Trump's administration is filling up with wealth and power after populist campaign

Donald Trump during the Republican National Convention.
Ida Mae Astute | Getty Images

In one of his final pitches to voters last month, Donald Trump eviscerated what he called a "corrupt machine" of entrenched political leaders, corporations and donors that he said damaged the American working class.

The video tied his opponent Hillary Clinton to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and a major Democratic donor, billionaire financier George Soros.

"For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don't have your good in mind," Trump said in the Nov. 6 video.

Since his election, though, Trump has stocked his administration with Blankfein's right-hand man at Goldman and two other alumni of the influential firm, one of whom worked for Soros. Several Trump Cabinet picks donated to his election effort, while his secretary of State choice led a mammoth American company with a global reach.

Past presidents have put Wall Street figures and personal donors in their administrations, as well. But after a populist message of shifting power to the forgotten helped to fuel his improbable political rise, Trump seems entirely comfortable filling his administration with the wealthy and influential, money in politics experts said.

"You're playing with fire if you ride a wave of anger against the establishment and big-money politics and then practice big-money politics," said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

After Trump entered the presidential race last year, he said his wealth ensured that he did not need donors. He largely funded his own primary run before shifting to more traditional fundraising in the general election. Trump slammed former GOP opponent Sen. Ted Cruz and then Clinton for their ties to Goldman, using his populist pitch to try to win over disillusioned voters on the left who supported Wall Street critic Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In the final election push, Trump pledged to "drain the swamp" in Washington of big-money influence. Trump's transition team announced last month that it would not include lobbyists and said that members of the administration would be banned from lobbying for five years after they left the government, an effort to curb special interests in politics.

Beyond the push against lobbying, though, Trump has signaled little desire to reduce the role of the wealthy and powerful, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics.

"His focus on lobbyists means he's concerned about it, but he's defining it very narrowly. Insiders will arguably have more power in the next administration given the kind of powerful perch that they're being appointed to," she said.

Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to a request to comment on this story.

Trump has picked two chief executives of major U.S. companies, a former Goldman partner and a billionaire investor for his Cabinet. He has also chosen Goldman's former second-ranking executive, Gary Cohn, and Linda McMahon, a former WWE CEO who gave $6 million to a super PAC backing him, for non-Cabinet level spots. Cohn will head the National Economic Council, while McMahon was picked for the Small Business Administration.

Current Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker donated to President Barack Obama, while George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was the CEO of Goldman, so Trump isn't the first president to pick Wall Street veterans and donors for top spots.

But Krumholz said Trump has chosen more wealthy people for his administration than presidents typically have in the past. Trump has defended his picks from the business world by saying they know how to create jobs and will help him follow through on his economic promises.

Here is a list of Trump's Cabinet-level picks so far. It includes what they gave to him and outside groups backing him, according to Federal Election Commission records.

  • State: Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the $375 billion oil titan. He has ties to Russia and Exxon would benefit if the U.S. lifts sanctions on Moscow, as it had to halt a project in the Arctic because of the measures.
  • Attorney general: Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama
  • Defense: James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general
  • Treasury: Steven Mnuchin, a financier and former employee of Goldman Sachs and Soros Fund Management. He served as Trump's campaign finance chief and contributed $5,400 to Trump's campaign. He gave the maximum $2,700 to the Republican nominee and the other $2,700 was part of a $425,000 donation to a Trump joint fundraising effort with the GOP.
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross, a billionaire distressed debt investor. He also gave $5,400 to Trump, half of which came through a $200,000 donation to a joint fundraising committee.
  • Labor: CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder. He contributed $10,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC and another $5,400 to Trump's campaign directly and through joint fundraising.
  • Energy: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry
  • Transportation: Elaine Chao, a former Labor secretary and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
  • Education: Betsy DeVos, a wealthy education activist and major Republican donor
  • Homeland Security: Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly
  • Health and Human Services: Rep. Tom Price of Georgia
  • Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and former Trump presidential opponent
  • Interior: Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana
  • Agriculture: TBD
  • Veterans Affairs: TBD

Still, it remains to be seen how much the senators confirming Trump's picks and the voters who propelled him to the White House care about the wealth in his administration. While Democrats have signaled they could make confirmation difficult for some of the picks, particularly Tillerson, Mnuchin and Sessions, the Republican Senate majority will likely push them through barring a major upheaval within the party.

Voters may not be concerned about the influential people in Trump's administration as long as he follows through on campaign promises to boost economic growth and promote job creation in the Rust Belt, said Steven Billet, director of the master's program in legislative affairs at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

Trump has promised that his tax reform and trade policies will boost American businesses and he has already celebrated a deal with United Technologies for it to keep some of the Carrier jobs it planned to move to Mexico.

"If he doesn't deliver the kind of jobs that are appealing to that slice of the American public that was so stridently supportive of his candidacy, then he's going to have a problem," Billet said.

The Trump transition has recently faced influence issues outside of the appointments. On Tuesday, the transition team denied that Trump's two grown sons had "any involvement" with a reported charity event that sought donations of up to $1 million in exchange for packages that included a private reception with the president-elect.

Trump's sons Donald Jr. and Eric serve on his transition team and the president-elect has said they will help to run his businesses after he takes office.

A charitable auction for a meeting with Trump's daughter Ivanka was also recently canceled after questions were raised about the ethics of offering access. The proceeds were supposed to go to the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

Separately, early Trump supporter and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has started a consulting firm based only a block away from the White House to promote Trump's agenda.