The Power of Appointment & Trump's Controversial Nominees

Students learn about and discuss the president's power to name leaders within the executive branch of government and consider two of president-elect Trump's most controversial appointments: Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and Steve Bannon for chief strategist and senior counselor.   

To the Teacher:

The power of U.S. presidents doesn’t just come from their speeches or their legislative initiatives. Presidents also have the power to appoint high government officials -- including the  Cabinet members who head fifteen federal departments.

This lesson consists of two readings designed to spur student discussion about the president’s power of appointment. The first reading looks broadly at the president's power to name leaders within the executive branch of government. The second reading looks more specifically at two of the most controversial appointments proposed by incoming President Donald Trump. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading 1:
The President's Power to Appoint

Many people think about the power of U.S. presidents in terms of their ability to give landmark speeches and set the agenda for the country. Or perhaps they think of the president's signature legislative initiatives—for example, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act or President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. However, a big part of the power of the Presidency, and a part that is often overlooked, is the power of appointment.

In addition to appointing White House staff, the president selects the heads of fifteen departments under executive authority. These departmental leaders serve in what is known as the president's Cabinet. The Cabinet members, in turn, are in charge of more than four million employees in the federal government. The ideology and political priorities of a senior administration official or Cabinet member can go far in shaping the priorities and functioning of the federal government’s bureaucracy.

In a December 7, 2016 article in Mic, reporter Eric Lutz described the historical role of the president’s Cabinet in setting U.S. policy:

The Cabinet, which was established in Article II, section two of the Constitution, dates back to George Washington's administration. Back then, it was a four-member council comprised of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Since that time, the Cabinet has grown, and its officials now have a hand in everything from the creation of the food stamp program to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Today, the Cabinet is comprised of the vice president and 15 department heads, as well as a handful of Cabinet-level positions, such as White House chief of staff.

Cabinet members not only have a hand in creating policy, they have a powerful role in determining how government will enforce laws and regulations. In a January 29, 2016, editorial for the New York Times, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren argued that presidential appointments can have far-reaching implications for the government:

Presidents don’t control most day-to-day [decisions about how to enforce laws and regulations], but they do nominate the heads of all the agencies, and these choices make all the difference. Strong leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Labor Department have pushed those agencies to forge ahead with powerful initiatives to protect the environment, consumers and workers. The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a tiny office charged with oversight of the post-crash bank bailout, has aggressive leaders — and a far better record of holding banks and executives accountable than its bigger counterparts.

Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission, suffering under weak leadership, is far behind on issuing congressionally mandated rules to avoid the next financial crisis. It has repeatedly granted waivers so that lawbreaking companies can continue to enjoy special privileges, while the Justice Department has dodged one opportunity after another to impose meaningful accountability on big corporations and their executives.

Each of these government divisions is headed by someone nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The lesson is clear: Personnel is policy.           

As reporter Robert A. Rankin explained in a December 1, 1996 article for the Baltimore Sun, Cabinet members often have a powerful role in determining the exercise of presidential power:

While low-profile Cabinet posts may appear to be fillable by interchangeable faceless functionaries, experience teaches that each Cabinet pick is important. Poor choices undermine presidencies. Good ones extend the president's reach throughout government and society...

"I think it's enormously important," said Martin Anderson, who organized Ronald Reagan's initial Cabinet selection in 1980. "Unless he puts people into those places who are competent, within a short time they will create policy messes that he'll spend all his time cleaning up."

Like any executive, a good Cabinet secretary must be able to manage a big bureaucracy - but experts say that's only the start. He or she must be both a leader and a loyal follower simultaneously, and for many executives, that's not so easy.

"These people must understand that the president got elected, the Cabinet secretary did not. These people are part of the president's team. That's a difficult role for a CEO to accept sometimes," said one former White House manager who asked not to be identified. "They see themselves as the head of the department, but the truth is they are guiding that department at the president's direction."

As with all incoming presidents, many people in the United States are watching president-elect Trump’s proposed cabinet appointments as a way of gathering information about what a Trump administration will look like, both in terms of policy and enforcement of those policies.

For Discussion

1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?

2. According to the reading, what is the president’s Cabinet and why is it significant?

3. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren has stated "personnel is policy." What does she mean by this statement? Do you agree with this idea?

4. Can you think of a department in the federal government that affects your life? (Examples might be the U.S. Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency.) How might presidential appointments to these departments result in noticeable changes in your school or neighborhood?



Reading 2:
Donald Trump's Controversial Cabinet Picks

For an incoming president, selecting members of the Cabinet and White House staff is a central part of establishing the new administration. Accordingly, since the election on November 8, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump has been meeting with the people he plans to nominate for various senior positions. Several of Trump's proposed nominees have generated significant criticism and public debate. Two potential nominees in particular, for attorney general and for White House adviser, have proven extremely controversial.

