The Best People

Trump's Cabinet and the Siege on Washington


By Alexander Nazaryan

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An engrossing look at the Trump cabinet: the scandals, the incompetence, the assault on the federal government, the bungled attempts to impose order on an administration lost in a chaos of its own making.

Donald Trump promised a return to national greatness, but each day of his presidency seems to bring a new crisis, a deepening sense of national unease. Why, and how, has he failed his supporters? And how has he, on occasion, bested his detractors?

The Best People takes complete measure of the Trump administration, to grasp with clarity the president and his intentions, and how those intentions are being carried out-or subverted-by the people he has hired.

Alexander Nazaryan argues that the “assault on the administrative state” promised by Steve Bannon in early 2017 never came. What the American people got instead was Wilbur Ross hauling his tennis pro to confirmation hearing preparations; Scott Pruitt running away from rattlesnakes; Reince Priebus enduring insults from junior White House staffers.

And yet, bungling as Trump’s cabinet members have been, they have managed to either damage or arrest many of the gears that make government run. They have given away public lands to oil companies and allowed corporate lobbyists to make decisions about what is best for the American people, and have done it all while flying on private jets and dining at the finest restaurants, at taxpayers’ expense.

Meticulously reported and enthrallingly told, The Best People takes readers inside the federal government under Trump’s control, a government assailed by the very people charged to lead it, a government awash in confusion and corruption.


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Prologue: "Get the hell out of here now"

The White House

He loved the job. He was very clear about that. He said it enough times that I started to entertain the notion that he was halfway serious. Certainly, that would be news to the pundits who said he'd rather be golfing in South Florida than trying to tame North Korea. And to the Democrats who figured that impeachment would be a favor, since he seemed as thrilled by his presidency as they were. It was not so, he said. "Those are just the haters and losers," explained President Donald J. Trump with that special Queens charm of his, when we met in the Oval Office to discuss the first two years of his administration. "I love it. I enjoy it."

But he didn't have to do it, see? He'd had options, had them still. "They offered me everything to not run and to do The Apprentice," he said later, referencing the television program that was at least partly responsible for the fact that Trump was now sitting where John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan once sat. "If you check the ratings on The Apprentice," he said some time after that, "through the roof. Big hit."

He was indignant, though this too bore a touch of his New York shtick, the elaborate act that was Trump. Not that the indignation was feigned. He didn't need to explain himself to this journalist he didn't know, for a book he would never read. "I'd be doing it right now," he said of The Apprentice, "but I like this better."

To show how much he loved the job, and to supply evidence of the many accomplishments that love had yielded, Trump summoned his executive assistant Madeleine Westerhout, asking her to bring him a list of his administration's achievements. "In the first two years, this administration has done more than any other administration in the history of our country," Trump said with typical immodesty as he sat beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Westerhout came into the Oval Office—where I was sitting with Trump, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway—setting some papers on the edge of the Resolute Desk, whose surface was otherwise almost complete bare. Trump examined the papers, then showed them to me. The glossy sheets were filled with what was obviously an East Asian script. Trump explained that this was a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with whom the president was about to hold a second summit in Vietnam.

"That's actually dated," the president said of the letter. "It's pretty amazing."

This wasn't the right evidence, but for him it was evidence all the same, in this case that he would make peace where others would stumble ineptly into nuclear cataclysm. "You would have been at war. If I didn't get elected, you'd be at war right now with North Korea," he told me. "If 'Crooked Hillary' were President right now, you'd be fighting. She would be sleeping and you would be fighting a war. She'd be upstairs sleeping, resting, to gain her strength for a two-hour day."

He still called her that, Crooked Hillary. The election was now more than two years ago and still he called her that. Because the election was not really over for him, would never be over. It was the victory beyond all victories, a triumph not only over Clinton but something much grander than that, as far as he and his supporters were concerned. The forces aligned against him on the morning of November 8, 2016, were no weaker as we sat talking in the Oval Office on February 19, 2019. If anything, they were stronger, precisely because he was in the Oval Office, despite predictions that he would not last a single full year as president.

