The media often uses the word “unprecedented” when describing Donald Trump’s cabinet selections, and for good reason. Trump’s cabinet is shaping up to be truly unprecedented, from his nominees’ remarkable lack of government experience to the influence of Trump’s family on his selections. Trump's unconventional approach to selecting cabinet members is similar to the way he campaigned for president: making one extreme choice after the next in a way that keeps the press and his critics from focusing on any one thing. For that reason, it’s important to focus on who in Trump’s prospective cabinet are the most unprecedented choices, with the power to do the most damage. Here are three of the most dangerous potential members of Trump’s cabinet.
ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State
The media has criticized Trump’s decision to nominate ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, but often with misplaced focus.
The most frequent knock against Tillerson is that, as the former head of an international oil company, he has cultivated a close friendship with Russian President (and possible covert Trump campaign operative) Vladimir Putin. In 2013 Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, the highest honor any non-citizen can receive in Russia. In the past Tillerson has also been openly critical of U.S. sanctions against Russia. At a time when U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russia secretly interfered with our election, it’s easy to see why many are unnerved by this pick for Secretary of State.
But even though Tillerson’s ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin are leagues beyond anything we’ve seen before, they aren’t the most frightening thing about Tillerson. As ExxonMobile CEO, he pursued policies that directly flew in the face of U.S. policy, sometimes to the detriment of the some of the world's poorest people.
For instance, during the mid-2000s the United States pulled out of an international agreement to help Chad extract its oil resources, after the country’s military dictator began using oil revenues to consolidate power and build Chad’s military. At the time Tillerson was President and Director of Exxon serving under CEO Lee Raymond. As journalist Steve Coll chronicles in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobile and American Power, Tillerson and Raymond’s ExxonMobile later brokered a separate deal with Chad’s military dictator and continued to fund the petro state's military expansion for years to come.
To be clear, the U.S. is no stranger to secretaries of state with ties to the oil industry and ExxonMobile in particular. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice—who once almost had a Chevron oil tanker named after her while she was still working in the Bush administration—now works for a consulting firm that counts Exxon as one of its clients. The law firm of former Secretary of State James Baker has represented not only ExxonMobile, but both Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies Rosneft and Gazprom (Unsurprisingly, both Rice and Baker have endorsed Trump’s selection of Tillerson).
But Tillerson’s relationship with ExxonMobile is bigger than the revolving door between Washington insiders and major business interests. In fact, Tillerson has never worked anywhere other than Exxon in his entire adult life.
The last time a former titan of industry became secretary of state was in 1982 when Ronald Reagan nominated George Schultz the head of the global civil engineering firm Bechtel Corp. to head the department. At the time Schultz signed an agreement that he would recuse himself from any decision involving Bechtel and agreed to put all of his Bechtel investments in a blind trust.
But Tillerson may not face the same incentives as other cabinet appointees to divest himself. Though cabinet appointees are required by law to avoid conflicts of interest by selling their stock, the law is murkier about unvested stock they are expected to receive in the future. As Fortune recently reported, the unique structure of Tillerson’s compensation at Exxon may encourage him maintain a sizeable interest in ExxonMobile for the next four years in order to avoid massive tax penalties on future income. And according to CNN, Trump can grant Tillerson a waiver for his conflicts of interest if he so chooses (which wouldn’t be surprising, given his record thus far on these matters). That means for the next four years America’s top diplomat could have a sizeable stake in a company whose annual revenues are bigger than the GDP of most countries.
Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for Attorney General
When Donald Trump first selected Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General, news organizations were quick to highlight his deeply troubling past. He was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in the ‘80s. He once reportedly joked that his only problem with the KKK was their alleged use of marijuana. He also reportedly called the NAACP “a commie group and a pinko organization.”
But amid this rehashing of his past, there was little time left over to discuss how Sessions was likely to change justice department policy. For instance, as Attorney General, Sessions will be in charge of prosecuting all federal hate crimes across the country. That’s a problem, because Sessions has shown open hostility toward hate crime laws in the past.
In 2009 Sessions was a vocal opponent of the Byrd-Sheppard Hate Crime Amendment which extended hate crime protections for race-based crimes and created new federal hate crime protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Sessions railed against the concept of hate crime protections, calling the measure unconstitutional and signaling a broader opposition to enforcing hate crime laws. Sessions will preside over a new era of post-Trump hate crimes and have the ultimate authority over when and where to prosecute. If he chooses to take a hands-off approach to prosecutions, that could embolden many of the hate groups who have been actively recruiting in the post-Trump era.
