Posted by on December 27, 2016

The English use our shared language better than we do.  They have had more practice.  This includes their expressions, one of which is the title of this post.  It means “something that is good in parts.”  Now, why the breakfast of a low-level cleric should be especially prone to inconsistency is unclear.  But this is part of the phrase’s wondrous beauty.

Trump’s nominees for cabinet and other high positions are definitely a curate’s egg.  Although, in this case, the expression should probably mean “something that is better than your worst fears.”  By floating names like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, Trump has managed my expectations very well.

So, without further ado, here is the first part of my short thoughts on Trump’s egg.

Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State)

Tillerson’s nomination has been the most unexpected one that Trump has made.  In modern times, there has never been a Secretary of State with no governmental, not to mention diplomatic, experience.  This makes his very positive review in The Economist (“Oily Diplomacy: Give Rex a chance”) even more surprising.

With the very large caveat that Tillerson’s views on foreign policy issues are almost completely unknown, the article gives him high marks for his character.[1]  His dependability and cool-headedness are repeatedly cited, as well as his personal integrity and professionalism.  The article credits his engineering background for making him a “stickler for evidence-based decision-making.”  He is also considered to be “patient and unemotional.”

Put all of this together and The Economist concludes that Tillerson has been able to “stand up to, and win respect from, some notoriously slippery world leaders,” such as Vladimir Putin.  Just as importantly, Tillerson’s “traits would make him very different from his boss, who lives by the gut” and he “will also have the integrity to talk sense into his boss.”

Critics will point to Tillerson’s closeness to Putin, including his stand against sanctions and his Order of Friendship, as disqualifiers.  Nonsense.  At Exxon, Tillerson had a job and he had shareholders.  If he hadn’t done the former and fought for the interests of the latter, it would be a far blacker mark.

Although Tillerson is largely an unknown, there is one very positive thing that can already be said about him: he is not Rudy Giuliani and he is not John Bolton,[2] two of the other contenders for the position.

Giuliani seems to have only one mode: hyperventilation.  This, combined with his complete lack of experience and diplomatic skills, make him singularly unsuited for the office to which he hubristically aspired.  Although “zero tolerance policing” may have worked in a New York City brought low by Mayors Koch and Dinkins, it is not exactly the foreign policy that the US needs.

Bolton would have been even worse.  He has a ton of experience, all of it horrible.  Bolton must be the only person on the planet who still thinks that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a good idea. It is impossible to imagine someone less in tune with the hopeful side of Trump’s “America First” message, which he repeated in a recent speech with his “commitment to only engage the use of military forces when it’s in the vital national security interest of the United States.”  Trump also said “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes…that we know nothing about,” promised that his administration will instead be “guided by the lessons of history and a desire to promote stability,” and declared that “the destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally…come to an end.”

If this strand of the chaotic and inconsistent foreign policy pronouncements of the candidacy becomes the “Trump Doctrine,” this will be an unexpected blessing.  We certainly don’t need an incorrigible warmonger like Bolton pushing in the opposite direction.

Much to his credit, Senator Rand Paul has said that he will oppose Bolton for any office, including the lesser post of Deputy Secretary of State.  Given the thin Republican majority in the Senate, this may go a long way to keeping Bolton far away from the levers of power.  Good riddance.

Tom Price (Heath and Human Services)

 I have briefly commented before about Price (see Nature Abhors a Vacuum here).  This is probably the Trump appointee that has raised the fewest eyebrows.  A completely conventional choice with strong links to Congress and a highly relevant background in one of the most complicated and important fields of policy.  His biggest challenge will be living up to Trump’s promises to replace Obamacare with “something great,” while still having to operate within the bounds of the feasible.  He certainly cannot look to his boss for any policy inspiration.

Reince Priebus (Chief of Staff)

If there is going to be any adult supervision in Trump’s White House, Priebus and Vice President Mike Pence will be the likely providers.

After doing a remarkably good job of steering the Republican Party through the wreckage of the 2016 nomination and campaign, certainly by comparison to the DNC’s mismanagement of a far simpler task, Priebus seems to have established a position of influence over the President-elect that is unusually strong for someone whose last name isn’t “Trump” (or who hasn’t at least married someone with that moniker).  There even appear to be glimmers of hope that the combination of Priebus, Pence and Congressman Paul Ryan, all hailing from the Midwest and sharing similar values and personalities, could actually form the core of a conventionally effective Republican domestic agenda.  I don’t expect any small-government breakthroughs from these three, but they will also produce no calamities and they will certainly be an improvement on Obama’s trajectory or Clinton’s intentions.

Steven Mnuchin (Treasury)

As I have commented before, my ex-boss from Goldman Sachs is not high on my favorite’s list.  This, of course, is no comment on his qualifications for office.

Mnuchin is smart enough and diligent.  He has absolutely no government experience but then neither did Bob Rubin or Hank Paulson, two former Goldman partners who held the same office.  Unless he has materially changed, Mnuchin is not as intelligent, worldly or politically aware as Rubin, who used to have politicians trooping in and out of his office while Mnuchin was staring at screens and trading mortgage backed securities.[3]  Paulson, who was on the banking and not the trading side of the business, was much less known to me.  As a general rule, however, the DNA of the bankers, who were rewarded primarily for their “relationships[4]” and who played with other people’s money and not Goldman’s, was typically lighter on smart genes.  I suspect that Mnuchin is at least as capable as Paulson, for what that is worth.

