Trump’s original cabinet: A rogue’s gallery from Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner to Kellyanne Conway

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Joe Sommerlad
·11 min read
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 (Picture: Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)
(Picture: Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

As the reign of Donald Trump draws to an ignominious close, with the president making history as the first commander-in-chief to be impeached twice following his incitement to attempted insurrection at the US Capitol, it’s an opportune moment to look back at the people he originally chose to join him on the rollercoaster ride to disgrace.

Trump’s administration was always expected to have a high staff turnover rate if 14 seasons of The Apprentice was anything to go by, but the president has truly outdone himself with his rate of dismissing cabinet members.

With even loyal vice president Mike Pence now estranged for refusing to overturn the results of a free and fair democratic election at his behest, how did the rest of the original rogue’s gallery fare?

Reince Priebus, chief of staff

Trump with PriebusReuters
Trump with PriebusReuters

Chairman of the Republican National Committee before (wrongly) assuming it would be possible to bring order to Donald Trump’s universe, Priebus survived only six months in the role and was memorably described as “a f***ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac” by the even-shorter-lived Anthony Scaramucci, who accused him of leaking stories to reporters.

Steve Bannon, chief strategist

Bannon, the notorious former editor of Breitbart News, was also disparaged by the Mooch on the same New Yorker call that got him fired. He was guilty of “trying to build his own brand off the f***ing strength of the president,” in the opinion of the spokesman. A self-styled disrupter, it was Bannon who advised Trump to denounce violence “on both sides” at Charlottesville in August 2017, the backlash to which saw him leave the White House and reinvent himself as a podcaster. Relations with the president subsequently worsened when he was quoted as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick” in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury.

Jared Kushner, senior adviser

Jared Kushner with his father-in-law AFP/Getty
Jared Kushner with his father-in-law AFP/Getty

The president’s son-in-law - like himself, the son of New York realty royalty - made himself busy in the Trump White House and raised major security concerns by apparently carrying out foreign policy discussions on WhatsApp. One of the few survivors to the bitter end, Kushner was given the decidedly tricky task of bringing peace to the Middle East but was confident he was the man for the job because he had read a whopping 25 books on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor

Never afraid to go out before the cameras and defend the president, Conway will go down in history for coining the Orwellian phrase “alternative facts” to describe Trump’s duel with reality over the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration. She might also be remembered for sitting barefoot on the couch in the Oval Office, or for catching Covid at Amy Coney Barrett’s Rose Garden reception.

Sean Spicer, press secretary

Sean Spicer taking questionsGetty
Sean Spicer taking questionsGetty

The man with the most thankless task in American politics, Spicer set the tone for the Trump administration by attacking the White House press pool over its reporting of the dismal attendance at the president’s inauguration. Other gaffes at the lectern followed before he was succeeded by the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham and Kayleigh McEnany and found a new lease of life as a Newsmax host and Dancing with the Stars contestant.

Rex Tillerson, secretary of state

A good old-fashioned Texas oilman, Tillerson had been the CEO of ExxonMobil for 11 years before agreeing to serve under Trump. He was supposed to be the perfect choice to deal with rival superpowers like Russia and China because of his experience at the negotiating table. In practice, he swiftly became exasperated by the president’s refusal to read briefing documents, brinkmanship with North Korea and general belligerence, allegedly branding Trump “a f***ing moron” after he had berated a roomful of Pentagon generals.

Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary

Steve MnuchinAP
Steve MnuchinAP

Given Trump’s preoccupation with delivering a strong economy - a strategy that was ticking along nicely until the pandemic struck - Mnuchin has shown extraordinary resilience to hang on in there to the close. Previously an investment banker and executive producer on Hollywood blockbusters like The Lego Movie, Edge of Tomorrow and Suicide Squad, Mnuchin made for a stolid, unshowy presence in Washington. The same could not be said for his wife, Louise Linton, an Instagram fashionista who provoked distaste by posing in leather gloves holding a sheet of bank notes bearing her husband’s signature.

James Mattis, defence secretary

Trump reportedly hired the retired US Marine Corps four-star general because he liked his tough guy nickname, “Mad Dog”. Mattis though disagreed with the president on withdrawing US troops from “forever wars” in Syria and Afghanistan without first ensuring a safe transition, fearing the power vacuum that would be left behind in the absence of peacekeeping forces. Having talked Trump out of having Bashar al-Assad assassinated, the general resigned over the Syria question in December 2018 and subsequently became a critic of the administration over its handling of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing last summer, calling Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people - does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”

Michael Flynn, national security adviser

Michael FlynnGetty
Michael FlynnGetty

Another former general, Flynn became the first Apprentice-style firing of the Trump tenure on 13 February 2017 when he admitted to lying to vice president Mike Pence and the FBI regarding conservations he had held with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, his 23-day tenure the shortest in the history of the office. HR McMaster, John Bolton and Robert O’Brien would follow in his stead. Flynn was last seen being represented by “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell, getting himself pardoned by the president and advocating implementing martial law to overturn the election result in swing states on Newsmax.

Jeff Sessions, attorney general

Alabama native Jefferson Beauregard Sessions infuriated the president by recusing himself from the Russia investigation and was never forgiven, Trump privately and publicly berating him until his exit in November 2018. The vindictiveness continued when Sessions attempted to run for the Senate in 2020 and the president campaigned for his Republican competitor, ex-college football coach Tommy Tuberville, who won.

Don McGahn, White House counsel

One of the most frequently cited characters in the Mueller Report and the man who seemingly talked the president out of dismissing the special counsel responsible for investigating his campaign, McGahn could have made Trump’s first impeachment even more uncomfortable but declined to testify before the Democratic-led House of Representatives. He left his post in October 2018.

