Trump announces AG and UN ambassador nominees

President Donald Trump announces the nominations of William Barr as attorney general and former Fox News host Heather Nauert as UN ambassador.

Posted: Dec. 7, 2018 8:57 PM
Updated: Dec. 7, 2018 9:17 PM

After a few weeks of quiet, the Cabinet reshuffle President Donald Trump teased in the days surrounding the midterm election has kicked into gear.

On Friday, Trump announced nominations to fill his most high-profile vacancies. Separately, CNN reported chief of staff John Kelly is expected to resign within days.

It's anyone's guess whether more changes are to come. What's clear, though, is that Trump is presiding over the most tumultuous Cabinet in recent memory. In his nearly two years in office, Trump has fired or forced out six Cabinet officials, shuffled two others into different posts and seen the most high-profile woman in his administration announce her resignation.

Here's a look at where things stand with Trump's entire Cabinet, including who's under fire, who seems safe, and who is off the radar, first as a group and then by category:

The replacements

On Friday, Trump told reporters he would nominate William "Bill" Barr, a former attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions on a permanent basis. The news came just days after Trump attended the former President's funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington. Barr has previously defended Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey and been critical of the Russia probe, but his strong reputation in Washington suggests he could have an easy confirmation.

Trump also said he would replace outgoing US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, one of the most popular women in his Cabinet, with State Department spokeswoman (and former Fox News host) Heather Nauert. The catch is that the position will be downgraded and removed from Trump's Cabinet. Nauert's lack of traditional experience could lead to a tough confirmation.

Under fire from Trump

CNN reported Friday that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly could resign within days and that he and the President were barely on speaking terms. That follows months of speculation over how long Kelly would last in the job, and numerous reports of tension between the two men.

A Kelly departure could also spell trouble for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is linked to Kelly. One possible replacement for Kelly could be Vice President Mike Pence's top aide Nick Ayers.

In an interview with Fox News after the election, Trump didn't sound very high on either Nielsen or Kelly.

"I want her to get much tougher, and we'll see what happens there," he said of his DHS chief.

And of Kelly: "There are a couple of things where it's just not his strength. It's not his fault, it's not his strength."

Under fire from outside

There's a big difference between drawing public scrutiny and drawing scrutiny from Trump. He's shown a willingness to stick with someone amid public scandals if he's otherwise happy with the job they're doing.

That's how Scott Pruitt, the former EPA administrator, hung on for months despite a growing list of investigations into possible abuse of his power. But former HHS Secretary Tom Price was gone relatively quickly over his use of private planes, which happened to coincide with Republicans' failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the subject of a DOJ investigation, while Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is under scrutiny for his previous role in a plea deal for multimillionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

Education Secretary Betsy Devos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson have also faced public scrutiny, though that's died down recently.

Filling a vacancy

One thing that could complicate a shakeup is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that no Republican senators can be spared for Cabinet roles. When Jeff Sessions became Trump's attorney general, Republicans subsequently lost Sessions' old seat in the reliably red state of Alabama.

There are two acting secretaries in Trump's Cabinet. Andrew Wheeler has carried on in Pruitt's mold on the policy front at the EPA. While Trump has announced his intent to name Wheeler to the job permanently, he hasn't yet filed the necessary paperwork.

The situation for acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is more tenuous. The White House broke protocol to put him in the role, bypassing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It's unclear how extensively Whitaker was vetted, considering the amount of heat he has drawn over his ties to a patenting company shut down by the government this year over allegations of fraud. His days in the administration are numbered now that Trump has said he'll nominate Barr to the position.

In the game

There remains a core group of cabinet officials and top advisers whose jobs appear to be safe. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is among those closest to Trump, taking the lead on negotiations with North Korea and the response to the Jamal Khashoggi murder. National security adviser John Bolton, the third man to hold the job under Trump, has consolidated power since coming on board in March and has dictated much of the administration's hardline foreign policy. Bolton reports directly to the President.

Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is negotiating with China and enforcing Trump's tariffs while OMB Director Mick Mulvaney has been tasked with additional jobs like overseeing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And then there's Vice President Mike Pence, who has taken on a wide portfolio, including standing in for Trump on the campaign trail, while also projecting stalwart loyalty.

It's complicated

There's nothing to indicate that people like Defense Secretary James Mattis or Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are on their way out. But both men have not been afraid to make their differences with Trump known at times, Coats on the issue of Russian meddling and Mattis on issues like US troops at the border with Mexico.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is also not often discussed as a trouble spot for the President, but he hasn't exactly been the most forceful Cabinet secretary. Plus, he is the lone remaining Goldman Sachs alum (now that Gary Cohn is out) with free trade tendencies visible on the President's economic team. Mnuchin recommended Jay Powell to lead the Fed and Trump has said he now regrets the decision, given Powell's interest rate hikes.

Gina Haspel is the first woman to lead the CIA and Trump has not publicly split with her, but the CIA has clearly split with Trump on Khashoggi and her briefing for senators has helped fuel their momentum to penalize Saudi Arabia for the murder despite Trump's wishes.

Under Trump's radar

You don't hear quite as much about these Cabinet secretaries, either because their agencies are not at the top of national headlines or because they aren't pushing their way to the front.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has pleased Trump with the new drug pricing plan. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue helped placate aggravated farmers after tariffs and is overseeing billions in payments to help offset their difficulties.

While Carson was the subject of an early scandal over expensive furniture purchased for his office, the issue blew over and news around Carson is scarce these days.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been busy promoting nuclear power abroad, including in Saudi Arabia, and propping up the US coal industry. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is among the quietest of Trump's Cabinet secretaries. Mitch McConnell's influential wife is the keeper of the infrastructure plan Trump has long promised.

DeVos suffered some initial stumbles, but has remained out of the broader conversation, though she's come under fire from activists recently, particularly over her efforts to reform Title IX.

Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon is quietly running the SBA but may have higher aspirations, while Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has helped stabilize an agency in turmoil after the firing of former Sec. David Shulkin.

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