This op-ed is part of a series exploring what a second term would look like for either President Biden or former President Trump. To read more pieces in this series, click here.
Donald Trump is now in a neck-and-neck race to get back into the White House. He remains a political force for a variety of reasons, including his successful re-invention of himself as the victim of a weaponized legal system; persistent inflation and economic uncertainty; and increasing doubt, even among Democrats, about Joe Biden’s ability to serve another term.
A second Trump term, then, is now as likely as not. What would it look like? Given that “personnel is policy” in Washington, the first question has to be who might staff a Trump 47 administration.
The highest-profile name in a future Trump Cabinet would be the person on the ticket with him. The rumors from Mar-a-Lago are that the list is already fairly short and that the campaign is leaning heavily toward a woman as vice president. One name that keeps cropping up is South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), but don’t discount the possibility that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) fills that spot. Yes, she and Trump have a complicated history, but if she continues her surge to become Trump’s most viable challenger, Trump might have a hard time ignoring her.
Trump is transactional enough that he will overlook his personal misgivings if he thinks Haley could help get him over the finish line.
Filling out the Cabinet is much less clear. Though Trump is famous for boasting that “all the best people” want to work for him, those “best people” also know that working for Trump is often a career-ending decision. Haley is likely established enough to survive that environment and could end up at State if she isn’t on the ticket. But beyond that, the basic questions regarding Cabinet secretaries are, who would agree to work for Trump, who could also get confirmed by the Senate?
Put another way: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) doesn’t want the job running the Pentagon, and Kash Patel will never get confirmed for it. That dynamic plays out across the rest of the Cabinet. Finding an attorney general might take forever.
Indeed, you can imagine a world where a Democratic-controlled (or even Republican-controlled) Senate might deliver a list to the incoming president, saying: “Here are five names that you can get confirmed for Treasury secretary. Pick one. Anybody else is off the table.”
That tortured confirmation process won’t affect the in-house positions in the West Wing, however. And you can expect some capable people conservatives there. Mark Paoletta (former general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget) would be a strong candidate for White House counsel. Russ Vought, who has been diligently at work on both Trump 47 policy and personnel, might follow the traditional route from OMB into the chief of staff’s office. And Steven Miller will most certainly play a central role in domestic policy, beyond just immigration.
Put all of that together, and what do you get? First, a much more White House-centric policy process. Unlikely to get his first choices of Cabinet secretaries confirmed, Trump will likely lean on weaker “acting” functionaries at the agencies, or may leave positions vacant entirely. That will empower folks at the White House. Trump has always preferred a “flat” organizational structure anyway, with everybody reporting directly to him. You can expect that to continue.
The policies that flow from such a structure will likely be both more populist on one hand (think, more tariffs) and more conservative on the other. The days of having to get pro-life or pro-gun policies past Jared and Ivanka would be gone.
A key focus will be establishing the role of the “unitary executive,” which is something many Republicans have been wanting for decades. The “Deep State” — loosely defined as government bureaucrats who think they are policymakers instead of policy executors — is real. And you can expect a lot of attention to be put toward fixing that.
This will be couched by Trump detractors as a dictatorial power grab, but the truth is that it is completely fair to suggest that presidents, by virtue of their election, are entitled to an executive branch that aligns with their agenda.
Beyond that, you can expect Trump always to come home to the issues that really matter to him, regardless of who is in his inner circle: lower taxes, less regulation, strong borders and protective tariffs.
Trump, of course, might look at all of this conjecture and dismiss it as a meaningless waste of time. It won’t matter who the secretary of Homeland Security is, let alone the second assistant deputy secretary for intergovernmental affairs.
All that will really matter in a second Trump administration is Trump himself.
Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, is a contributor to NewsNation. He served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and acting White House chief of staff under President Donald Trump.
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