Bulldogs in the White House: Yalies in the Trump Administration

Bulldogs in the White House:
Yalies in the Trump Administration

Published on February 10, 2017

As the dust settled in the aftermath of the most bruising election season in recent memory, stunned Clinton supporters and elated Trump supporters alike looked to the future. All eyes lay on the President-elect’s next move. His nominations for the cabinet, the group of his closest advisors, would reveal much about the shape of the incoming administration. On Yale’s campus, students would soon learn of their institution’s own role in the Presidency of a man so many of them had vocally opposed.

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Throughout the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump promised that as president he would hire only the “best people.” Despite running as a populist candidate, Trump often touted his elite credentials, pointing to his Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance as evidence that he was “highly educated.” Now, as President, Trump has assembled a cabinet of individuals from similarly elite schools, thus continuing on a classic governmental tradition.

Featured prominently in Trump’s cabinet are three Yale University graduates. Ben Carson ’73, a neurosurgeon who ran for president in the 2016 Republican primaries, was nominated for the position of secretary of housing and urban development. Steven Mnuchin ’85, a former executive at Goldman Sachs and national finance chairman for the Trump campaign, was chosen to serve as the secretary of treasury. Wilbur Ross ’59, an investor and former banker, was tapped for the position of secretary of commerce.

Since the Reagan administration, a total of 12 Yale College or Yale Law School graduates have served as attorney general, or secretary of treasury, secretary of labor, secretary of defense or secretary of transportation, including Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73 and John Kerry ’66, who both served as secretary of state under the Obama administration. Furthermore, at least one Yale graduate has served as a cabinet member in every one of the past five administrations. John Ashcroft ’64 served as defense attorney general under President George W. Bush ’68. Under President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, Les Aspin ’60 acted as defense secretary, and Robert Reich LAW ’73 served as labor secretary. Dick Thornburgh ’54 served as attorney general under both President George H. W. Bush ’48 and President Ronald Reagen. Nicholas Brady ’52 acted as secretary of treasury under both presidents as well.

Beyond these high-profile positions, Yalies have long held lower level administrative posts, as staffers and advisors, in several presidential administrations. For example, 17 Yale Law School graduates served as appointees in the Obama administration, while over 40 Yale affiliates, including alumni and faculty members, contributed to the 2009 administration’s transition team.

Trump has assigned an unusual number of Yalies to his cabinet. Of the nation’s last five presidents, only Reagan has appointed a higher number of Yale graduates to top posts, appointing five to serve as heads of executive departments during his eight-year administration. Barack Obama ties Trump with three Yale appointees throughout his tenure: the two secretaries of state as well as Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke ’72.

By any other measure, Trump has chosen extremely atypical appointees. In contrast to the experienced political backgrounds of the cabinet picks of prior administrations, Trump’s three Yale appointees have limited past experience in government. Carson, Ross and Mnuchin forged their public careers in the fields of neurosurgery, banking and hedge fund management respectively. Their appointments mark a major shift away from the tendency to appoint career politicians to executive positions. This anti-political stance is a feature consistent with the rest of Trump’s cabinet, with the recently confirmed, controversial Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.

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Still, President Trump’s cabinet nominees are broadly unpopular among the Yale student body. A Yale Daily News survey conducted in January before Trump’s inauguration found that over 62 percent of students are “very unconfident” about Trump’s nominee picks. An additional 20 percent were “unconfident,” with just 9 percent “neutral.” Only 9 percent of students were either “confident” or “very confident” in Trump’s picks. Despite widespread general disapproval of the president’s cabinet as a whole, however, attitudes towards the Yale graduates in particular were more complicated.

Attitudes toward Trump’s Yale nominees are predictably split along party lines. Josh Hochman ’18, president of the Yale College Democrats, expressed concern about all three Yale alumni serving in the new administration’s Cabinet, pointing to their lack of experience and problematic policy proposals.

Emily Reinwald ’17, co-president of the Yale College Republicans, held a different view. She stated her belief that “all the Yalies [in Trump’s cabinet] will do a fantastic job.” Reinwald praised Trump for assigning “conservative and principled” alums to his cabinet. The Yale New Republicans, despite its vocal opposition to Trump in the months leading up the election, expressed similar sentiments. Benjamin Rasmussen ’18, co-chair of the organization, believed that the Yale graduates tapped for Trump’s Cabinet would provide sufficient guidance for their respective departments.

“I am confident that Mnuchin, Ross and Carson will give their best effort to achieve our national goals,” said Rasmussen. “However, only time can tell whether these good intentions will translate into successfully executed policy.”

Rasmussen also emphasized his belief that the Yalies in Trump’s cabinet “will do a far better job” of leading their departments than other individuals that Trump has nominated for top-tier positions. Rasmussen’s lack of confidence in Trump’s broader slate of nominations reflects that of much of the Yale student body. Many are dismayed in particular by the President’s nomination of DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist and political activist, to the position of secretary of education. The Senate narrowly confirmed DeVos this week with an unprecedented, tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence.

