Trump''s Wealthy Appointments Contrast With Populist Campaign Tone

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Trump's Wealthy Appointments Contrast With Populist Campaign Tone

By Rebecca Ballhaus

President-elect Donald Trump, who ran a populist campaign, so far is assembling one of the wealthiest administration teams in recent memory.

In the past few weeks, Mr. Trump has appointed three fellow billionaires to top administration positions, and at least two other millionaires to his cabinet.

On Wednesday, he confirmed that he had tapped Wilbur Ross, the chairman of a private-equity firm, to serve as commerce secretary . Mr. Ross has a net worth estimated at about $2.5 billion as of Dec. 1, according to Forbes magazine.

Mr. Trump also appointed Todd Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and who Forbes says is worth about $1.7 billion, to serve as deputy commerce secretary.

Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions, was chosen as Treasury secretary, and Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist whose family has a net worth of about $5.1 billion, was picked to head the Education Department.

All told, Mr. Trump's choices for those four positions have a combined net worth of at least $8.1 billion -- more than four times the net worth of President Barack Obama's appointees for those posts in 2013 and about 20 times the worth of President George W. Bush's picks at the outset of his second term, according to an inflation-adjusted Wall Street Journal analysis of Forbes net-worth estimates and financial-disclosure forms. All the appointees' net worth included their extended families in the Journal's analysis.

Jason Miller, a spokesman for Mr. Trump's transition, called Mr. Trump's prospective appointees a "cabinet of winners," and said their backgrounds give them insight into how to improve the economy for the middle class workers in America.

Mr. Trump's selections have won praise from many lawmakers in his party, who say his appointees' time in the private sector will help them approach key policy issues from a fresh angle. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that Mr. Mnuchin's private-sector experience would allow him to " play a pivotal role in bicameral efforts to revamp the nation's outdated tax code to create a healthier economic environment."

Still, the concentration of wealth in Mr. Trump's cabinet contrasts with the businessman's rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he struck a populist tone. He accused hedge-fund managers of "getting away with murder" by taking advantage of tax-code loopholes and railed against the "financial elite" who donate to politicians for bolstering a rigged system that left "millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache."

His rhetoric helped him win over voters in the $50,000-$99,000 household-income bracket, 50% of whom backed him over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who got 46% of their votes. Among voters making $30,000 to $50,000, he lost by just 9 percentage points, down from Mitt Romney's 15-point losing margin to President Obama in 2012.

Nominating wealthy business executives to serve in an administration isn't uncommon. Mr. Obama in 2013 tapped Penny Pritzker -- a hotel heiress worth $1.85 billion at the time, according to Forbes -- to serve as commerce secretary. Mr. Bush chose Henry Paulson -- a former Goldman Sachs CEO worth between $190 million and $392 million, according to his personal financial disclosure -- to head the Treasury Department in 2006.

It is rarer, however, to have such a dense concentration of millionaires and billionaires in a cabinet. Mr. Obama tapped Ms. Pritzker, but also nominated Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose net worth was at most $175,000 in 2013, according to financial-disclosure forms he filed at the time.

Mr. Mnuchin is the founder of a hedge fund and he, along with White House special counselor Steve Bannon, once worked at Goldman Sachs -- whose ties to other candidates Mr. Trump attacked during the campaign. Messrs. Ross and Ricketts were both top fundraisers for Mr. Trump during the campaign, and top donors also populate Mr. Trump's transition team executive and finance committees.

Mr. Miller, the Trump spokesman, said Messrs. Mnuchin and Ross helped Mr. Trump craft his "economic populist message" and now will help implement it. "There's nobody better to understand how the tax code works, to understand how trade policies work, to understand just how American workers have been treated unfairly in recent years," Mr. Miller said of the two wealthy appointees.

Mr. Trump's appointments have drawn criticism from both parties. Joe Walsh, a former Illinois congressman turned conservative radio host who backed the Republican, tweeted on Wednesday, "Mr. Trump, this is bullshit. Can you hire someone who doesn't work for Goldman Sachs?"

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) in a statement Wednesday called Mr. Mnuchin "just another Wall Street insider, " and said of Mr. Trump's choice: "That is hypocrisy at its worst."

The wealth of Mr. Trump's appointees could complicate the Senate confirmation process ahead.

Economic posts, such as treasury and commerce secretary, require appointees to sell off their assets, other than mutual and investment funds that don't disclose their holdings, to avoid any conflict of interest.

In addition to being an arduous process -- it took Ms. Pritzker at least five months to complete -- divesting also comes at a "significant economic cost," said Robert Rizzi, a lawyer who has long aided political appointees, including Ms. Pritzker, who are seeking Senate confirmation.

Mr. Trump's nascent administration may soon be adding more wealthy members.

Among the names mentioned to head the Energy Department are Harold Hamm, an oil executive whose net worth Forbes estimates at $16.6 billion; millionaire Andy Puzder has been rumored as a possible labor secretary; and Mitt Romney, whose $250 million net worth became a major issue during the 2012 presidential campaign, is one of four candidates being considered for secretary of state.

On Wednesday, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue met with Mr. Trump to discuss "agriculture, productivity and needing new trade deals," he said after the session. Asked if they had discussed the post of Agriculture Secretary, Mr. Perdue, a multimillionaire, said the conversation wasn't that specific.

"He asked me what my skills sets were," he said.

"Aside from having been governor," Mr. Perdue noted his work "as a business person and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally."

"He lit up," Mr. Perdue said.

--Michael C. Bender contributed to this article.

  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
  Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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