Updated on May 18 at 1:18 p.m. ET
President Trump’s latest pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs is the man who’s been doing the job for the last month-and-a-half.
The president on Friday made a surprise announcement that he was nominating Robert Wilkie, the acting VA secretary, to lead the department on a permanent basis. In tapping Wilkie, Trump is turning to a familiar face and government veteran over other reported options that included at least one current and former Republican congressman.
Wilkie served as undersecretary of defense before Trump asked him to run the VA temporarily following the ouster of Secretary David Shulkin in late March. The president’s first choice to replace Shulkin was his personal physician at the White House, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson. But Jackson withdrew his nomination amid allegations of workplace misconduct; his bid was already in trouble due to concerns of senators in both parties that he lacked the management experience necessary to run the government’s second-largest bureaucracy.
Wilkie should face fewer worries on that front: He has held several top positions at the Pentagon going back to the George W. Bush administration, received the Defense Department’s highest civilian award, and secured confirmation as undersecretary without controversy in November 2017.
Trump made his announcement on Friday as an aside at a prison-reform summit. Not even Wilkie apparently knew it was coming. “I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise,” the president said after indicating that he was planning to inform Wilkie, who was in attendance at the event, “in a little while.” A day earlier, Wilkie effusively praised Trump at the White House press briefing after it was announced that the president would be donating his salary for the first quarter of 2018 to the VA. “President Trump understands the critical role of caregivers in meeting the essential needs of America's veterans,” Wilkie said.
The VA pick also came a day after the Senate confirmed Trump’s choice of Gina Haspel to serve as CIA director, the first woman to hold the position. Six Democrats set aside concerns about Haspel’s involvement with the torture of a suspected terrorist after September 11, overcoming opposition from a trio of Republicans that could have sunk her nomination. GOP Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Flake of Arizona voted against Haspel. Senator John McCain, who’s undergoing treatment for brain cancer in Arizona, did not vote, but he urged the Senate to reject her as well.
Haspel will replace Mike Pompeo, who the Senate confirmed last month as secretary of state. The second-year shuffle in Trump’s national-security team began when the president fired Rex Tillerson as secretary of state in March.
With Wilkie’s nomination, the Senate will have at least one more Cabinet pick to consider this spring.
Several other members of Trump’s original Cabinet have left or changed jobs already. Last summer, Trump made Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly his chief of staff and replaced him with Kirstjen Nielsen, who didn’t win Senate approval until December. And in January, the Senate confirmed Alex Azar to become secretary of health and human services, four months after Trump’s first health chief, Tom Price, resigned amid reports of his extravagant travel spending habits as secretary.
The Cabinet shuffle pales in comparison to the high turnover among the White House senior staff, which has seen the departures via resignation or firing of the chief of staff, chief strategist, press secretary, multiple communications directors, and other top officials.
All the changes have kept the Senate busy confirming new Trump nominees. The chamber is even more closely divided than it was during the debate over Trump’s first round of Cabinet picks. Republicans control 51 out of the 100 seats, but McCain hasn’t voted since returning home to Arizona late last year.
Department of State
Original secretary: Rex Tillerson
Trump’s replacement: Mike Pompeo
Reason for change: Tillerson had been on the outs for months with Trump. He reportedly called him “a moron” in a meeting last summer, and the two diverged on key policy issues and global hot spots like Iran, Russia, and North Korea.
Background: Trump plucked Pompeo out of relative obscurity as a three-term congressman from Kansas when he nominated him to lead the CIA. Pompeo has loyally toed the president’s line on everything from intelligence matters to the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Before running for Congress, Pompeo served in the Army and then started an aerospace and private security firm.
Government experience: A little over a year as CIA director, and six years in the House before that
Why Trump likes him: Pompeo is loyal. Trump and Tillerson disagreed on several important issues, including the Iran deal, the decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, and more recently the president’s approach to North Korea. Trump told reporters that by contrast, he and Pompeo have “a very similar thought process.”
