Donald Trump’s Gilded Cabinet Has a Harvard Streak
Pundits with more tenuous grasps of reality love to throw around the word “populism” as they clumsily grope around for an explanation of the Donald Trump phenomenon. But this label, applied either to the billionaire real estate developer who lives in a gilded penthouse atop Manhattan, or his policies, like gutting Dodd-Frank banking regulations, has always seemed a bit disingenuous.
The president-elect has spent the better part of November fashioning a Cabinet from a veritable who’s-who of Goldman Sachs executives, third-string Fox News guests, and Scrooge understudies from a more heavy-handed production of A Christmas Carol. As the carcinogenic dust settles and the final few spots are filled, at least one thing’s become clear: Trump’s Cabinet has a certain crimson tinge to it.
Trump and his followers may rail against the trappings of elitism, but a considerable portion of his closest advisers and department heads have studied at Harvard University, that bastion of Yankee sensibility, on their way to the Trump administration—the richest ever assembled in modern American history. In fact, Trump’s inaugural Cabinet counts more Harvard alumni than that of President Barack Obama. (Crimson basketball captain cum education secretary Arne Duncan, and HUD secretary and Kennedy school grad Shaun Donovan were the only two, excluding the commander-in-chief himself.)
Steve Bannon, whom Trump appointed to a senior advisor and strategist role, received his MBA in 1983 from Harvard Business School, where he was a standout student and a sharp dresser, reminding some of Robert Redford. Bannon landed a job at Goldman Sachs fresh out of Harvard, and later helped establish Breitbart News, online nexus of the so-called “alt-right” movement. The site’s namesake, the late Andrew Breitbart, reportedly compared Bannon’s prowess—with great admiration—to that of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
Bannon’s connection to the white nationalist, antisemitic, misogynist, and homophobic site whipped up fierce opposition to his scheduled visit to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics this week, while 685 female Harvard Business School alumni and students, representing 35 class years, disavowed Bannon in a letter.
Since the final stage of the campaign, Jared Kushner has emerged as a major player in Trumpworld, effectively purging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—who, as a U.S. attorney in 2005, helped send Kusher’s father to jail for tax evasion—and his acolytes from the inner circle. Publisher of the New York Observer and married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, Kushner is a Harvard-educated power broker ascendant.
The circumstances around Kusher’s admittance into Harvard—which happened not long after his father, New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner, had donated $2.5 million to the school in 1998—remain a matter of dispute. “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at Kushner’s old high school told ProPublica’s Daniel Golden, whose 2006 book The Price of Admission has enjoyed renewed interest thanks to the sudden rise of Trump’s consigliere.
“His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen,” the former official said. “Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”
Mitt Romney, who appeared to have shared a Faustian dinner with the president-elect and chief of staff Reince Priebus this week, is rumored to be the frontrunner for Trump’s secretary of state. From 1971 to 1975, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican nominee earned dual degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School while residing in Belmont with his wife Ann and two young children. He still holds dinners with his old HBS study group every five years.
For commerce secretary, Trump tapped Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investment banker dubbed the “king of bankruptcy” for his practice of buying up failed industrial assets, from coal mines to steel mills, and flipping them for massive profits. The New Jersey native, and proud owner of 25 paintings by Belgian surrealist René Magritte, also received his MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was classmates with former American Express CEO James Robinson III.
For more than two decades, Ross ran the bankruptcy and restructuring arm at Rothschild & Sons, where he would help Trump save his three Atlantic City casinos in the late 80s and early 90s. He is perhaps most infamously known for his role in the 2006 Sago mine collapse, in which 12 of the 13 trapped miners were killed. The mine, owned by Ross, had more than 200 safety violations, including 13 of the most serious offenses.
U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a hawkish Kansas Republican and Trump’s pick for CIA director, enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1991, the year after Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Pompeo graduated in 1994 as an editor of the prestigious publication, just as the late Justice Antonin Scalia had.
Pompeo was one of the most outspoken members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in relation to the deadly 2012 attacks on a U.S. embassy in Libya. He’s called for the death penalty for Edward Snowden, and has advocated for increased government collection of your metadata, telling the Wall Street Journal: “Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, rumored to be in the running for Trump’s head of homeland security, was president of the Harvard Republicans, graduating summa cum laude in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in government. A staunch proponent of aggressive immigration reform, Kobach accidentally leaked the front page of his plan for homeland security, which included “extreme vetting questions” about sharia law for “high-risk aliens,” and that “all aliens from high-risk areas are tracked.”
One of Trump’s least controversial picks—at least compared to Sen. Jeff Sessions and retired Lt. General Mike “Not anymore, Jews” Flynn—was Elaine Chao, George W. Bush’s labor secretary, for transportation secretary. The first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet-level position, Chao’s family gave $40 million to her alma mater, Harvard Business School, in 2012. Chao’s marriage to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he will not recuse himself from his wife’s confirmation hearing, could prove a tricky entanglement, though there is oddly specific precedent. In the late 80s, Elizabeth Dole served as transportation secretary while Bob Dole was Senate majority leader.
To be sure, Trump’s Cabinet of high-fallutin’ Ivy Leaguers isn’t solely comprised of one-time Cantabrigians—Yale is also well-represented. Trump’s pick for treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin graduated from Yale, where he was roommates with Sears CEO Edward Lampert, publisher of the Yale Daily News, and a member of Skull and Bones. Nicknamed “Forrest Gump of the financial crisis” by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Trump campaign’s finance chair ran a “foreclosure machine” that forced nearly 40,000 Americans out of their homes.
You know, populism.