John Kelly, homeland security secretary

Trump and John KellyAP
Trump and John KellyAP

Better remembered for succeeding Priebus as Trump’s chief of staff in July 2017 before giving up in disgust, Kelly was succeeded at homeland security by Kirstjen Nielsen, who became the face of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies in his place. Kelly said recently that, had he still been in the cabinet, he would have backed the president’s removal by invocation of the 25th Amendment following the storming of the US Capitol.

Mike Pompeo, CIA director

Like Kelly, a man more notable for his subsequent role than his first. Since the former Kansas congressman succeeded Tillerson as secretary of state, he has become a MAGA die-hard, even making the shocking proclamation that there would be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” when asked about November’s election outcome. A passionate ally of Israel and Saudi Arabia, who disputed the CIA’s own verdict that the latter was to blame for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Pompeo has positioned himself as a strongman on the world stage, partial to baiting China, but was last heard from cancelling a European tour because no diplomat wanted to meet with him. Expect a run for the presidency in 2024 centered on an appeal to the country’s Christian heartland.

Betsy DeVos, education secretary

Betsy DevosGetty
Betsy DevosGetty

The wealthiest member of Trump’s cabinet, DeVos also (almost) made it to the end of the president’s first-and-only term - despite criticism over her competence - largely due to her employer’s apparent near-total lack of interest in her field. No scholar himself, Trump was accused of paying a brighter student to take his college entrance exam for him in 1964 so education was never likely to be a priority. DeVos tendered her resignation following the Capitol riot, writing to the president: “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation.”

Elaine Chao, transport secretary

The daughter of a Taiwanese shipping magnate, Chao served the same department under both Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. She is also married to the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, which must have caught Trump’s eye as he skim-read her CV. Some light conflict of interest flashpoints aside, Chao, like DeVos, kept her head down for much of the presidency before handing in her notice in response to the events of 6 January 2021, which, cynics were quick to point out, meant that neither had to cast a vote on invoking the 25th.

Ben Carson, housing secretary

Ben Carson and Trump as rivals in 2016Getty
Ben Carson and Trump as rivals in 2016Getty

A former rival for the Republican nomination, Carson was inexplicably placed in charge of housing despite being a surgeon by trade but stayed the course. Although he did catch coronavirus along the way. Physician, heal thyself.

Rick Perry, energy secretary

Like Carson, the former Texas governor had run against Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016. His appointment as energy secretary failed to inspire confidence among environmentalists given that he had called for the department’s abolition in 2012, although he did at least accept global warming as a fact. Perry attended the inauguration of Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukraine’s new president in May 2019, seemingly in pursuit of drilling access on behalf of American interests. When his name began to crop up in the House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s “perfect” call with Zelenksy, Perry announced his resignation.

Ryan Zinke, interior secretary

The Montanan ex-Navy SEAL’s tenure in office lasted until January 2019 and was defined by opening up more federal lands for oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction - a disaster for the environment - and ethics questions about his costly business trips. He was replaced by natural resources lobbyist David Bernhardt, whose confirmation hearings were protested by two women in Creature from the Black Lagoon masks.

Sonny Perdue, agriculture secretary

The former Georgia governor was another low-key Trump appointee, most prominently called upon to sooth Midwestern farmers’ anxieties about the knock-on effects of the president’s heated trade war with China on demand for their pork and soybean exports. He is also the first cousin of David Perdue, recently defeated by young Democrat Jon Ossoff in their state’s Senate runoff.

Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary

Wilbur RossEPA
Wilbur RossEPA

Over the course of a long career in business, Ross was known as “the King of Bankruptcy”, so-called for his practice of acquiring failing industrial firms, stripping and restructuring them and selling them on for a profit once they were ship-shape again. In Washington, this ghoulish character is best remembered not for his sage pronouncements on the economy but for threatening to fire the weathermen who corrected Trump’s tweet wrongly warning that Hurricane Dorian was zeroing in on Alabama during “Sharpiegate”.

Alex Acosta, labour secretary

A man more famous for his dismissal than his legacy in the role, Acosta was forced to resign in July 2019 following the arrest of billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, which cast new light on the secretary’s previous life as a Florida attorney. In 2008, Acosta had agreed a plea deal with Epstein that saw him escape federal prosecution. Acosta was replaced in government by Eugene Scalia, son of a Supreme Court justice, but questions over President Trump’s own friendship with Epstein, who he once hailed as a “terrific guy”, would not go away so quietly.

Tom Price, health secretary

Price was forced to resign over controversy regarding his use of official planes to accommodate a bustling travel schedule. He did at least avoid having to answer for Covid-19, which left his successor, Alex Azar, sidelined as Mike Pence chaired the Coronavirus Task Force and Trump suggested citizens inject themselves with household bleach to fend off the virus.

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN

Nikki HaleyGetty
Nikki HaleyGetty

Previously governor of South Carolina, Haley initially cut an independent figure on the world stage, saying a ban on Muslims emigrating to the United States would be “un-American” and calling out human rights abuses in Chechnya, Syria and China. Since leaving the post in December 2018, however, she has written a book, rebranded herself as a Trump apologist and looks likely to run for the presidency herself in 2024.

Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator

Oklahoma’s former attorney general joins Zinke and Price on the list of Trump appointees forced to answer awkward questions about their ethics in office, with no fewer than 14 separate investigations into Pruitt’s affairs underway as of July 2018 - one of which flagged his “extreme secrecy” - at which point he left and was replaced by Andrew Wheeler.