The Trump cabinet is receiving a lot of attention lately-most of it bad. The details vary, but much of the unwelcome spotlight focuses on the quality of the cabinet – or lack thereof. This is the cabinet Trump himself called “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.” Others, less kind perhaps, have branded it “the worst cabinet in American history.” Individual cabinet members have been proclaimed, “dumb,” “stupid,” “illiterate,” “incompetent,” “moronic,” and panoply of other less than complimentary terms.
So, Trump’s cabinet is a little controversial – those that remain that is. Fully a quarter of the cabinet have resigned or been fired – and at least one, former VA Secretary, seems at least temporarily to hold both statuses. But how valid are these judgements? Is it “the worst cabinet in American history”?
Certainly some of Trump’s choices have been doubtful. High on that list is Attorney General Jeff Sessions who Trump himself threatens to fire about every second week. Then, there is Secretary of Energy and former presidential candidate Rick Perry, who finally remembered which Department he wanted to abolish – the Department of Energy. And there’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt who has accumulated a large and growing list of ethical lapses.
These notables are joined by HUD Secretary Ben Carson whose qualification to lead the Department of Housing is that he is a neurosurgeon (yes, it does take a brain surgeon) – as well as Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, who never attended a public school, did not send her children to a public school, and may not believe in public education.
But not all of Trump’s appointees are dubious choices. His cabinet also includes some pretty strong picks: John Kelly (originally in the Department of Homeland Security), Dan Coats (National Intelligence), Mick Mulvaney (now budget director), James Mattis ( Defense), Mike Pompeo ( CIA), Elaine Chao (Transportation), Nikki Haley (UN), and Kirstjen Nielsen (Homeland Security).
These latter luminaries notwithstanding, Trump’s cabinet is unlikely to be remembered as “… the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.” But is it the worst? For that we need to take a deep dive into American political history. Of the 44 presidents preceding Trump, three of them produced cabinets that could plausibly be considered the “worst” in history. These are the cabinets of James Buchanan (1857-1860), Ulysses Grant (1869-1877) and Warren Harding (1921-23).
Harding, who died suddenly during his first term, is remembered for some spectacular scandals as well as being a weak president. His actual cabinet appointments, however, were mostly solid, including figures such as Herbert Hoover, Charles Evans Hughes and Andrew Mellon. Alas for Harding, two of his not so solid appointments, Harry Daugherty (Attorney General) and Albert Hall (Interior), were corrupt – the latter responsible for, perhaps, the most famous scandal in American history before Watergate –“Teapot Dome.” But Harding was not directly implicated. In fact, he died before it became public.
Buchanan, like Harding, is also widely considered to be one of the worst presidents. But he only deserves honorable mention for worst cabinet. True, his initial selections were far from distinguished and did little to avoid the calamitous Civil War that ensued. Moreover, Buchanan’s cabinet included several members who committed treason by joining the Confederacy at the outbreak of war. One of them, Secretary of War John B Floyd is widely believed to have conspired to weaken U.S. military forces in the face of an expected Confederacy uprising.
But the real competition for worst cabinet probably goes to Grant. He did make some outstanding choices including Hamilton Fish and Alphonso Taft. But overall it was shaky, resulting in an unparalleled number of major scandals (12) that erupted during his eight year term. At least five of his cabinet members, including Treasury and Attorney General, were complicit in them. The “Black Friday” gold speculation and the “Whiskey Ring” remain today the best known. Grant himself is believed to have been honest. But his standards for picking administration officials were abysmally loose. Moreover, he permanently compromised his historical reputation, defending many of the culprits while engaging in wholesale nepotism, including giving government jobs to three brothers-in-law.
So is Trump’s cabinet the “worst” in history – or just one of the worst? Actually it’s far too early to tell. Certainly the Trump cabinet’s basic competence has been questioned but that doesn’t make it the worst in history. Not even close. Historically the “worst” cabinets have been mired in corruption – or even treason. So far the Trump cabinet has not plumbed those depths.
So the Trump cabinet, while probably not “the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled” isn’t the worst either. But President Trump might want to heed this cautionary tale: all three presidents with the “worst cabinets” also find themselves ranked among the worst presidents. One recent consensus rating of academics places Buchanan last, Harding, second worst and Grant, eighth worst.
Presidents with “worst” cabinets tend to become “worst” presidents. President Trump claims to have “one of the great memories of all time.” That’s good, because this is something he needs to remember well.