According to the same pre-inauguration News survey, nearly 44 percent of respondents indicated that their opinion of Trump has become either “less favorable” or “much less favorable” since election day. Many cited Trump’s nominations as a major factor in their decreasing regard for the then-president-elect. Descriptions of his nominees ranged from “toxic” to “horrendous” to “awful.” Several respondents pointed to DeVos as an example of a poor nominee, while another cited Tillerson. One student wrote that Trump’s “picks for head of the department of energy (Rick Perry), department of education (Betsy DeVos) and secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) are horrible.” Others were more positive. One respondent suggested that a number of Trump’s appointments “make sense,” while another supported “most of his picks for cabinet and cabinet-level positions.”

Notably absent from the responses were specific criticisms of Mnuchin, Ross or Carson. While the Yale alumni in Trump’s cabinet have been subject to some critical scrutiny, they are not the focal points of criticism. One respondent even called the choice of Carson “wonderful.”

Carson, a Davenport alum, graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School to pursue a successful career in pediatric neurosurgery. He wrote six best-selling books, including an autobiography published in 1992. Carson retired as a surgeon in 2013 and announced the launch of his first presidential campaign two years later. Following the Super Tuesday 2016 primaries, Carson withdrew from the Republican national primary race and pledged his support to candidate and eventual president, Donald Trump in March 2016.

Compared to his fellow Yale graduates, however, Carson is the most widely disliked alum serving in Trump’s cabinet. Forty-one percent of students viewed him “very unfavorably,” while another 32 percent viewed him “unfavorably.” A mere 12 percent viewed him “favorably” or “very favorably.” Neither Mnuchin nor Ross was as widely disliked as Carson, but neither did they benefit from a distinctly supportive minority either. Instead, the majority of students appeared ambivalent about the two. Forty-three percent of students indicated they felt “neutral” or “unsure” about Mnuchin, while nearly 55 percent indicated the same about Ross. However, even though more students viewed Mnuchin “favorably” or “very favorably” (10 percent) than they did Ross (6 percent), more also viewed Mnuchin “unfavorably” and “very unfavorably” (47 percent as compared with Ross’s 37 percent).

Survey administrator and staff reporter for the News Jon Greenberg ’19 suggested that the apparent ambivalence toward Ross and Mnuchin likely occurred “because they know more about [Carson] than Mnuchin and Ross.” Even in this exceptionally high-profile administration, only a few specific appointees, like DeVos and Carson, have attracted widespread attention.

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Four more Yale affiliates are being considered or have been selected for lower-level posts and advising positions in the Trump administration. In December, Stephen Schwarzman ’69, Yale alumnus and co-founder of the Blackstone Group, joined the administration as an advisor on economic policy. Schwarzman will also chair the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum, which includes fellow Yale alumni Dan Yergin ’68 and James McNerney ’71.

Yergin is best known as a prominent economic researcher and author. His book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money,” which details the history of the global oil industry, won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. He is also the co-founder of energy research consulting company Cambridge Energy Research Associates which specializes in advising private companies and government bodies on energy trends and markets. McNerney, a business executive, served as the president, CEO, and chairman of the Boeing Company from 2005 to 2015. Both have extensive experience advising and consulting in the corporate world.

Schwarzman’s name is a familiar one on campus, due to his recent $150 million donation to Yale to renovate Commons and construct the Schwarzman Center, a space dedicated to student life and activity. The extensive, three-year renovation is expected to begin this fall and projected to be completed by Spring 2020.

Additionally, in January, the Washington Post reported that Yale computer science professor David Gelernter ’76 was being eyed as a potential candidate for science adviser. Gelernter, who has expressed doubt over the legitimacy of man-made climate change, would be the first computer scientist to ever fill the role of science advisor as well as the only science advisor to not belong to the National Academy of Sciences.

As a computer scientist, Gelernter served as a key figure in the field of parallel computation, his research contributing to the increased processing power of modern computers. He has also acquired fame for his disdain for modern academia, despite his Ivy league roots and current status as a Yale professor. In his 2013 book “America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats),” Gelernter expresses his belief that modern intellectualism is to blame for the dismantling of what he sees as traditional American values. Given these controversial positions and lack of preexisting connections with the established scientific community, Gelernter’s appointment would reflect a continuing attempt by the president to incorporate political “outsiders” into his administration. When approached for an interview with the News, Gelernter declined.

“I have nothing more to say to any newspaper,” Gelernter said. “Of course I’m not a member of the Trump administration. If I should be at some future point, I’d be happy to answer questions then. For now, my credentials are exactly what they were the day before the election.”

Although the identities of Trump’s cabinet picks have been available to the American public for weeks or months, many of Trump’s nominations have yet to be confirmed by Congress, including the nominations of Ross, Mnuchin and Carson. Compared to the average timeline for confirmation hearings, Trump’s picks have had their hearing dates slightly later than the picks of his predecessors. The media coverage of these confirmation hearings reflects an unusual level of engagement on the part of both politicians and average citizens with the cabinet appointment process.  Judging by the highly contentious confirmation hearings that have taken place over the last few weeks regarding the nominations of DeVos and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R–Ala., American citizens can only expect more partisan debate and Congressional gridlock.


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