Sessions will also have total oversight over federal prosecutions under the Voting Rights Act. As a federal prosecutor, Sessions was openly hostile to voting rights, calling the VRA “intrusive” and aggressively charging a group of civil rights activists with so many counts of voter fraud they would have served 100 years in jail if convicted. In the end that group was acquitted after Sessions turned up only 14 ballots out of 1.7 million that appeared to be fraudulent.
As Fusion previously reported, a Sessions Justice Department could wreak havoc in the states where medical and recreational marijuana is legal simply by changing the Obama administration’s guidance on enforcement.
Sessions would also have some oversight of the 11 consent decrees that the Obama Justice Department has brought against law enforcement agencies across the country. Those consent decrees require local law enforcement in places like Ferguson, Missouri to make a number of reforms, things like implementing new “use-of-force” training and requiring body cameras on officers. Back in 2008 Sessions called consent decrees “dangerous” and “an end run around the democratic process.” While consent decrees are also enforced by the federal court system Sessions could effectively end the Justice Department’s role in monitoring those decrees, allowing some of the Obama-era police reform to die on the vine.
Even worse, some lawmakers and the media are already helping Sessions by describing his confirmation as a “done deal.” These voices consider Sessions to be a shoo-in for the position of Attorney General simply because of his time in the Senate. This conventional wisdom has cropped up everywhere, despite the fact that the only cabinet appointee in history to be rejected by the Senate, John Tower, was himself a former senator, and other former senators like South Dakota’s Tom Daschle have had to withdraw from the nomination process for lesser crimes, even when their own party controlled Congress.
Fast food CEO Andy Puzder for Secretary of Labor
The position of labor secretary is relatively under-the-radar; the labor department is only about one fifth the size of the attorney general’s office and has a much smaller operating budget. But it has immense powers in a time of rising income inequality, and the man Trump has tapped to run that department appears appears poised to use those powers in the worst ways possible.
Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the company that owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Junior. As a fast food CEO, he’s about as cartoonishly villainous as one can get. He opposes an increase to the minimum wage despite making more in a day than his lowest-paid employees do all year. He wants to replace minimum wage workers with machines on the grounds that machines are "always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case." He’s also defended his restaurants’ sexist burger ads by saying, "I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it's very American."
Meanwhile, in the post-financial crisis labor market, low wage work makes up more and more of available jobs. Throughout this change the Obama administration has used the DOL to implement a number of measures designed to protect workers, all of which could now be at risk.
One of the most important of those measures has been the Obama administration’s move to crack down on wage theft and making sure that existing minimum wage laws are vigorously enforced. Given Puzder’s hostility toward minimum wage increases and his erroneous contention that minimum wage jobs are primarily just for young people who don’t live on their wages, a future DOL may be inclined to look the other way at wage theft, resulting in smaller paychecks for working Americans.
The Obama administration’s DOL also implemented a new rule increasing the number of salaried workers eligible to receive overtime. Previously, employers only had to offer overtime pay to salaried workers who made less than $23,660 per year. That amount has been the same since the 1970s and has not been adjusted for inflation, even as nominal wages increased over time. The Obama administration changed the rule to include anyone making under $47,476—an increase that expanded overtime pay to 4.2 million people—but the rule change got held up in the courts.
Puzder has already made clear that he doesn’t believe certain employees should get overtime. He refused to pay managers at his own company overtime because he felt that treating management like wage workers would take away their “sense of ownership" and "prestige." If he becomes labor secretary, he could choose not to defend the rule in court.
Another Obama-era rule likely to go out the window in a Puzder DOL is the labor department’s crackdown on franchise businesses. Certain national chains like the ones Puzder ran at CKE have relied on the fact that their businesses are franchises to absolve themselves of certain responsibilities for protecting workers. CEOs of franchise model businesses, including Puzder himself, have argued that the franchisee, and not the corporation, should be held responsible for following DOL rules, absolving the national company of responsibility for the violations committed by local franchise owners.
Puzder will also be able to unilaterally make changes on things like job training programs, the way retirement accounts are handled, and a host of other issues that are important to working people. His nomination could undo nearly a decade of victories won by progressives and workers movements within the first week of a Trump administration.
All this is not to say that we shouldn’t also be tremendously worried about the damage that a Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson or an Energy Secretary Rick Perry could do. Nor should it be suggested that the work of protesting and pressuring cabinet picks ends after the nomination process. But if any of Trump’s choices are going to be stopped from the outset, there must be a clear understanding that these people are the most dangerous cabinet selections in modern history.