The CEO Who Went Too Far

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s original choice for labor secretary, leaving a meeting with President-Elect Trump at Trump International Golf Club, Bedminster Township, New Jersey, November 2016

On February 16, President Donald Trump defended his troubled administration, then all of twenty-seven days old, in a news conference. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos,” Trump said. “Chaos! Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”

In truth, the Trump administration in its infancy is creating enough blunders, scandals, and controversies to strain the resources even of large news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post. The disruptions come on with the suddenness of a summer cloudburst. Even as reporters rush to cover one storm, five others materialize. It isn’t easy to keep up.

The purpose of Trump’s press conference was to distract attention from the withdrawal the day before, on the eve of his confirmation hearing, of his nominee for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, by nominating in great haste a substitute, R. Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University law school and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board. Puzder’s was the first Trump Cabinet nomination to fail, and Trump is not one to dwell on (or even acknowledge) setbacks. By design or happy accident (with Trump it’s often hard to tell) Acosta was a much more confirmable choice—a conservative like Puzder, but far less doctrinaire and personally abrasive. He also would be, if confirmed, the first Latino member of Trump’s cabinet.

Defeat or withdrawal of one or two nominees isn’t unusual at the start of any administration, but Puzder’s withdrawal was striking when you remembered that Trump enjoyed three enormous advantages: a Republican majority in the Senate, with fifty-two votes; a Senate rule, passed when Democrats controlled the chamber, disallowing filibusters against all nominees except those for the Supreme Court; and very rigorous party discipline among Senate Republicans. Despite these, Trump lacked a majority to confirm Puzder. It was the new president’s first legislative defeat, and likely will be his only defeat in assembling his Cabinet.

The people Trump invites into high levels of government fall into two categories: provocateurs and establishmentarians. White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller are provocateurs. Because many of these provocateurs have ties to the nativist and white-nationalist “alt right,” Trump has tended to place them in White House jobs that don’t require Senate confirmation. The establishmentarians are Trump recruits judged respectable by the Republican establishment (and usually chosen for that reason). In the White House, Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are establishmentarians, but most of them have positions in Trump’s Cabinet.

These establishmentarians either have experience in government or a history of generous financial contributions to the Republican Party.…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.