Finally, the correct list was brought, three thick pages of bullet points titled "TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS." Those accomplishments included the creation of 5.3 million jobs and other broadly auspicious economic indicators. Some of those indicators had started trending upward during the Obama presidency, but that was neither here nor there (certainly, it wasn't on the list). There were other claims on the list, like the one about declining drug prices in 2018, that have been adjudicated to be untrue. Others, like withdrawal from the "job-killing" Paris climate accords and cancelling the "illegal" Clean Power Plan, may have been accomplishments to Trump's base. To many others, these were terrible mistakes.

He also boasted about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling, which he did by attaching a rider to the 2017 tax bill and in effect sneaking the measure through Congress. "Nobody could get it," Trump boasted. "I got it." And he did so despite "the environmental problems" being much worse than they had been in the past. Wait a fucking second: Had the president just admitted, however inadvertently, that global warming was real? It certainly seemed that way: one small step for mankind, one giant step for Donald Trump.

Trump knew that I was interested in his cabinet, in the men and women he had hired to execute his agenda. I had quite a bit of skepticism about that agenda, though there were parts of Trump's program—reviving manufacturing, improving infrastructure—that would have benefited all Americans, were he only able to make them reality. So far, they remained campaign promises, the stuff of political fiction.

Trump's cabinet had instead undertaken a program that vacillated between maliciousness and self-interest. Sometimes this was done with license from Trump, sometimes without. In either case, it often ran counter to the populism that had elevated Trump above his Republican competitors and then, in the general election, over Clinton.

For the best people, there was another list. The president consulted it. He liked what he saw.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: "has been fantastic."

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao: "has been great."

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta: "has been great."

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson: "has done a very good job."

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar: "fantastic."

Energy Secretary Rick Perry: "has been great."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue: "he's been great."

Attorney General William Barr: "will be…really outstanding."

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney: "People are liking him a lot. I think he's doing a good job. I'm very happy with him."

Trump did allow that there had been "some clinkers," by which he presumably meant people like Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt and HHS head Tom Price, both of whom left the administration in disgrace, as did several other of their colleagues.

"But that's okay," he said of hiring men and women who turned out to be less than they seemed and less than he'd hoped. "Who doesn't?" True enough. But there's a difference between a clinker and a thief, a man who is no good at his job and a man who sets out to do that job poorly. The total number of investigations into unethical or improper conduct by members of the Trump cabinet easily tops fifty. Clinkers don't usually require so much scrutiny.

"It's very difficult for people," Trump said, as if feeling the need to apologize for some of the people who work or once worked for him (not that the president ever actually apologizes). "Some people can't take it. As much as they want to, they can't take it." Conversely, some thought that Trump's people have done rather too much taking it, not nearly enough giving of the kind public service usually demands.

For the most part, Trump stayed in salesman's mode during our conversation. He is always selling, even if we have already bought—however reluctantly and regretfully—the thing he has been hawking, even if it is obviously improbable that he believes a pompous grifter like Ben Carson will help return the nation to greatness. 

"There are those that say we have one of the finest cabinets," Trump claimed. That is not a commonly held view. In fact, I can't think of anyone even halfway credible who has said anything approaching that. Even some of Trump's most ardent supporters have expressed dismay at the people he has hired, which is why it fell to Fox News prime time anchor Laura Ingraham to push Trump to fire Pruitt. And as much as his detractors despise Trump, they despise the people he has brought into his administration even more.

"They're really talented people," Trump said, but he did not seem to believe it. He later did acknowledge that "some of them got burned out." That seemed closer to the truth, if not quite all the way there.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. During the presidential campaign, Trump had promised to hire people utterly free of self-interest, people fully committed to his populist agenda. People for whom self-dealing and personal enrichment would be utterly anathema because they were so utterly committed to carrying out the populist vision of Trump and his campaign manager Steve Bannon.

Trump admitted that, during the presidential transition, he allowed himself to be influenced by outside groups, whether the Heritage Foundation or energy magnate Robert E. Murray. "I wouldn't say that I agreed with all of the people," he told me, "but I let them make their decision. In some cases, I was right." As for the other cases? Well, he left that unsaid.

Once he got into office, Trump quickly signed a stern ethics order that seemed to close the notorious revolving door that allowed people to move freely between working for the federal government and lobbying the federal government on behalf of private interests. But he just as quickly granted waivers that allowed political appointees to violate the rules that Trump had just put in place. Promising to drain the swamp, he merely stirred its murky surface.

