Dec 7, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain — Exclusive: How Trump would build his loyalty-first Cabinet

Clockwise from top left: Stephen Miller, Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; Steve Bannon, Mike Davis, Tucker Carlson and Kash Patel. Photos: Giorgio Viera/AFP, Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg, Brandon Bell, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Former President Trump, if elected, would build a Cabinet and White House staff based mainly on two imperatives: pre-vetted loyalty to him and a commitment to stretch legal and governance boundaries, sources who talk often with the leading GOP presidential candidate tell Axios.

Why it matters: Trump would fill the most powerful jobs in government with men like Stephen Miller, Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Kash Patel — with the possible return of Steve Bannon. If Trump won in 2024, he'd turn to loyalists who share his zeal to punish critics, purge non-believers, and take controversial legal and military action, the sources tell us.

Trump and his prospective top officials don't mince words about their plans:

What's happening: Trump hasn't settled on specific roles for specific figures, and hates it when his staff and friends speculate otherwise. It's not in his DNA to do detailed personnel planning, and a lot depends on the last few people he's talked to.

  • But in rolling conversations with friends and advisers, he's been clear about the type of men — and they're almost all older, white men — he'd want to serve at his pleasure if he were to win a second term.

Between the lines: We wrote last month about the multimillion-dollar effort to vet loyalists for up to 50,000 lower-level government jobs in a Trump administration. This is about their potential bosses.

  • It's unclear who would land where, but make no mistake: These are specific prototypes of Trump Republicans who would run his government. This is very different from the early days of his first term, when he was restrained by more conventional officials, from John Kelly to James Mattis to Gary Cohn.
  • This time, it'd be all loyalists, no restraints. 

Here's our latest intelligence on what's being discussed among Trump and a small group of confidants:

Vice president: Trump talks openly to friends about several possibilities for running mate. Table stakes for these candidates is proving you believe the 2020 election was stolen and that former Vice President Mike Pence wimped out by allowing its certification.

  • Those who'd be considered include J.D. Vance, the "Hillbilly Elegy" author and a MAGA favorite; Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Kari Lake, a leading election denier now running for U.S. Senate in Arizona, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. (Vance might prefer to remain in the Senate as "Trump's hammer," we're told.)
  • Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), one of the few Black Republicans in Congress, has traveled with Trump on the campaign and would love to be V.P. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who lost her House committee assignments because she pushed baseless conspiracy theories, also gets mentioned.
  • But here's an interesting twist: Melania Trump is an advocate for picking Tucker Carlson, the booted Fox News star. She thinks Carlson would make a powerful onstage extension of her husband, a source close to Trump told us. The former first lady has made few campaign appearances this time around — but a Trump-Carlson ticket might encourage her to hit the trail.
  • Trump, asked last month about Carlson as a potential V.P., said: "I like Tucker a lot. ... He's got great common sense."
  • The idea of Tucker Carlson has been discounted by many people close to Trump because they assume he'd never pick someone who could outshine him. And Trump's staff is convinced (correctly) that Carlson can't be controlled. But the two men talk a lot.

Others likely to wield power in a second Trump term share a lot in common with Carlson. They're full, proud MAGA warriors, anti-GOP establishment zealots, and eager and willing to test the boundaries of executive power to get Trump's way. They include:

Stephen Miller: He could be your next attorney general and, if not that, get a Cabinet-level role to greatly influence immigration policy.

  • He was the architect of Trump's most controversial immigration plans in the first term — including family separation — and has written and spoken extensively about unprecedented plans to detain, purge and punish undocumented immigrants if put back in charge. He's eager to test the boundaries of what courts and the military can do to make this happen fast.
  • Miller currently heads a nonprofit dedicated to suing the Biden administration and promoting "America First" causes, and has been leading efforts to recruit an army of right-wing lawyers to staff a MAGA-dominated executive branch.
  • Carlson told Axios that Miller would be his first choice to lead the Justice Department: "He's a serious person and he understands how the system works."

