WASHINGTON — Donald Trump may have put them in the most powerful and prestigious jobs many will ever hold, but few who worked in his Cabinet are rushing to endorse him in his bid to return to the White House.
NBC News reached out to 44 of the dozens of people who served in Trump's Cabinet over his term in office. Most declined to comment or ignored the requests. A total of four have said publicly they support his run for re-election. Several have been coy about where they stand, stopping short of endorsing Trump with the GOP primary race underway. Then there are those who outright oppose his bid for the GOP nomination or are adamant that they don't want him back in power.
“I have made clear that I strongly oppose Trump for the nomination and will not endorse Trump,” former Attorney General Bill Barr told NBC News. Asked how he would vote if the general election pits Trump against President Joe Biden, a Democrat, Barr said: “I’ll jump off that bridge when I get to it.”
The Trump campaign declined to comment beyond pointing to three former Cabinet members as people to contact — one of whom has endorsed Trump and two others who, when asked, didn't commit to endorsing him at this time.
A president’s Cabinet gets a unique window into his priorities, temperament and managerial style. Tasked with running the administration day-to-day, Cabinet members see first-hand the impact of policies he touted on the campaign trail and put forward in office. They sit with him in regular meetings at the White House, listen to him vent and act as surrogates, crisscrossing the country to amplify his message.
“I’ll jump off that bridge when I get to it.”
Former Attorney General Bill Barr on a possible Trump v Biden election
As president, Trump for the most part didn’t seem to either prize or develop the reciprocal loyalty that might have turned his Cabinet into a campaign asset that would help validate his contention that his was a hugely successful presidency.
"They’re not friends; they’re not hanging on forever," Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, said of Trump's Cabinet members. "They’re going to skip out, or he’s going to push them out in some instances."
Those backing Trump's bid for another term include former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker; Mark Meadows, his final chief of staff; former budget chief Russell Vought; and former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, who in June tweeted "Trump 2024" above a tweet from Trump's main GOP rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A spokesman for Meadows said he “fully” supports Trump, while Vought tweeted in May that Trump “is the only person I trust to take a wrecking ball to the Deep State.”
“I’ve seen his willingness up close & behind closed doors,” Vought added. “My friend & former boss is going to finish what he started.”
Linda McMahon, the former head of the Small Business Administration, now chairs the board of the America First Policy Institute, a conservative think tank staffed by a number of Trump allies and former administration officials. McMahon, through an institute spokesman, did not respond to NBC News’s inquiry about whom she plans to endorse.
The upper reaches of Trump’s government were something of a revolving door during his four-year term. In some cases, he jettisoned Cabinet members he deemed disloyal or incompetent; in others, the Cabinet members left him over policy disputes. Two resigned at the bitter end in disapproval of his actions during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
A Brookings Institution analysis of Cabinet members directly in the presidential line of succession showed that turnover in Trump’s final year in office — when he was running for re-election — dwarfed that of every president since Ronald Reagan.
Those who’ve not endorsed Trump at this point include his former secretary of state and CIA director, Mike Pompeo; a former defense secretary, Pat Shanahan; one former chief of staff, John Kelly; and two of his directors of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire and Dan Coats.
Another former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is among those who wants Trump defeated in the GOP primaries.
“I am working hard to make sure that someone else is the nominee,” Mulvaney said. “I think he’s the Republican who is most likely to lose in a general election, of all our leading candidates. If anyone can lose to Joe Biden, it would be him.”
Former defense secretary Mark Esper told CNN in an interview earlier this month that he doesn’t plan on endorsing anyone and believes Trump is not “fit for office because he puts himself first and I think anybody running for office should put the country first.”
Two former Cabinet members are now running against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination: former Vice President Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Coats said he is backing Pence.
"I think he has all the qualities to be a great president," said Coats, a former Republican senator from Pence's home state of Indiana. "I know it's a steep climb for him, but I think the steps he has taken now show the integrity of who he is and his qualifications."
A number of Cabinet members contacted by NBC News either declined comment or did not respond. That in itself is a source of frustration for some anti-Trump advocates, who would like to see more people who've worked closely with Trump speak candidly about the experience.
"Incredibly, this guy [Trump] and this movement are not just alive, they’re thriving," said Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official and fierce critic of the ex-president. "And that is really alarming to me. There’s an obligation for folks to paint a clear-eyed picture of what this means."
In some cases, former officials publicly broke with Trump years ago, and there has been no sign that relations have thawed.
Elaine Chao, Trump’s former transportation secretary, resigned in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot. Trump has derisively referred to her as “Coco Chao” and she, in turn, has condemned his rhetoric.
"When I was young, some people deliberately misspelled or mispronounced my name," Chao has said. "Asian Americans have worked hard to change that experience for the next generation. He doesn’t seem to understand that, which says a whole lot more about him than it will ever say about Asian Americans."
Through a spokesman, Chao did not respond to requests for comment. She is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. When NBC News asked McConnell in the Capitol last week if his wife would weigh in on the 2024 presidential race, he listened to the question, smiled and then walked onto the Senate floor without answering.
Rex Tillerson, a former secretary of state, declined comment through a spokeswoman. He ran afoul of Trump early in the term. In a meeting in the summer of 2017, Tillerson privately referred to Trump as a “moron,” NBC News reported at the time. Trump ousted Tillerson the following year.
James Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, has been searing in his criticism of his former boss, though he declined to comment when asked if he supports Trump’s candidacy. In a statement to Politico after the Jan. 6 attack, Mattis said that the U.S. would overcome “this stain,” while Trump “will deservedly be left a man without a country.” (As for Trump, he’s described Mattis as “the world’s most overrated general.”)
A few ex-Cabinet members have publicly spoken of Trump in admiring terms, though they haven’t gone so far as to endorse his presidential bid.
“There are probably some uneasy with what they saw,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. “But for many others, especially given the DeSantis factor, they are hedging their bets,” he added, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s struggling campaign. “They are waiting to see how the field unfolds before jumping behind one campaign. The lack of stability in this primary — especially with Trump’s legal problems — will result in caution.”
Ben Carson, Trump’s former housing director, said in a statement to NBC that “Donald Trump is my friend and would make a fantastic president, and if I have an announcement to make about 2024, I’ll look forward to doing so in an appropriate way.”
Ryan Zinke, who served as Trump’s interior secretary and now is a Republican congressman from Montana, did not directly answer when asked by NBC News if he is endorsing Trump. He said his focus now is on Congress.
“I think the president is on glide slope right now, but he’s got some hurdles,” Zinke said of Trump. “From an individual who worked for him, I know he’s tough. They’re throwing everything at him, and he’s got some significant hurdles ahead. I take the indictment seriously, I think everyone should. So he’s got some tough hurdles before him, but I tell you what, there’s only one Donald J. Trump.”
Kelly Craft, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could not be reached for comment. In her unsuccessful campaign for governor of Kentucky this year, Trump endorsed her rival for the Republican nomination, Daniel Cameron.
Craft highlighted her ties to Trump during the campaign. Yet she has made a campaign donation to at least one of Trump’s rivals — Pence, whose campaign said it had gotten a donation from Craft. Federal campaign finance records show the amount to be $6,600.