When I confronted him with this fact, Trump bristled. "We need certain people to run the country well, at the top level," he argued. "We have granted waivers. How often do we grant waivers? Have you seen? Not too much, right?" At the same time, he seemed clearly discomfited by the fact that where Trump saw a political movement, others saw nothing but a means for profit. He did not know, for example, that Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary he had fired the previous December, had joined Turnberry Solutions, a Capitol Hill lobbying firm started by Corey Lewandowski, Trump's first campaign manager.

"I didn't know that Zinke…" Trump began.

In fact, Trump didn't know at all about the existence of Turnberry Solutions. "That's an interesting name," he said sharply. The name was interesting because Turnberry was also the name of a Trump-owned golf course in Scotland. Nobody who wanted to exert influence in Washington would have missed the association. "That's amazing," the president said, though his amazement was plainly not of the happy variety.

Trump tried to rationalize how Zinke becoming a lobbyist did not fly in the face of the promises he had made as a candidate. "I guess you can't stop people from going out and doing what they do," the president said. "In some cases, they've been here from day one, when people said I didn't have much of a chance. Then they work for years. Then all of a sudden they're in a position where people are calling them because they think they're geniuses and they want them to work for them. That's been going on from George Washington until the present, let's face it. That's what happens."

Zinke wasn't the only one. Five days before we spoke, ProPublica had found that there were 33 former Trump administration officials who were either lobbying the federal government or were more or less doing the work of a lobbyist without actually registering as such. And it was true that lobbying was as old as the republic itself, but had not Trump's promise been that his administration would be unlike any other? He wanted to claim that he was exceptional, except for those instances when it suited him to claim that he was just like his predecessors.

There was also the matter of more than one hundred key administration positions that remained unfilled. These needed Senate confirmation, and though some nominees have withdrawn, many of those positions never had a nominee in the first place, allowing some agencies and departmental offices to languish like unwatered plants.

Trump contradicted this, unsurprisingly. "I have 10 people for every job," he added. "The hard part is choosing, because I have great people."

Everything was great in Trumpland, especially Trump himself. America was great again, as were its constituent parts: "the hottest economy ever," "a lot of great trade," a "great relationship" with Kim of North Korea, "great success" in fighting the Islamic State stemming from Trump's visit to Iraq. "I think I'm doing great service for the country," Trump said. There was the matter of "the Russian bullshit witch hunt," but as Trump said, "I think we're doing nicely on that one, too." He did not explain what was nice about the way he had handled the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who some thought was going to bring down the Trump administration.

Then it was time to go. Trump complained about the books that had been written about him, which he said were uniformly unfair, though he also did not appear to have read any of them. He called Michael Wolff "a dopey guy," referring to the journalist's book as "Sound and Fury," apparently conflating Wolff's book, Fire and Fury, with a William Faulkner novel.

Trump also became upset at senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who was sitting in on the meeting, for apparently keeping Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward from interviewing the president for his own book, Fear, which was also critical of Trump. "Kellyanne didn't tell me he asked ten times for a meeting. I wish she did," he said bitterly of Conway. "I'm sure it would have been a little bit of a different book." This obviously bothered him. "You should have told me," he went on. "Honestly, you should have told me."

Conway just sat there, taking it as she has doubtlessly taken it from the boss many times before. You couldn't last in this administration unless you were willing to take it daily, take it with a smile and a "yessir," take it even while knowing that much of the country loathed you, considered you complicit in one of the great political crimes in American history. And you would take it in this way that Conway was taking it now only if you truly believed in the man who was giving it, in his vision for the country. Unless, of course, there was something in it for you. There was that, too, sometimes.

It was now late afternoon, a winter dusk descending on Washington. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress were debating Trump's declaration of an emergency at the border with Mexico, and outside the gates of the White House, protesters were denouncing the same, mingling with religious pamphleteers and tourists in Make America Great Again hats. On any given day, you could stand out on Pennsylvania Avenue and watch the gorgeous squalor that was American democracy at work. If you stood there long enough, you might be converted into a Jehovah's Witness, or a member of the anti-Trump resistance, but would you be any closer to understanding what all of it meant, what any of it meant?

These were questions for another time. I rose to go.

"Get the hell out of here, now," the president told me. "All right. Good. Have a good time."

