Florida Republicans like what they see in President-elect Donald Trump's administration

His Cabinet choices draw some GOP praise, but how do they play with diehard outsiders?
Published December 16 2016
Updated December 17 2016

So much for draining the swamp in Washington.

Billionaire, populist, outsider Donald Trump has drawn heavily from Washington and Wall Street insiders in filling out his administration, and even Republicans once aghast or wary of the prospect of a President Trump are cheering pick after pick.

• "They are good, solid, conservative leadership-type picks," said a "very heartened" U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, who withdrew his endorsement in October after the Access Hollywood videotape surfaced of Trump boasting about groping women.

• "Fabulous," said Mel Sembler, the former ambassador and former Republican National Committee finance chairman. "He's surprised a lot people in how effective he's been."

• "I think he's had a great month, I really do," gushed state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon.

• Republican banker Hjalma Johnson of Dade City: "I can't take exception with any of his choices. He's leaned toward successful, outstanding people who happen to be on the conservative side, but their accomplishments are genuine. These folks have excelled in everything they've done."

• Even low-energy Jeb Bush, belittled for months by Trump during the Republican presidential nomination fight, has been a cheerleader for Trump's transition, hailing the selection of close Bush ally Betsy DeVos for education commissioner, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas for CIA director and Gen. John Kelly for homeland security.

"Another good pick: @AndyPuzder is a strong conservative leader and successful businessman who will do a phenomenal job as Labor Secretary," Bush tweeted about the fast food executive.

Wonder how many Trump fans who watched him thunder against the status quo this year expected he would pick for his labor secretary one of the country's most vocal supporters of "Gang of Eight" immigration reform and legalizing undocumented immigrants, as Puzder is.

Or pick a longtime Common Core supporter like DeVos for his education commissioner. Or stack his administration with current and former Goldman Sachs honchos (Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary, Gary Cohn for National Economic Council director and chief strategist Stephen Bannon).

Or name a supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as secretary of state and Sen. Mitch McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, for transportation secretary.

"Once you get past the hypocrisy of it all, this is by and large a pretty good Bush cabinet," quipped Tallahassee lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Bush supporter and one of Florida's most prominent #NeverTrump Republicans. "My problem is not with Donald Trump's Cabinet, my problem is with the president-elect of the United States."

Nancy McGowan, a conservative activist and fundraiser in Jacksonville, trusts Trump's judgment but worries about Washington insiders wielding too much influence on the transition. She applauded Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, but said many of the other choices — especially DeVos — bother her.

"These selections would have been picked by someone like Jeb Bush, who couldn't even make it to the Florida primary. . . . A lot of these picks are not consistent with the agenda he ran on," she said. "A lot of people feel like I do, and if he loses his base, who will be there to protect him?"

Trump remains an enigmatic and unpredictable politician, so making assumptions about how he will govern is suspect before he actually gets to work with a Republican-controlled Congress at his side. But his staffing decisions should reassure mainstream conservatives who feared the longtime New York City Democrat would move to the middle once elected. Many Democrats appreciate his interest in an infrastructure spending program, but fellow Republicans in Washington sound skeptical, and Trump's actions matter more than his words.

Yes, he met at length with Al Gore, but less than 48 hours later he named a fierce critic of the Environmental Protection Agency and fellow climate change skeptic, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, to run the EPA.

Yes, Trump sounded like he might be softening on deporting young, undocumented "Dreamers" ("They got brought here at a very young age, they've worked here, they've gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs," he told Time, promising to "make people happy and proud"), and then he nominated illegal immigration hard-liner Sessions as attorney general.

He nominated former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has advocated doing away with the Department of Energy, to lead the Department of Energy, and a tea party Republican, U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid services for more than 100 million Americans.

Trump's administration looks much more insider than many expected. It also appears more conservative in many respects than the candidate who sounded uninterested in deficit reductions or entitlement reform.

"I like rhetoric to match action, but if I have to choose one way or the other, I choose actions and . . . so far so good with the decisive actions he's taken," said Christian Cámara of Tallahassee, Florida director of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. "I've been surprised. I thought there would be more moderate elements in his administration."

Democrats see little to like so far.

Rep. Kathy Castor found almost no optimistic signs in the budding Trump administration, faulting his reliance on wealthy businessmen for key positions.

"I'm very concerned that when you have a cabinet like that, they can be out of touch with the challenges of working families," the Tampa Democrat said.

She also faulted Trump's pick of Tillerson for secretary of state. "He has enormous personal conflicts of interest, not just his close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, but the significant conflicts based upon his longstanding career at Exxon Mobil."

Castor said Trump's climate change stance — he has called global warming a hoax — could hurt Florida's economy because of future increases in property insurance, beach renourishment and other environmental concerns, which include flooding.

"I see that as a real risk to the economic well-being of the state," she said.

Miami Republican activist Lourdes Castillo de la Peña was a strong Ted Cruz supporter in the primary, but came to admire Trump. She would give his administration picks so far only a B- or C+ because too many seem like political insiders, but like many Trump supporters, she strongly trusts his judgment.

That's why she gives him the benefit of the doubt on the questions that keep surfacing about ties to Russia and Putin.

"It does concern me. I have a feeling there is something there, but I trust that Trump's ego is so big that he's not going to make the wrong move for the country that would make him look bad," she said.

Such faith by his supporters is what helped Trump survive countless campaign gaffes and misstatements, the Access Hollywood tape, allegations of misconduct by his businesses and foundation, and more. It's also what worries Republican consultant Rick Wilson, another of Florida's most prominent #NeverTrump conservatives.

"Look at his Cabinet. These are the globalists his people hated. These are the Wall Street vulture capitalists his people hated, and for the most part his people have shown again and again they just don't care," Wilson said. "Part of the danger of this entire situation is there is no consequence to Trump for any mistake, any action, any statement ever. The people that support Donald Trump support him with an unconditional fervor that is completely distinct from the realities happening around them."

Imagine how Republicans would react if a Democratic president-elect decided never to release tax returns, Wilson said, or cozied up to Putin, or shrugged off blatant potential conflicts of interests between business interests and the presidency.

"And imagine if a Democratic president said, 'I'm going to have a press conference to tell you how I'm going to divest (business interests),' and then canceled it and met with Kanye (West). We'd be losing our minds. Our brains would be exploding," Wilson said.

For now, Trump remains both an enigma and a vessel on which Americans can project their hopes. Eventually, results matter.

The governing starts Jan. 20.

"If he can deliver on and meet some of the expectations he set during the campaign, it's going to really restore a lot of confidence," Sen. Lee said. "And if he can't, it's going to be a bloody midterm in 2018."

Times staff writers Michael Auslen and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.

               
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