Liabilities: Pompeo is a staunch conservative who quickly built a reputation as a partisan Republican in the House. He won confirmation as CIA director on a 66-32 vote, but Democrats and even a few Republicans will press him on how tough he’ll be on Russia as secretary of state.
Chances of confirmation: The Senate confirmed him on a vote of 57-42 on April 26.
Department of the Treasury
Secretary: Steven Mnuchin
Background: He’s a banker. Specifically, Mnuchin is a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund manager who bought the failed mortgage lender IndyMac from the government in 2009. He spun it off into OneWest and sold it for a huge profit five years later. Mnuchin is also a Hollywood producer whose credits include Avatar, American Sniper, and the X-Men movies.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: Spot the pattern yet? He’s a successful businessman. But perhaps equally as important, Mnuchin was a relatively early convert to the Trump cause and joined the campaign as national finance chairman back in April, just as the Republican was shifting from relying on his own funds to setting up a more traditional fundraising apparatus. Mnuchin made clear early on he wanted the Treasury job, and Trump rewarded him.
Liabilities: Goldman Sachs and foreclosures. Economic populists saw Mnuchin’s nomination by a candidate who ran against Wall Street and the “rigged” system as the ultimate betrayal. If Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for the speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs, how can he turn around and pick a man who got rich there for treasury secretary? Moreover, while Trump hailed Mnuchin for his business savvy in making a boatload off IndyMac at the depth of the Great Recession, Democrats grilled him for the foreclosures that resulted and highlighted stories like that of an 89-year-old widow who blamed hounding by the bank for her husband’s death.
Job status: Solid. Mnuchin has annoyed Republicans in Congress at times, but he rarely if ever breaks with Trump in public and appears safe in his job.
Department of Defense
Secretary: General James Mattis
Background: Mattis is a four-star Marine Corps general who led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. He commanded forces in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mattis also worked with General David Petraeus to produce the field manual on battling counterinsurgents in Iraq.
Government experience: Forty-four years in the military, though none in civilian posts.
Why Trump likes him: For a guy who once said he probably knows “more about ISIS than the generals do,” he certainly likes hiring them for top positions. Mattis is known as a straight-shooter and a voracious reader, and Trump has gushed that he is “the closest thing to George Patton that we have.” Like Trump, Mattis is someone whose blunt talk occasionally crashes through the line of political correctness, and he has criticized the Obama administration stance toward Iran and its strategy across the Middle East. Trump seems to value his opinion: He told The New York Times that he was “impressed” when Mattis pointedly told him that torture does not work, though it did not change the president-elect’s support for the practice. Trump also seems fond of his nickname, Mad Dog.
Job status: Safe. Trump appears to love Mattis, Republicans see him as a stabilizing force, and Democrats don’t mind him, either.
Department of Justice
Attorney general: Jeff Sessions
Background: Sessions represented Alabama in the Senate for 20 years, building up a record as a staunch critic of illegal immigration and expanded legal immigration. He’s been a conservative all around, opposing the Obama administration at nearly every turn. Before his election to the Senate, Sessions served as a federal prosecutor and then Alabama attorney general. He might have had a lifetime appointment to the federal bench had the Senate not rejected his nomination in 1987 over allegations that he made racist comments and praised the KKK while criticizing the NAACP and the ACLU.
Government experience: Extensive. He served in the U.S. Senate since 1997 and held public office in Alabama beginning in 1981.
Why Trump likes him: He doesn’t anymore, but originally it was loyalty. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy. Sessions’s top aides also worked in the Trump transition and policy adviser Stephen Miller eventually went on to serve as senior adviser to the president. Sessions has made his name opposing comprehensive immigration reform and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and Trump adopted similar positions that helped vault him to the top of the GOP primary field.