Preface: The End
of Something

What a happy night it was supposed to be for the people who gathered at the mansion in Massachusetts Avenue Heights on November 8, 2016. They were immensely accomplished, and they had gathered to celebrate the handing-over of the federal government to people just as accomplished as they, people who harbored the same convictions, people who were colleagues and friends, people who were going to serve President Clinton as ably as the men and women now congregating at the elegant Georgian manor in Northwest Washington had served President Obama.

Few suspected they were about to witness the end of something, and the beginning of something else, something they could have scarcely imagined only hours before. That the night would attain a mythic quality, that people would talk about where they were the way an earlier generation remembered the precise details of learning that Kennedy had been shot.

That day in November had transformed the nation. And so would this one.

The Trump people knew, or so they would later claim. Speaking almost exactly two years after the election, someone who had been with Trump from the very start said he awoke that Tuesday without any doubt about who the victor would be. He said he'd known as far back as August 2015, when Trump held a rally in Mobile, Alabama. The campaign initially estimated that a couple thousand might show. Instead, they got thirty thousand.

As for the polls? The Trump veteran took the suggestion with something like disgust. Fuck the polls. That was precisely what the establishment had never understood, what the prattling pundits on cable news failed to grasp. This was never about the polls.

Relatively early in the evening, a few White House staffers decided to leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and troop up to the party in Massachusetts Avenue Heights, a small neighborhood of large homes sitting beneath the three soaring towers of the National Cathedral.

The host of this affair was Penny S. Pritzker, the commerce secretary. Pritzker was not an ordinary government official: Ordinary government officials, even high-ranking ones, did not buy 1929 mansions for $7.95 million. A member of the Chicago family that founded the hotel company Hyatt, she had gone to Stanford and Harvard, becoming an accomplished entrepreneur in her own right. In 2008, she served as Obama's campaign finance chair. By the time he selected her as his commerce secretary in the summer of 2013, she was worth close to $2 billion.

Obama staffers—young, well educated, diverse—were known to like a party, and they had enlivened a city that had grown dull during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The party at Penny Pritzker's house was not, however, a beer-fueled affair of the kind one might have found that evening in an Adams Morgan row house. This was instead a sumptuous, catered evening, with a buffet dinner and large-screen televisions set up in every room to show the results of the presidential election.

Several top Obama administration officials were present: Susan E. Rice, the national security advisor who had struggled to formulate the administration's response to the killing of four Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya; Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, who had continued the work of his predecessor Timothy F. Geithner in keeping the nation from backsliding into financial calamity; Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, one of several cabinet members to advance the administration's focus on global warming; W. Neil Eggleston, a veteran of Democratic politics who was finishing a term as White House counsel; Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative, who'd recently helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The men and women who had come to mark the night with Pritzker, in other words, were custodians of the order Obama had ushered in. That order was not always popular, even among some liberal Democrats, but it was based on empirical observations conducted by people who were certain that reason and data would triumph over feeling and fear. Among these officials, there was little argument: The future was going to be neoliberal, technocratic, inclusive, and diverse. The GOP was dying, the conservative movement stuck in a rut roughly corresponding to the length of the George W. Bush administration. All this was obvious, at least to the columnists and commentators who repeated it incessantly in late October and early November, in the days leading up to the presidential election.

The several people who came from the White House reported that Obama was upbeat about the prospects for Clinton, whom he defeated in 2008 and endorsed in 2016. Later, he would voice public complaint about how Clinton ran her campaign, which employed data scientists who could tailor an appeal precisely to one Cleveland suburb or another, a campaign that could summon Jay-Z or Bruce Springsteen to headline rallies. But the Clinton campaign's impressive mechanics disguised the fact that this was a machine. It lacked heart. It knew everything about the voters in suburban Cleveland, but it could not tell those voters a story they wanted or needed to hear.

None of this was apparent yet, in the early evening of November 8, or at least not as apparent as it would become in the days and months to come.

The first signs of trouble came around 10:39 p.m., when Ohio was called for Trump. It wasn't close, either, with Trump up by nearly nine percentage points. "It is remarkable, what we're seeing here," Jake Tapper said on CNN. Tapper observed that in the reliably Democratic suburbs of Philadelphia where he had been raised, the margins for Clinton were also not as high as they should have been. Something was amiss.

And there it was, the thing they feared, now upon them. Florida went to Trump, as did North Carolina. Michigan should not have gone, but there it went, right along with Pennsylvania. At 2:30 a.m., Trump won Wisconsin. It was all over but the shouting. And there would be plenty of shouting to come.

