Cabinet stocked: Perdue lands Agriculture nomination

As expected but long delayed, Donald Trump has chosen former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue for his nominee as Secretary of Agriculture. Perdue’s appointment filled the last open slot in his Cabinet less than two days before Trump’s inauguration. Perdue was long rumored to have the inside track for Ag, so … what took so long?

The New York Times reports that Perdue’s selection got bogged down in concerns in the Trump transition team about diversity:

President-elect Donald J. Trump on Wednesday selected Sonny Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, to be his secretary of agriculture, two senior transition officials said, making his final cabinet selection two days before he is to be sworn in as president.

Mr. Perdue, a onetime veterinarian who was elected in 2003 as Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, campaigned heavily for Mr. Trump in the final months of the presidential race, although he had initially backed a rival, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. …

Mr. Perdue has spoken with Mr. Trump in detail about his views on agriculture and trade, including ways to ensure American producers are not placed at a disadvantage in international agreements. In an interview in December, Mr. Perdue said Mr. Trump had quizzed him on what he would do about unfair trade deals. He said the president-elect “believes that we in the U.S. have been sort of patsies over the years in the way we’ve dealt with our foreign competitors and international trade.”

Mr. Perdue, who once ran a grain and fertilizer business, was among the first candidates Mr. Trump interviewed for the post. But the process dragged on for weeks as the president-elect’s team debated whether it would be better off choosing someone from a different part of the country or selecting an ethnic minority to balance out an overwhelmingly white, male and wealthy cabinet.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball had reported on the same tension earlier in the week. The delay in selecting an Ag Secretary was beginning to raise concerns in the field:

Already, the delay in picking an agriculture secretary has caused alarm. “The lack of quick and decisive action on picking a new Secretary of Agriculture by the Trump administration has given rise to charges that agriculture is not a high priority for the incoming president,” columnist Gary Truitt wrote recently in Hoosier Ag Today. “While this may or may not be true, the fact that this was the last cabinet post to be filled has raised concerns and will produce some challenges for the new nominee.” …

After Perdue’s appointment was floated, reports indicated that the Trump team wanted to pick a woman or Hispanic for the position instead, in order to add diversity to the Cabinet. Elsa Murano, the former president of Texas A&M, and Abel Maldonado, former lieutenant governor of California, have been prominently mentioned. Both have experience with agriculture: Murano, an expert on food safety, was a USDA undersecretary under George W. Bush, while Maldonado is the child of immigrant farmworkers and owns a vineyard. But the idea that the administration might use the USDA post to “balance” the overwhelmingly white and male Cabinet has sparked controversy in agricultural circles.

“I would say there has been anguish,” Gary Baise, a D.C. lawyer who helped Trump marshal rural and agricultural support during the campaign, told me. “Agriculture is too important to use as a dumping ground for political correctness.”

Ball’s article also makes clear that the delay didn’t originate with Perdue:

“Rural America would be really disappointed,” Baise said, if Trump is seen as not keeping faith with the agricultural community. The smart money is still on Trump picking Perdue, according to Baise, a well-connected Republican ag-politics veteran who helped Trump assemble his agriculture advisory team. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment. A source in Perdue’s orbit said he still wants the job and is mystified by the delay.

Clearly policy won out over political correctness, but this demonstrates the tensions between running a populist, anti-elites political campaign and actual governance. The incoming Trump administration knows that it will have to demonstrate a broad mandate for its policies, and one way to create that image is by ensuring diversity within the top echelons of the administration. It’s not so much that diversity of that kind wins points as much as the demonstrable lack of such diversity becomes a distraction.

In the end, though, the policy differences might not have been all that dramatic, at least to outsiders. American agricultural policy has been relatively stable over the last few decades, not exactly a primary ideological battleground. Now that Trump has signaled that he takes that policy seriously rather than viewing the office as little more than a checkbox, the industry can breathe a sigh of relief — but Team Trump will need to work a little harder to demonstrate its diversity.