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Cokie Roberts On Presidents And Their Cabinets


When President Trump was in Helsinki, Russia's President Vladimir Putin presented him with an idea. Russia would allow the U.S. to question Russian citizens who are accused of interfering in the 2016 elections, and in return, Russia could question some U.S. citizens. President Trump at first seemed to find the idea interesting, but members of his Cabinet denounced it. This is not the first time that Cabinet members have disagreed with their president. Here's Jimmy Carter on the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran.


JIMMY CARTER: I ordered this rescue mission prepared in order to safeguard American lives, to protect America's national interests and to reduce the tensions in the world.

KING: A disagreement over whether or not the U.S. should pursue a military rescue caused Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign. Every week, commentator Cokie Roberts answers your questions about government and politics. We're going to ask her about the relationships between presidents and their Cabinets. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. Our first question comes from Gaile Krause. She writes - I like to think Cabinet members don't just say what the president wants to hear, but that they challenge to the president with other perspectives. Is that true? And can you share a couple of examples?

ROBERTS: Well, yes, it's certainly true. And it's been truer for some presidents than others, obviously. The most famous is Abraham Lincoln, who assembled what's been called his Team of Rivals, men who had actually run against him for president. He had a war Cabinet, of course. Eventually, however, he did have to fire Salmon Chase, a secretary of the Treasury, because Chase still wanted to run against Lincoln and was always undercutting him. That's not uncommon, Noel, among high-powered presidential advisers.

KING: Our next question is about Cabinet controversy, and it comes from Tony Gutierrez. He asks - have there been any Cabinet members who publicly went against POTUS in a big or controversial way?

ROBERTS: Well, we mentioned Cyrus Vance. Of course, the first big resignation was Thomas Jefferson, who resigned from George Washington's Cabinet and formed an opposition party. And there's been lots and lots of Cabinet firings and lots of subcabinet people who publicly quit over policy disputes, as we've seen this administration.

KING: Melinda Parks is curious about harmonious Cabinets. She writes - which president had the most productive and/or positive relationship with his Cabinet?

ROBERTS: Well, plenty of presidents have had positive relationships with their Cabinets, and they took advice from its members. The relationship started to fray seriously with the establishment of a White House staff during the Depression. The staff now numbers in the hundreds, and they're much closer to the president than Cabinet officers. The attitude of the executive office was summed up by the first director of the Bureau of the Budget, Charles Dawes, who said, Cabinet secretaries are assistant presidents for spending, and as such are the natural enemies of the press.

KING: Oh, OK (laughter). But people do continue to serve, sometimes multiple times. And that gets to our last question from John Stewart. He wants to know - has there been an occasion where a person has been a Cabinet member to three or more presidents?

ROBERTS: Rarely. Henry Stimson worked for Taft, Hoover and FDR. John C. Calhoun worked for Monroe and Tyler in the Cabinet. And he was vice president, so in the Cabinet for John Quincy Adams and Jackson. But look. There are lots of dedicated public servants who come in and out of government over the years, sometimes in the Cabinet, sometimes in the White House. They often bring much-needed experience into a new administration, plus, of course, knowledge of the system and the players.

KING: The all-important holdover. Thanks so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Noel.

KING: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about politics and government by emailing us at or by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF VELS TRIO'S "THE WAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.