Mike Davis: Donald Trump Jr. has floated Davis, the former chief counsel for nominations to then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), to be Trump's interim attorney general — saying it would be a "shot across the bow of the swamp."

  • In his public auditions for the job, the bombastic Davis has promised a "three-week reign of terror" in which he would "put kids in cages" and jail prosecutors and journalists who have gone after Trump — even telling MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan that he has "his spot picked out in the D.C. gulag."
  • A source close to the Trump campaign told us A.G. is the office where Trump is "most likely to make a shocking pick," with the defiant view: "You want to weaponize DOJ, mother----er?'"

Steve Bannon: In the early days of Trump's first term, he was arguably the most powerful man on staff, plotting personnel and policy decisions from his Capitol Hill townhouse. Then, he was ousted and frozen out. Now, thanks to his popular podcast and pro-Trump fervency, he's back.

  • He could be the next White House chief of staff, an idea Carlson and a few others are pushing hard with the former president.
  • Carlson tells Axios that Bannon would diligently implement promises after Trump lost interest. "Steve believes: If you said we're building a wall, we're building a wall," Carlson said.
  • Bannon — who is appealing a contempt of Congress conviction — has proud authoritarian beliefs and sees everything as an existential war between good (Trump) and evil (Democrats, establishment Republicans, the media).

Kash Patel: A protege of former Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who led efforts to discredit the Russia investigation, Patel came to be viewed as a political mercenary in Trump's war against the intelligence community. The former Pentagon official would be considered for a top national security job in the next administration, possibly even running the CIA or NSC.

  • In 2021, Patel authored an illustrated children's book about the Russia investigation in which "King Donald" is a character persecuted by "Hillary Queenton and her shifty knight."
  • Trump took a shine to Patel in his first term but was talked out of making him a deputy director of the FBI or CIA by senior officials — including former Attorney General Bill Barr, who wrote in his memoir that it would happen "over my dead body."
    • Former CIA director Gina Haspel threatened to resign over a plan to install Patel as her deputy in the final weeks of Trump's presidency, when he became convinced the intelligence community possessed documents that could damage his political enemies.
  • Steve Bannon said this week on his "War Room" podcast that Patel would "probably" be CIA director in a second term.
  • Patel told Bannon: "One thing we learned in the Trump administration the first go-round is we've got to put in all of our compatriots from top to bottom. And we've got them for law enforcement ... [Defense Department], CIA, everywhere. ... Yes, we're going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens."
  • To avoid a confirmation battle, Patel also might have a National Security Council role where he could do special projects for Trump — or even be national security adviser.

Johnny McEntee, Trump's loyalty vetter and enforcer, headed presidential personnel in the first term. McEntee might return to that role with even more power. He also could be Trump's gatekeeper as head of Oval Office operations, or could be Cabinet secretary, riding herd on the White House liaisons to each department.

  • A former colleague described McEntee to us as "Trump's utility player — a guaranteed loyal ally, wherever you place him, who'd make sure the Trump agenda was being implemented."
  • The 33-year-old former UConn quarterback was empowered by the end of Trump's term in a way his predecessors never were — tasked with systematically purging officials deemed insufficiently loyal and making significant staffing changes without the consent of agency heads.
  • By late 2020, McEntee had explicit lists of top officials to fire and hire in a Trump second term, reaching far down the federal bureaucracy in a mission to truly "clean out" the "Deep State." That project has continued outside of government with a $22 million presidential transition project led by the Heritage Foundation.
  • "The president's plan should be to fundamentally reorient the federal government in a way that hasn't been done since F.D.R.'s New Deal," McEntee told the N.Y. Times, arguing the current system "was conceived of by liberals" and must be completely overhauled.
  • In the final days of the Trump administration, McEntee sought to orchestrate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Germany and Africa — a last-minute gambit by the president stifled by guardrails that likely wouldn't be present in a second term.

Jeffrey Clark — a former assistant attorney general for Trump who could get a top Justice Department slot — is the rare person to be considered for a future administration while under indictment.

