Donald Trump campaigned as a champion of the “forgotten man” and won the White House on the strength of his support among the white working class.
So far, he’s stacking his administration with masters of the universe.
Beyond Trump himself, who claims a net worth of more than $10 billion, the president-elect has tapped businesswoman Betsy DeVos, whose family is worth $5.1 billion, and is said to be considering oil mogul Harold Hamm ($15.3 billion), investor Wilbur Ross ($2.9 billion), private equity investor Mitt Romney ($250 million at last count), hedge fund magnate Steve Mnuchin (at least $46 million), and super-lawyer Rudy Giuliani (estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars) to round out his administration. And Trump’s likely choice for deputy commerce secretary, Todd Ricketts, comes from the billionaire family that owns the Chicago Cubs.
Even retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who’s up for the job of secretary of housing and urban development, has an estimated fortune of $26 million, while White House adviser Steve Bannon has likely earned millions off his stake in the show “Seinfeld” alone. Andrew Puzder, a possible labor secretary, is no slouch, either — he made more than $4.4 million in 2012 as CEO of the holding company that owns restaurant chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.
Put together, Trump’s Cabinet and administration could be worth as much as $35 billion, a staggering agglomeration of wealth unprecedented in American history.
The median household income in the U.S.? About $55,000.
Trump’s glittering roster of millionaires and billionaires risks undermining the fundamental basis of his campaign before the Manhattan magnate even takes the oath of office.
Trump pulled off his shocking win over Hillary Clinton in large part by convincing just enough Rust Belt voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan that he understood their frustration with a “rigged” economic system that he said favored Wall Street elites and Washington insiders over average workers who feel left out of the current economic expansion (though, according to exit polls, Clinton won voters making less than $50,000 a year).
“My campaign is about reaching out to everyone as Americans, and returning to a government that puts the American people first,” Trump said while laying out his economic vision during a major address Detroit in August. “We will offer a new future, not the same old failed policies of the past. Our party has chosen to make new history by selecting a nominee from outside the rigged and corrupt system.”
But Trump now appears to be surrounding himself at least in part with people who come very much out of that system, particularly Wall Street.
Mnuchin and Bannon both made millions at Goldman Sachs, a bank singled out for criticism in Trump’s campaign ads. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein appeared as a shady and dangerous character in the closing spot of the Trump campaign.
President Obama’s re-election campaign savaged Romney for the fortune he earned in private equity. Ross became a billionaire in the “distressed” debt industry which critics prefer to call “vulture” investing, picking clean the carcasses of devastated industrial companies. A think tank supported by DeVos and her husband earlier this month published an article calling for a return of child labor.
Trump’s decision to tap – or strongly consider – all of these super-wealthy people is already opening windows for Democrats to savage the president-elect as a false-prophet who campaigned as an everyman but may govern as a plutocrat.
“These picks are a betrayal of his message to working class voters,” said Neera Tanden, president of Center for American Progress and a close Clinton confidante. “Trump claimed he would fight the global elite billionaire class, instead he’s handing them the keys to agency after agency.”
Spokespeople for Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
And Trump is not exactly roaring into office with enough political strength to blow away questions about his cabinet and senior advisor positions. He currently trails Clinton by more than 2 million in the popular vote. Green Party nominee Jill Stein is advocating for vote recounts in states that delivered Trump’s narrow Electoral College victory.
Polls show the American public still has deep reservations about the president-elect. Trump’s favorability rating rose after his victory but still sits at just 46 percent according to the most recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. And as Trump puts together a well-heeled cabinet he is also facing mounting questions about his own business conflicts of interest.
After multiple reports of Trump pressing personal business issues in early calls and meetings with foreign officials, the president-elect told the New York Times “the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
The public seems to disagree. A recent CNN/ORC poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans think Trump is not doing enough to avoid potential business conflicts as president.
That combined with questions about Trump’s gilded cabinet could cause political headaches for a president whose electorate featured millions of voters furious with the status quo and desperate for a major house cleaning in Washington. An administration filled with the super-wealthy and an agenda heavy on tax cuts and deregulation might not lift Trump’s popularity.
Of course, high rollers serving in a cabinet is nothing new. Penny Pritzker, Obama’s commerce secretary, is worth more than $2 billion. George W. Bush’s last treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, has an estimated net worth of at least $92 million, and possibly considerably more. And Andrew Mellon, whose fortune rivaled that of John Rockefeller, famously served as Treasury Secretary for three Republican administrations in the 1920s and early 1930s.
But Trump seems headed for an administration loaded with far more wealth, a result, in part, of his desire to recruit people from outside of government.
Concerns about the political ramifications of such gilded company, however, might be overstated. After all, Trump’s own lavish lifestyle did not keep him from winning the White House.
“I don’t think anyone expected union leaders form Michigan to be appointed to the Trump cabinet,” said Larry Sabato, director of the center for politics at the University of Virginia. “It certainly suggests what we’ve always known about Trump: he says one thing and does another. He’s very flexible.”
Sabato noted that presidents have long picked friends and acquaintances to fill their cabinets.
“A billionaire tends to have billionaire friends,” he said.
Blake Hounshell contributed reporting to this article.
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