For the post of attorney general, Trump has indicated that he intends to appoint Senator Jeff Sessions, who previously served as the attorney general of Alabama. Sessions, an early Trump supporter, reportedly played a big role in shaping Trump’s policy proposals on immigration, counterterrorism and trade. As Associated Press reporters Eileen Sullivan and Chad Day wrote in a November 17, 2016, article, Trump’s nomination of Sessions has drawn criticism because of the senator’s history of racist comments:

Nominated for a federal judgeship in 1986, Sessions, R-Ala., was dogged by racist comments he was accused of making while serving as U.S. attorney in Alabama. He was said to have called a black assistant U.S. attorney "boy" and the NAACP "un-American" and "communist-inspired."...

"Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past," the late Massachusetts Democrat, Sen. Edward Kennedy, said during the 1986 confirmation hearing. "It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. attorney, let alone a U.S. federal judge."

During the hearing, a former assistant U.S. attorney, Thomas Figures, who is black, said Sessions referred to him as "boy," and told him to be careful what he said to "white folks." Sessions said he never called Figures "boy," but Kennedy produced a letter from an organization of black lawyers that said Figures made the allegation about Sessions to the organization's investigators at least twice.

Sessions told the committee that he told Figures to be careful what he said to "folks."

"I believe that the statements and actions of Mr. Sessions regarding race, and regarding civil rights, impact tremendously on whether he is decent," Figures told the committee. Figures died in 2015.

Sessions was also criticized for joking in the presence of an attorney with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that the Ku Klux Klan was "OK" until he learned they smoked marijuana. During his confirmation hearing, he said his comment about the Klan "was a silly comment, I guess you might say, that I made."

In the same article, journalists Sullivan and Day report that some Senators argue that Sessions is well qualified for the position of Attorney General and will therefore have their support:

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would support a Sessions nomination.

"I'd vote for him. I like Jeff. He was the early, only supporter for Donald Trump in the Senate," Graham said. "And I believe Jeff Sessions has earned the right to serve President Trump in the highest levels, and I think he's a good, competent, capable man."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would also support Sessions, spokesman Conn Carroll said. "Sen. Lee has worked closely with Sessions in the Senate and has the utmost respect for his abilities," Carroll said.

Jeff Sessions’ proposed appointment to Attorney General is not the only pending nomination by President-elect Trump that is generating controversy. Trump’s proposal to appoint Steve Bannon, head of far-right media outlet Breitbart News, as chief strategist and senior counselor at the White House has brought an outcry from critics. Writer and civil rights activist Shaun King argued in a November 28, 2016 article in the New York Daily News that Bannon’s racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism should disqualify him from a position at the White House. King lists the various ways Bannon has demonstrated his prejudices:

His ex-wife said he openly and repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements about Jews.

His hero, Andrew Breitbart, boldly compared him to a Nazi propagandist as a compliment.       

Bannon himself recently admitted that he built Breitbart into "the platform for the alt-right," which is little more than Neo-Nazism with a new name.

A former Bannon colleague, Julia Jones, who worked alongside him as a partner on a Ronald Reagan film project, revealed to the New York Times that he not only spoke on issues of "genetic superiority," but that he "once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners."        

When Jones offered the rebuttal that such a plan "would exclude a lot of African-Americans," Bannon allegedly quipped back in return that "maybe that’s not such a bad thing."

Countering these critics, Bannon’s defenders argue that presidents should be able to appoint whomever they prefer to serve as advisors. In their November, 15, 2016, New York Times journalists Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman, and Michael S. Schmidt detailed one defense of Bannon’s proposed appointment:

Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser [to Mr. Trump], defended Mr. Bannon in brief remarks to reporters in New York, describing him as the "general of this campaign" and saying that "people should look at the full résumé."

"He has got a Harvard business degree. He’s a naval officer. He has success in entertainment," Ms. Conway said, calling him a "brilliant tactician."

Ms. Conway denied that Mr. Bannon had a connection to right-wing nationalists or that he would bring those views to the White House. "I’m personally offended that you think I would manage a campaign where that would be one of the going philosophies," she said.

Despite such disavowals from the Trump camp, Bannon’s prospective appointment has drawn protest from groups including IfNotNow, a Jewish activist organization. Salon reporter Ben Norton described a protest of Bannon’s proposed appointment in a November 21, 2016 article:

Hundreds of people from the Jewish community gathered in New York City on Sunday night to protest the racism of the Donald Trump camp...

"I am outraged that a white supremacist, who has been at the helm of a news organization trafficking in racism, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish bigotry, will have a desk in the West Wing and the ear of the President," Sarah Lerman-Sinkoff, a member of IfNotNow, said in a statement about the protest.

Given such protests, scrutiny of Trump’s appointments is likely to continue as his administration commences.

For Discussion

1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?

2. According to the reading or other information you may have seen, what are some of the concerns about the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General? What are some of the arguments in support of his appointment?

3.  According to the reading or other information you may have seen, what are some of the concerns about the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor? What are some of the arguments in support of his appointment?

4.  What do you think? Should presidents be able to appoint anyone they want for these positions, or are there some actions that disqualify someone from being a suitable pick for a Cabinet member or presidential adviser?