Liabilities: Sessions’s liabilities in 2018 are entirely different than when Trump nominated him. Then, he faced a firestorm over his record on civil rights and immigration, as well as racist comments he reportedly made in the 1980s. Now, he has drawn Trump’s unceasing ire for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and for, in the president’s view, slow-walking or stalling probes of Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the FBI. Trump’s animosity toward his attorney general has turned many Republicans in Congress against Sessions, some of whom have demanded his resignation.
Job status: Perpetually precarious. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for Sessions, having viewed his attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation as an unforgivable betrayal. Still, he has repeatedly resisted the urge to fire him, and despite the occasional humiliation of being publicly berated by his boss, Sessions has refused to quit.
Department of Homeland Security
Original secretary: John Kelly
Trump’s replacement: Kirstjen Nielsen
Reason for change: The DHS job opened up when Trump brought in Kelly to replace Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff.
Background: Nielsen served as chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and then followed him to the White House when Trump named him his own chief of staff. During the Obama administration, Nielsen ran her own cyber-security consulting firm.
Government experience: She previously held senior staff jobs in the Bush administration.
Why Trump likes her: The more operative phrase might be: Why Kelly likes her. The chief of staff brought her into DHS, then the White House, and was instrumental in her being named his successor at DHS. Since winning Senate confirmation on a 62-37 vote in December, she has helped formulate Trump’s immigration proposals and defended the hard line he has taken in negotiations over extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Job status: Considering how new she is in the job, probably pretty safe for the time being.
Department of Health and Human Services
Original secretary: Tom Price
Current secretary: Alex Azar
Reason for change: Price resigned under pressure in late September after spending more than $400,000 in taxpayer-funded travel bills for taking chartered flights all over the country. The scandal angered Trump, who was already unhappy with Price over Congress’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Background: Azar was a safe and entirely conventional choice as Price’s replacement. He served in senior positions at HHS under President George W. Bush before becoming a top executive at Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company.
Government experience: More than six years at HHS during the Bush administration, first as its general counsel and then as deputy secretary.
Why Trump likes him: Trump has tended to go with safe picks after resignations or withdrawals, and Azar fit that bill. He was experienced in health policy and though he faced opposition from most Democrats, he survived the confirmation process without much trouble and won approval on a 55-43 vote.
Liabilities: Azar’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry could run into conflict with Trump’s stated desire to bring down prescription drug prices. But so far, the president hasn’t made a serious push to overcome Republican and industry opposition to taking on Big Pharma.
Job status: As the newest member of Trump’s Cabinet and so-far free of scandal, he’s secure for now.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Secretary: Dr. Ben Carson
Background: The conservative former Trump rival for the Republican presidential nomination has no formal experience in housing policy. He’s a retired neurosurgeon renowned for pioneering a procedure to separate conjoined twins. But what Carson brings to HUD is the personal experience of having grown up poor in Detroit. He has written and spoken extensively about his upbringing, saying that his hard work and passion for reading, along with the firm encouragement of his single mother, helped him to escape the poverty of the inner city.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: Again, loyalty. Carson endorsed Trump after he dropped out of the presidential race, and though he wasn’t his most effective surrogate, he stayed with him through the ups and downs of the general election. Trump lambasted him during the primary, mocking his childhood struggle with what Trump described as “a pathological temper.” The two have long since patched things up, however. Carson was pegged for a Cabinet post early on, but it figured to be the Department of Health and Human Services, given his deep experience in medicine. Trump and Carson do appear to share an up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy toward combating poverty, where government programs play a smaller role than they do now.
Liabilities: Carson joined several other Trump Cabinet officials in being the subject of unflattering reports over government spending. He shelled out more than $31,000 on a dining set for his office after a senior HUD official reportedly complained that “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair” in acting out redecorating orders from Carson’s wife.
Job status: Shaky of late. Carson was reportedly one of four Cabinet members who John Kelly reprimanded in private meetings over the poor optics of their lavish spending habits.