At Penny Pritzker's house in Washington, a few senior commerce officials gathered in a room once it was clear that Trump was going to win. These officials routinely made decisions of consequence, and there would be time later to wonder if some of those decisions had led to the night's result. For now, one question haunted them, demanding an immediate answer: "What do we say to our career professionals the next day?"

Only the upper ranks of the federal government were filled by political appointees. Of approximately two million jobs in the federal government, only four thousand were appointed positions. Most "politicals," as they were known in Washington, expected to be out of a job when a new president came into office, even if that president was of the same party as her predecessor. Experts in their fields who had enjoyed at least some proximity to state power, they were likely to find easy work on Wall Street or K Street. Some got teaching jobs. A few got book deals. Most would be fine.

For career employees of the federal government, Trump's victory was ominous not just politically but professionally. Often depicted as gray pixels in a featureless bureaucracy, these employees included paleontologists working for the Department of the Interior, civil rights lawyers at the Department of Education, financial investigators at the Department of the Treasury unraveling transnational money-laundering schemes. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump had explicitly and implicitly threatened their jobs, suggesting that he might get rid of certain agencies altogether. He had showed open contempt for government work, for government workers, and for the notion of government itself. He was coming not to save Washington, but to destroy it.

The Best People

They were the best people, the finest in the land, tasked with returning the nation to greatness. It was June 2017, and for the first time, they sat in a room together, the principals around a table, some others in chairs along the walls. And at center table sat the man who brought them together, the general who had recruited this elite unit, the man who had introduced the very idea that the nation had fallen from greatness and needed him to return it to glory, the forty-fifth president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

By and large, these best people were also new people as far as the public sector was concerned. In this, they were just like the man who selected them and who himself had performed no public service until taking the oath of the presidency five months before. There was the producer of films that included Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. There was a former Navy SEAL who tried to take credit for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. There was also, in that crowded room, a former second baseman for the University of Kentucky baseball team. Soon, he would be the target of a dozen investigations into his penchant for first-class flights, top-notch restaurants, and other benefits not generally available to government bureaucrats, or to middling second basemen.

But these were not regular government bureaucrats, as the confirmation hearings of the previous winter had made so vividly clear. There was a fundamentalist from Michigan who, during her Senate hearing, warned about "potential grizzlies" when asked about arming school staff. There was a former U.S. senator from Alabama who had been deemed too extreme for the federal bench during the Reagan administration. Now, he was the top law enforcement officer in the land, even as he struggled to say just how many times he had met with the Russian ambassador when he was Trump's campaign surrogate, or why he needed to meet with the Russian ambassador at all.

In the chairs along the wall sat other members of the retinue Trump had assembled to serve as his White House advisers. There was the potentially sociopathic former contestant from The Apprentice, and there was the right-wing media impresario who owned enough of the Seinfeld back catalog to have become very rich, who had a thing for obscure philosophers, and who did not like to wear ties, which men in the White House were expected to do. Then again, this was going to be a White House outside the bounds of the expected and not just when it came to neckwear.


  • "An essential exposé of the first two years of the Trump administration.... the first to fully capture just how dysfunctional - and destructive - Trump's executive branch has turned out to be."—The Washington Post
  • "Alexander Nazaryan offers a field guide to the black lagoon of Trumpworld."
    The Guardian
  • "[The] most authoritative look at the Trump cabinet, period."—AOL Build
  • "A fascinating read."—Charlie Sykes, "The Bulwark" podcast
  • "Nazaryan shows clearly how Donald Trump, with his 'intentionally nonlinear presidency,' established a Cabinet consisting of crucially inexperienced individuals in public service, each remarkably unqualified to assume key pivotal decision-making roles in politics ... Nazaryan provides glaring examples of the rampant conflicts of interests and ethical red flags... A fresh spin on a dire situation .... A dizzying, tragicomic crash course in contemporary political incapacities."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Jun 18, 2019
Page Count
304 pages
Hachette Books

Alexander Nazaryan

About the Author

Alexander Nazaryan is the Washington National Affairs correspondent for Yahoo. A former Newsweek staff writer, Nazaryan has written on politics, books and culture for the New York Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the New Criterion, Salon, and many other publications.

Learn more about this author