As far as Mnuchin’s economic views, I think that we can assume that these are conventionally Keynesian.  I doubt that he has ever thought deeply about economic policy.  He has simply absorbed the zeitgeist.

One definite comment about Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury: this is not really the man you want in the case of a repeat of 2008.  As the world will shortly see during his confirmation hearings, Mnuchin does not score high in gravitas or charisma.  I can’t imagine anyone being heartened by the sight of Steve Mnuchin on television in the middle of a crisis of confidence.

Jeff Sessions (Attorney General)

Liberals have signalled that they are going into the trenches over accusations of racism against Sessions.  There is no doubt that this will be one of the most hotly contested nominations.

I, of course, have absolutely no ability to look into Jeff Session’s soul.  However, it strikes me as utterly ridiculous that accusations from before 1986, that were never substantiated and sometimes contradicted, are the basis on which this nomination will be judged.  As of January 2017, Sessions will have been in the US Senate for 20 years.  Is the nation really going to be treated to the farce of nomination hearings during which Democratic Senators will pretend that 30-year old accusations are more relevant for judging Session’s character than their last 20 years of working with him?

On policy matters, I disagree with almost every position that Sessions holds, from abortion to gay marriage and from the War on Drugs to immigration policy.  However, I also think that almost anyone would be an immense improvement on Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, Obama’s two Attorney Generals who, along with their boss, have almost completely politicized the office and have been smacked down by the Supreme Court a record number of times.

Nikki Haley (United Nations)

Trump has named the standing Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, to be Ambassador to the United Nations.

Haley is young (44 years), photogenic and diverse (she is the daughter of Indian immigrants).  A rising star in the Republican Party after she was elected governor in 2010 at the age of 38, the only real question is why she is giving up a position with real responsibilities and authority[5] to accept one of the most meaningless jobs in the administration.[6]  And the only plausible answer is that she has aspirations for national office and wants to tick the “international experience” box on her career CV.

Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development)

Doctor Carson appears to be a nice man.

The Sleazeman Cometh

One of the amazing things about Trump is that he manages to be even sleazier than the Clintons.  The fraudulent Trump University.  Lying about the fraudulent Trump University.  Not releasing his tax returns.  Lying about not releasing his tax returns.  Stiffing contractors in his business.  Lying about stiffing contractors.  Encouraging thuggery among his supporters.  Lying about….You get the picture.  The examples are virtually endless.

His administration will be no different.  Many of his senior advisors and flunkies are, frankly, a basket of deplorables.  They won’t be able to help themselves.  The sleaze-a-thon has begun.  Jason Miller, who was in line to be the communications director in the White House, has withdrawn his candidacy after accusations of an extra-marital affair surfaced from a very credible source: the woman with whom he has been having the affair, who outed it on Twitter.

Class.  Pure class.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom


[1] In addition to his “central casting” appearance, which appears to be a major factor in Trump’s decision making.

[2] Of course, he is not Mitt Romney either, but after Romney’s scathing comments about Trump, it is impossible to see this flirtation as anything but an attempt of overcome Trump’s reputation for being thin-skinned and vindictive.  Or, as some have suggested, a malicious practical joke.

[3] One of my favorite GS anecdotes was goofing around on the trading floor one day when our computers were down, only to look up and see Walter Mondale staring at us from outside Rubin’s office.  I can only imagine what he was thinking.

[4] This is investment-banker speak for the ability to profitably manipulate clients.

[5] The GDP of South Carolina would put it at the rank of about 55 on the global scale.

[6] The proof of this is that the post has been occupied by Samantha Powers since 2013, who is an utterly useless academic and one of the leading proponents of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that has left only human and fiscal destruction in its wake.

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5 Comments on "A Curate’s Egg (Part One)"

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I think Jeff Sessions will be fought because he uses faulty logic to reduce civil rights. Look at his comments on the Civil Rights Act and how Alabama has not infringed on voting rights under the law, possibly because they knew it would fail preclearance. – Alabama immediately restricts voter’s rights after the Supreme Court decision and it leads to much lower voter turnout.

Roger, I hope you are well and thanks for the reply. 1) I don’t think they were unfairly stigmatized. A majority of the preclearance states rushed into behaviors that were promptly overturned by the courts for being discriminatory and unconstitutional showing that they were rightfully targeted for preclearance. 2) Enrico’s work cuts both ways and he calls it inconclusive. He finds that voter ID increase turnout (by attention and effort to respond and/or belief in the validity of the election) and that strict voter ID rules decrease turnout to offset that impact. In addition, he has a more recent paper… Read more »
Hi Roger, I disagree. Once more. Americans use your shared language much ‘better’ than the english. The english that the english use is infested with euphemisms upon euphemisms that, almost religiously, refuse to point the finger at what is wrong, so terribly wrong, with that multi-cultural, politically correct anglo-saxon hodge-podge that is at the heart of the West’s cultural demise. If only French, German or Dutch had been adopted as the lingua franca (I blame the fluke of the Spinning Jenny for all of this), we would have been able to point clear fingers a long time ago, and see… Read more »