Department of Energy
Secretary: Former Texas Governor Rick Perry
Background: Perry served three-and-a-half terms as the governor of Texas, succeeding George W. Bush after he became president. He then ran for president twice, failing to win the Republican nomination in 2012 and then again in 2016. His experience in energy-rich Texas would, on the surface, seem to make him a natural fit, but the Energy Department is actually more of a national security agency that’s responsible for designing and protecting the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. The last two energy secretaries were award-winning scientists.
Government experience: Three-and-a-half terms as governor of Texas, a short stint as lieutenant governor, and eight years as Texas agriculture commissioner.
Why Trump likes him: Perry is another example of a Republican who fought bitterly with Trump only to make amends. Early in the 2016 race, Perry was actually more confrontational with Trump than any other Republican. He gave an entire speech devoted to attacking him in July 2015, during which he said Trump was “a cancer on conservatism.” But Perry was out of the race a few months later, and he came around to Trump once he secured the nomination and campaigned for his election.
Liabilities: “Oops.” As Democrats reminded the public to no end, the Energy Department was the Cabinet post that Perry infamously forgot he wanted to eliminate during a Republican primary debate in 2011. Though embarrassing, that comment has faded as Perry has gone about his job with relatively little controversy over the past 14 months.
Job status: Safe. Despite having twice run for president himself, Perry has been one of the most under-the-radar Cabinet officials. In Trump’s government, that’s good for job security.
Department of Labor
Trump’s pick: Alexander Acosta
Background: Acosta is a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, having served as head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division and later as a U.S. attorney in Florida. He also served for a year as a member of the National Labor Relations Board, and for the last eight years as dean of Florida International University’s law school.
Government experience: Extensive. Acosta served in the federal government for nearly the entire George W. Bush administration in a variety of roles.
Why Trump likes him: Acosta had a sterling academic and legal pedigree, having graduated from Harvard and clerked for future Justice Samuel Alito when he served on a federal appellate court. Trump reportedly also wanted a Hispanic in his Cabinet, and while that may have not been an overriding factor, Acosta’s nomination did check that box. Finally, as Trump noted, Acosta had already won Senate confirmation three times, and after the failure of his first labor nominee, Andrew Puzder, the president needed someone who could get the job.
Liabilities: Democrats asked about Acosta’s time in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, which overlapped with the scandal over the politicization of the hiring of U.S. attorneys. As David A. Graham wrote, Acosta’s deputy was Bradley Schlozman, who was faulted by an inspector general’s report for inappropriately considering politics and ideology when screening federal prosecutors. But Acosta was not formally rebuked, and that decade-old controversy did not derail his confirmation.
Job status: Secure.
Previous nominee: Andrew Puzder, who withdrew on February 15
Department of Transportation
Secretary: Elaine Chao
Background: As labor secretary for the full two terms of the George W. Bush administration, Chao brings more civilian experience in the federal government than anyone else in Trump’s Cabinet. Before that, she directed the Peace Corps and led United Way. During the first Bush administration, Chao also served as a deputy secretary in the department she is poised to lead.
Government experience: Extensive: see above.
Why Trump likes her: While Trump surely appreciated Chao’s deep experience in government and Washington, there was probably another factor in his decision to nominate her for transportation secretary: Chao is married to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and a man who holds wide sway over whether Trump’s agenda makes it into law. In particular, she’s been a key player in Trump’s push for an expensive infrastructure package.
Liabilities: Virtually none. Given her government experience and obvious qualifications for the post, Chao might be the least controversial of any of Trump’s choices so far. Her selection even won praise from Vice President Joe Biden.
Job status: Safe. Chao has taken on a bigger role with Trump finally pushing his long-awaited infrastructure proposal in Congress. And with the president no longer openly warring with Chao’s husband, the Cabinet meetings are probably less awkward.
