Forget “Team of Rivals.” President-elect Donald Trump is instead assembling what critics are calling a team of novices — government outsiders or politicians who have little executive experience at the helm of the kinds of massive federal agencies they’ll be running.
Mr. Trump’s pick of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development is the latest to rankle Democrats, who said the doctor’s skill with a scalpel doesn’t translate into managing an 8,300-person department that oversees fair lending, subsidized housing and neighborhood revitalization.
“Carson has previously taken himself out of the running for a Cabinet position due to his lack of political experience. He has no professional experience in either government or housing policy. And his campaign website when he ran for president didn’t even mention HUD,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, ticking off the reasons the doctor isn’t the right prescription for the department.
The same criticism was lodged against Rep. Tom Price, whom Mr. Trump last week said he’ll name to lead the Department of Health and Human Services — the 72,600-person agency that will be in charge of unraveling Obamacare.
“To put in charge of the nation’s health care system and a $1 trillion budget someone who has never overseen anything larger than a congressional committee ought to raise eyebrows when this position has historically been reserved for an individual with significant administrative experience,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House.
But political scientists said there’s nothing unusual about presidents picking those with little management experience to head big departments.
“I don’t think he’s that much out of line,” said William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University who’s studied presidential campaigns and transitions, and who said picking lawmakers with slim executive experience but skilled in the ways of Washington is common for presidents looking to stock their Cabinets.
Neither then-Sen. John F. Kerry nor then-Sen. Hillary Clinton had managed more than a Senate office or presidential campaign at the time President Obama picked them to be secretary of state. Likewise, his interior, labor and transportation secretaries all came from Congress.
The transportation pick, then-Rep. Ray LaHood, was prodded during his confirmation process on what qualified him to lead a department with more than 50,000 employees, and he said his time in Congress was good enough.
“While my personal experience does not include direct responsibilities for management in large organizations, my service in the Congress, particularly on the House Appropriations Committee, has given me the perspective to understand the importance of sound management and accountability in the use of public funds,” Mr. LaHood told the Senate.
President George W. Bush seemed to stack his initial Cabinet with more experience, including several governors, high-level state officials who’d run major agencies, retired Gen. Colin Powell to be the secretary of state and Donald Rumsfeld to lead the Defense Department — a job he also held in the 1970s.
Mr. Mayer said Mr. Rumsfeld was evidence that having experience doesn’t always work out for Cabinet nominee. He said those without experience running big operations may have a different learning curve, but they can bring other strengths.
The Trump transition team didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this article, but in a statement the president-elect said Mr. Carson “has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities.”
“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a Presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Carson led several divisions of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, served on corporate boards and founded his own scholarship charity. But Democrats said he lacked relevant experience for the job at HUD.
“I have serious concerns about Dr. Carson’s lack of expertise and experience in dealing with housing issues,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Someone who is as anti-government as him is a strange fit for housing secretary, to say the least.”
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said Mr. Trump’s picks may have less experience running big operations, but that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who watched his campaign.
“That’s the major argument used by Trump: that he would not only change the policies of the nation, but drain the swamp and put in a federal government hiring freeze, among many other promises,” Mr. Madonna said.
The lack-of-experience critique is just the latest to be aimed at the Trump transition. Early in the process, he faced barbs over a lack of diversity in his meetings and his early picks.
He’s countered with a lineup that, among the first Cabinet 10 picks, includes three women — two of them Asian-Americans — and now Mr. Carson, who is black.
Mr. Trump’s team also says that it’s ahead of schedule in naming nominees compared to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Mayer said the one area where Mr. Trump may want to make headway is in picking nominees who weren’t backers of his campaign.
“He seems to have appointed a lot of longtime loyalists so far. I think he would be well advised to widen the scope a little bit and to bring in some people who were not big supporters of his,” Mr. Mayer said. “I think Romney would be a very good example.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was a vocal Trump critic during the campaign, but has made two post-election visits with the president-elect, where he’s auditioned to be secretary of state.
Mr. Romney, who served as a businessman, a governor and head of the 2002 Winter Olympics, would bring more executive experience than either Mr. Kerry or Mrs. Clinton had when they took the State Department job.
Among the experienced hands Mr. Trump has already tapped is Elaine L. Chao, a Cabinet secretary in the George W. Bush administration, whom the president-elect named to be his Labor Department secretary.
And Mr. Trump has asked retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who was the chief of Central Command from 2010 through 2013, to lead the Defense Department.
Democrats have praised the retired general, but some have expressed reservations that he is only recently departed from the military, saying it could trample on the principle of civilian control of the armed forces.
A federal law requires a military officer to have been retired at least seven years before taking the Defense post, and Congress will have to waive that law for the general to serve.