  • In the weeks after the 2020 election, the little-known environmental lawyer urged top DOJ officials to announce they were investigating baseless claims of election fraud, which they rejected.
  • Trump then considered appointing Clark as acting attorney general as the pair plotted to overturn the election results, prompting DOJ leadership to threaten to resign en masse.
  • Clark was charged as part of the Trump racketeering case in Fulton County, Ga., over his attempts to have DOJ send a letter to Georgia officials declaring that fraud may have altered the outcome of the 2020 election.
  • Prosecutors say the statement was false and furthered the conspiracy to overturn the election. Clark pleaded not guilty.

Ric Grenell — former ambassador to Germany, and Trump's acting director of national intelligence — would be on the short list for secretary of state.

  • Grenell infuriated European diplomats with his "America First" broadsides during his time in Berlin, and has basked in his reputation as an online troll beloved by the MAGA movement for his willingness to go on the attack.
  • Career intelligence officials have labeled Grenell — who declassified Obama-era intelligence in an effort to reshape perceptions of the Russia investigation — the least-experienced and most overtly political appointee ever to serve as head of the intelligence community.
  • In Grenell's last Cabinet meeting before his exit, Trump praised him as an "all-time great acting [official], at any position."
  • Former national security adviser Robert O'Brien, a more traditional conservative who remains in Trump's good graces, would be a more confirmable pick for secretary of state.

Susie Wiles: Some in Trumpworld assume the most likely chief of staff is Wiles, the longtime Florida political operative who's running Trump's campaign.

  • The campaign so far has avoided the gusher of leaks that have been hallmarks of Trump operations. She's seen as an adept Trump enabler who would serve loyally, with discipline. By bridging the campaign and the administration, she'd provide continuity.
  • Trump's pell-mell style could push him to a wild-card choice for chief. "Everyone he knows is a direct report," said one former Trump administration official.

John Ratcliffe, the former Texas congressman who was Trump's final DNI, would be considered to head the CIA, for a return to DNI, for defense secretary or even for vice president.

  • Ratcliffe, a China hawk, was one of Trump's fiercest allies in Congress during the first impeachment inquiry. He later used his authority as the nation's top intelligence official to declassify information aimed at calling into question the origins of both COVID and the Justice Department's Russia investigation.

Jamie Dimon: Trump is open to a few more mainstream picks if they bring celebrity or pizzazz. For example, Trump would consider JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, a Democrat, to head Treasury. "He wants a big name," a source close to the campaign said. "And he loves billionaires."

  • It's not clear Dimon would take the job — he's been talking privately with Nikki Haley about the global economy as she tries to knock off Trump for the nomination. Dimon told the N.Y. Times DealBook conference that Haley would be "a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump."
  • Dimon added: "He might be the president, and I have to deal with that, too."

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — a former Army infantry officer known for his hard edge, and who wrote a New York Times op-ed in Trump's first term supporting use of the Insurrection Act against civil disorder — would be considered to head the Pentagon.

Lee Zeldin —a former congressman from Long Island who deployed to Iraq as an Army paratrooper — is another confirmable option for the Pentagon.

  • Like Cotton, Zeldin is considered more confirmable than many others in the mix.

Jared Kushner, who was a huge power center in Trump's West Wing, has mostly kept his distance from the campaign so far — but might well return to the White House if his father-in-law wins again, with a continued interest in Middle East policy.

  • Because Kushner would be talking with Trump's authority to world leaders anyway, one option would be secretary of state.

What to watch: The heads of Cabinet departments don't have full powers unless confirmed by the Senate. Many of Trump's wannabe secretaries would have difficulty winning confirmation.

  • But Trump made unprecedented use of "acting" Cabinet members, who have temporary power over agencies even without Senate approval. And we're told he'd be prepared to push the envelope on ambiguities about how many stints an "acting" could serve.
  • "I sort of like 'acting,'" Trump said in 2019. "It gives me more flexibility."

Zachary Basu and Sophia Cai contributed reporting.

"Behind the Curtain" is a column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include that Bannon is appealing a contempt of Congress conviction.

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