Department of Education
Trump’s pick: Betsy DeVos
Background: DeVos is a longtime philanthropist and Republican donor and the former chairwoman of the state party in Michigan. She’s been a major advocate for education reform centered on expanding charter schools and private-school vouchers. She led the advocacy group, American Federation for Children, that pushes for increased school choice for parents. The New York Times reported on her successful effort to kill legislation in Detroit that would have imposed tougher accountability standards on charter schools.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes her: Trump has shown that he favors plucking people from the private sector who will come in and shake up a government agency, and DeVos fits that bill. She has strong support among Republican school reformers, especially those who favor both expanding charter schools and vouchers. (Democrats favor the former but not the latter.) She is further to the right on education than two other women Trump interviewed: Eva Moskowitz, a charter school leader in New York, and Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools.
Liabilities: DeVos barely won Senate confirmation on a 51-50 margin that needed a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. She hasn’t had an easy time since, facing protesters at speeches and during school visits. Most recently, she struggled to handle tough questions about public education during an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes.
Job status: Shakier than before. White House officials were reportedly “alarmed” at DeVos’s performance on 60 Minutes, although with so much else dominating the headlines, that stumble could easily blow over.
Department of the Interior
Trump’s pick: Former Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana
Background: Zinke was a Republican member of the House who had just been reelected to his second term. He had been expected to run for the Senate in 2018, but at least for now, he’s heading the Interior Department. Zinke served for more than 20 years in the Navy SEALs before entering politics, earning numerous medals. In Congress, he has opposed the sale of federal lands but supported mining and drilling on them.
Government experience: Two decades in the military and two years in Congress.
Why Trump likes him: Trump was, not surprisingly, impressed with Zinke’s military background, and the congressman reportedly impressed Trump’s son Donald Jr., an avid sportsman who was influenced by the recommendation of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Liabilities: Like others in Trump’s Cabinet, Zinke has drawn criticism and scrutiny from ethics watchdogs over his travel spending habits.
Job status: If Trump decides to clean house of scandal-plagued Cabinet officials, Zinke could be in trouble. But he has been a favorite of Trump’s adult sons, giving him possibly a little added protection in the administration.
Department of Commerce
Trump’s pick: Wilbur Ross
Background: Another billionaire, Ross is the chairman of a private equity firm that he founded and later sold. For 25 years, he led Rothschild Inc., where he made a reputation as a turnaround specialist who bought up and restructured steel, textile, and mining companies, among other industries.
Government experience: None.
Why Trump likes him: The two businessmen go back many years together and share a critical view of U.S. trade policy in the last two decades. Ross, who specialized in turning around manufacturing firms, served as an adviser to Trump during the campaign. Ross, the president-elect said in nominating him, “is a champion of American manufacturing and knows how to help companies succeed. Most importantly, he is one of the greatest negotiators I have ever met, and that comes from me, the author of The Art of the Deal.”
Liabilities: Ross has been in and out of favor with Trump, and he was roundly mocked in the press after reports emerged that he had a habit of dozing off in meetings. But his stock rose when Trump sided with him and trade adviser Peter Navarro over chief economic adviser Gary Cohn in the debate over tariffs.
Job status: At least until Trump changes his mind on tariffs, Ross is probably safe.
Department of Agriculture
Secretary: Sonny Perdue
Background: Perdue is the former governor of Georgia, having served two terms ending in 2011. An immigration hawk, he grew up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine.
Government experience: Two terms as Georgia governor and a decade in the state legislature
Why Trump likes him: Trump took a while to pick an agriculture secretary and went with a drama-free Southerner whose cousin, David Perdue, is one of the president’s closest allies in the Senate.
Liabilities: The pick initially irked Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who wanted Trump to select a Midwesterner for the nation’s top farm job. But Perdue had a smooth confirmation process and has been a low-key Cabinet member since.
