Trump Taps Multiple HBS Alumni for Senior Administration Positions

Philip Piro, US Politics Editor

On January 20, 2017, shortly after being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump formally submitted nominations for his Cabinet members and key senior advisors. Amongst the slate of those nominated to serve in senior administration positions are several notable HBS alumni. In fact, beyond HBS, Harvard as a whole is well represented throughout the ranks of key people in the Trump Administration.

Trump, who completed his undergraduate studies at Wharton, has tapped notable HBS alumni Elaine Chao (MBA ’79), Wilbur Ross (MBA ’61) and Steve Bannon (MBA ‘85) to serve in key positions.

These individuals will bring a broad array of perspectives to their positions, which will draw on their extensive private and public sector experience. Broadly speaking, Trump’s mix of Cabinet nominations reveals his broader strategy to work with a mix of Washington outsiders and political veterans.

Nominated to serve as Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao brings to the White House a long career in the public sector. Chao previously served as Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush Administration and was the first Asian American woman in history to be nominated to the Cabinet. While she was at HBS, Chao was an active member of her class and served as both Class Secretary and Class Marshall. The links between HBS and the Chao family still run deep, as evidenced by the Chao Center on the HBS campus. After receiving an MBA, Chao spent several years working in banking before accepting a White House Fellowship in the Reagan Administration, which marked the beginning of a 30-year career in public service. Chao will be one of the main strategy architects of any major infrastructure spending that occurs during her tenure.

Investor and businessman Wilbur Ross has been nominated to the position of Secretary of Commerce. Ross worked for a number of years at Rothschild, where he specialized in advising clients in bankruptcy and restructuring matters. Ross eventually launched his own firm, W.L. Ross & Co., to invest in distressed businesses, with a specific focus on heavy industry and manufacturing companies. Ross’ intimate knowledge of business and value generation will serve as a strong foundation for his role as Commerce Secretary. Trump’s laser-like focus on job creation and the economy will put Ross in a critically important role in the Administration.

Steve Bannon, tapped by Trump to serve as White House Chief Strategist, brings to the Administration a broad array of experiences in finance, media, and entertainment. Bannon, who served for 7 years in the Navy, worked for several years at Goldman Sachs before launching his own boutique investment banking advisory firm. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Bannon was active in Hollywood and produced many films, including several that were political in nature. These films, in addition to other political activities, eventually led Bannon to meet Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the controversial Breitbart News. Bannon became CEO of Breitbart News after Andrew Breitbart died in 2012, and Bannon served in this role until joining the Trump campaign in August 2016. Bannon, along with Trump’s other senior advisors, is credited with plotting several key strategic decisions that helped Trump win the presidency.

Taking a broader look at Trump’s Cabinet versus past administrations reveals some interesting observations about his strategy and intentions. The Los Angeles Times recently compiled education and experience data on the Trump, Obama and Bush Administrations’ first-term proposed Cabinets. The data show that Trump nominated 14 people with graduate-level degrees, while Obama nominated 16 and Bush nominated 13. Additionally, 14 of Trump’s Cabinet nominees have prior political experience, compared with 18 of Obama’s nominees and 20 of Bush’s nominees. President Trump’s focus on renegotiating trade deals and bringing a business-minded perspective to Washington is clearly evident in his slate of Cabinet picks. What remains to be seen is how quickly members of Trump’s Cabinet, especially those with no prior political experience, can adapt to the customs and norms that embody politics in Washington. Alternatively, and more likely, President Trump is hoping his nominees do the opposite: change their departments to the new political vision that helped Trump get elected.

Philip Piro (HBS ’18) is passionate about politics, current events and international relations. He previously managed a food manufacturing facility in PA, launched a beverage company that ended up failing, and spent a number of years in a cubicle at an investment bank. He is passionate about high growth businesses, disruptive ideas and the intersection of politics and the economy. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, playing golf and cooking.