A Tale of Two Cabinet Meetings
President Biden held his first full cabinet meeting yesterday. It ought to be remembered for how abnormal it was. Instead of meeting around the mahogany table in the Cabinet Room, the Biden cabinet spread out around a rectangle of tables in the East Room, physically distanced so officials could comfortably interact. They all wore masks, so when you look at the group photo they took in the Grand Foyer, it’s a little tricky to tell who’s who.
So it ought to be remembered for being extraordinary.
But I couldn’t help but notice how blessedly ordinary it was, especially compared to the cabinet meetings of the last administration.
On June 12, 2017, Donald Trump held his first full cabinet meeting.
On April 1, 2021, Biden held his. Which is to say that, despite delays in Biden’s cabinet confirmations caused by Trump’s postelection intransigence, Biden got his cabinet together more quickly than Trump did his.
Trump, who had promised to drain the swamp, included several swamp dwellers and über-rich individuals in his first cabinet—which was overwhelmingly comprised of aging white males. There were only four women and one African American among the twenty-two officials in Trump’s first cabinet.
Biden’s cabinet is more reflective of the makeup of the country. It includes the first Native American cabinet official, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, as well as the first openly gay cabinet official, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Of the twenty-five participants in yesterday’s meeting—including the president and vice president, the cabinet, and various other cabinet-level appointees—twelve were women.
But it’s not about the bean-counting. Instead, look at how the members of each cabinet comported themselves while at the White House.
I was present for the first cabinet meetings of both presidents and the difference is night and day. At Trump’s first meeting, he began by singing his own praises and telling the world no one had done more than him. “Never has there been a president, with few exceptions—in the case of FDR, he had a major Depression to handle—who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Trump said, looking right at the television cameras he allowed into the room as he orchestrated a made-for-television moment. “We’ve achieved tremendous success,” Trump crowed. “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at just about a record-setting pace.”
Then he went around the room and the members of his cabinet introduced themselves—and they, too, sang his praises. The fawning was cringeworthy. “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda,” said Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. If one didn’t know better you’d think Priebus had made a dig on the president by claiming the cabinet was serving Trump’s agenda—and not the country. It wasn’t the only Trump cabinet meeting with bizarre suck-uppery, but it was the first.
Trump kicked the press out of the room after his ring had been adequately kissed, and held court for a while before the cabinet dispersed. What was the meeting about? It was about Trump. Afterward, as members of the cabinet left, I strategically placed myself outside the White House press offices to get what comments I could.
I remember swagger. I remember puffed-up pride. I remember Mike Pompeo’s sneer—or maybe I just remember he always sneered. The sense of entitlement from Trump’s team, along with the anger at the press and the self-righteousness of the White House staff was hard to forget. “I know where I’m going. I know what I’m doing,” someone said to me with false bravado—although I can’t now remember whether it was Rick Perry or Ryan Zinke, who also told me that plowing up all the national forests and stripping them of natural resources was okay as long as we replanted.
It wasn’t James Mattis or John Kelly, who rarely said anything to anyone they didn’t know or trust—and it sure wasn’t Mick Mulvaney who always glided through the White House as if he was a used car salesman. But at the end of the day, the first Trump cabinet had the attitude of a smack-talking pro-wrestler and the demeanor of a high school student council.
And things did not go well for many members of Trump’s cabinet. Some he fired, like Rex Tillerson (canned while on the toilet) and Jeff Sessions (whose obsequiousness couldn’t save him). Trump made Kelly his chief of staff before firing him, too. Mattis resigned over policy disagreements but Trump angrily said that he “essentially” fired him. Others, like Zinke and Scott Pruitt, quit amid scandals. And even some of the bitter enders, like Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos, symbolically quit after Trump’s January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Of course, it is yet to be seen if Biden’s cabinet will be a success or a failure. What can be said at this still early date is that this is a far more serious team. The president allowed the press in to get some pictures yesterday, nobody bowed and scraped to him, and then he kicked us out and told us he’d talk to us later.
And there was an agenda. Biden is proposing massive spending for overhauling the country’s aged and failing infrastructure, including repairs to roads, bridges, and rail; rebuilding our water, electricity, and information transmission systems; and upgrading our nation’s schools. He instructed five cabinet officials—the transportation, housing, commerce, energy, and labor secretaries—to get to work promoting the plan.
After the meeting yesterday, I again strategically placed myself outside the White House press offices to see if I could get a comment from any of the new cabinet members.
It was a little harder to recognize some of the members of the Biden cabinet behind their masks, but Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the ambassador to the United Nations, was talking to press staff as I approached. She was confident and cool. She didn’t act as if she knew her way around—in fact, she asked directions. I told her if she made a wrong turn and ran into the press to just answer all the questions we wanted. She smiled, thanked me, and left.
No one wanted to stay to talk through masks with the lone member of the press standing in the doorway watching them leave, although some said a few words as they walked by. As Chief of Staff Ron Klain headed in the direction of his office, he said what sounded like the meeting “went well.” Still, it was an excellent chance to observe. Helen Thomas often said she learned more from watching the staff than anything else. I agree.
Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen was bright-eyed with an infectious smile and told her staff that if in the future they wanted to come to the press office she’d call ahead to quickly clear out the reporters. I told her I was too fat, old, and ugly to move anywhere quickly and she laughed.
Attorney General Merrick Garland had someone, apparently a member of his staff, help him with a satchel and papers. He was calm, warm, and entirely professional—a stark contrast with Jeff Sessions, whose presence was furtive, who always appeared uncomfortable, and who, like most of Trump’s staff, always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. Garland looked like he was preparing to go to the park with his kids.
Biden’s cabinet will almost certainly have its share of stumbles and screw-ups and scandals. But every indication is that they will be at normal levels, not at the frenzied heights of Trump’s administration.
Early in the Trump years, there was a saying tossed around a lot: that the “adults in the room”—on Trump’s cabinet and staff—would temper or control the president. That didn’t work out; Trump just booted the “adults” from the room.
I’m tempted to say that the adults are back in the room—but really, what’s striking is that there’s no need even to use such language. What a relief that is.