Job status: Safe.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Original secretary: Dr. David Shulkin
Trump's first replacement: Dr. Ronny L. Jackson
Trump’s current pick: Robert Wilkie
Reason for change: Shulkin, the only Obama administration holdover in Trump’s Cabinet, appeared to be off to a strong start, as he received praise from the president. But over time, he drew criticism from conservatives pushing for the privatization of veterans’ health care. His relationship with his own staff also began to crumble, eventually leading to an armed guard being posted outside his office.
Background: Trump picked Wilkie in May after his first choice to replace Shulkin, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, withdrew his nomination amid allegations of workplace misconduct. Wilkie served in several senior positions at the Pentagon before Trump asked him to lead the VA on an interim basis after Shulkin’s ouster. With his nomination in May, the president now wants him to have the job permanently.
Government experience: Wilkie has had a long career in Washington, first advising former Senator Trent Lott before joining the National Security Council and then the Defense Department under President George W. Bush.
Why Trump likes him: The president didn’t say much about Wilkie during his surprise announcement of his nomination. But presumably, he likes his long experience in government and wanted a steady hand who could have a smooth confirmation after the failure of his first choice, Jackson.
Liabilities: If Wilkie has any past scandals or critics, they have yet to come forward. He won confirmation to his post as undersecretary of defense in 2017 without opposition.
Chances of confirmation: Solid.
Key sub-Cabinet positions
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency
Trump’s pick: Scott Pruitt
Background: Pruitt was the attorney general of Oklahoma, and in that position he led the conservative legal fight against the Obama administration’s agenda to combat climate change. Along with other Republican attorneys general, he sued to stop the administration’s climate rules—a case that is still pending in federal court. Like Trump, he has voiced doubts about the science behind climate change and its connection to manmade activities.
Government experience: Six years as Oklahoma attorney general, and eight years in the Oklahoma state senate
Job status: A bit shakier than before. Pruitt impressed Trump by moving aggressively to roll back Obama-era environmental rules, but he, too, has generated a ton of negative press for his penchant for first-class travel and his insistence on being surrounded by armed security wherever he goes. Along with Shulkin, Carson, and Zinke, he was among the Cabinet members that received a talking-to from Kelly over the travel spending.
Ambassador to the United Nations
Trump’s pick: Former Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina
Background: Haley has been considered a rising Republican star ever since she won election as governor of South Carolina in 2010. She gave her highly sought-after endorsement to Marco Rubio in the GOP presidential primary, and she was seen as a likely vice presidential pick if Rubio had won the nomination. But Rubio didn’t, and Trump’s early selection of Haley as his nominee for U.N. ambassador was a bit of a surprise. She has no formal foreign-policy experience, but her background as the conservative daughter of Indian immigrants undoubtedly appealed to Trump.
Government experience: Six years as South Carolina governor, and another six as a state legislator before that
Job status: Secure.
Director, Office of Management and Budget
Trump’s pick: Former Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina
Background: Mulvaney was a hard-line conservative in the House and a founding member of the Freedom Caucus. He was a frequent critic of former Speaker John Boehner and voted for budget and debt proposals that called for steep spending cuts across discretionary and entitlement spending programs. The question is whether his support for overhauling Medicare and Social Security and his resistance to major increases in defense spending will conflict with Trump, who took opposing views on the campaign trail.
Government experience: Six years in the U.S. House and four years as a state legislator in South Carolina
Job status: So secure he has not one top job but two: Trump installed him as the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Original director: Mike Pompeo
Trump’s replacement: Gina Haspel
Reason for change: Trump elevated Pompeo to replace Tillerson as secretary of state.
Background: Haspel would be the first woman to serve as CIA director. She worked closely with Pompeo in over a year as deputy director, but she has a checkered past in the CIA: She oversaw the torture of a terrorism suspect in 2002 and then took part in an effort to destroy video evidence of the activity, according to The New York Times.
Government experience: Haspel spent 30 years in the CIA before rising to deputy director and, upon Senate confirmation, director.
Status of nomination: Confirmed on May 17