointees for the next Republican administration. To that end, Trump allies have floated a range of loyalists for attorney general, including Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Josh Hawley; former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; and Jeffrey Clark, formerly one of Trump’s assistant attorneys general, who was indicted in Georgia on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election (the charges are still pending).

Vivek Ramaswamy—the fast-talking entrepreneur running in the Republican presidential primary as of this writing—is also expected to get a top post in the administration. Ramaswamy has praised Trump on the campaign trail and positioned himself as the natural heir to the former president. Trump has responded to the flattery in kind, publicly praising his opponent as a “very, very, very intelligent person.” Some have even speculated that Ramaswamy could be Trump’s pick for vice president.

One source close to Ramaswamy told me that a Trump adviser had recently asked him what job the candidate might want in a future administration. After thinking about it, the source suggested ambassador to the United Nations, reasoning that he’s a “good talker.” The Trump adviser said he’d keep it in mind, though it’s worth noting that Ramaswamy’s lack of support for Ukraine and his suggestion that Russia be allowed to keep some of the territory it has seized could lead to confirmation trouble.

Beyond the high-profile posts, the Trump team may have more jobs to fill in 2025 than a typical administration does. Dans and his colleagues at Heritage are laying the groundwork for a radical politicization of the federal civilian workforce. If they get their way, the next Republican president will sign an executive order eliminating civil-service protections for up to 50,000 federal workers, effectively making the people in these roles political appointees. Rank-and-file budget wonks, lawyers, and administrators working in dozens of agencies would be reclassified as Schedule F employees, and the president would be able to fire them at will, with or without cause. These fired civil servants’ former posts could be left empty—or filled with Trump loyalists. To that end, Heritage has begun to put together a roster of thousands of pre-vetted potential recruits. “What we’re really talking about is a major renovation to government,” Dans told me.

Trump actually signed an executive order along these lines in the final months of his presidency, but it was reversed by his successor. On the campaign trail, Trump has vowed to reinstate it with the goal of creating a more compliant federal workforce for himself. “Either the deep state destroys America,” he has declared, “or we destroy the deep state.”


This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Loyalists, Lapdogs, and Cronies.”



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