Immediately after taking office, Donald Trump made a series of controversial moves, but one that was never fully explained involved a billionaire donor named Steve Feinberg.
In mid-February 2017, the new Republican president invited Feinberg, a Republican contributor and the founder of a successful investment firm called Cerberus Capital Management, to “conduct a review of U.S. intelligence agencies.” Feinberg had no experience in this area, though his firm owns a defense contractor.
A controversy ensued – the Director of National Intelligence reportedly wasn’t pleased with the idea – and as best as I can tell, Feinberg’s audit never actually happened. Indeed, he needed to be cleared by the Office of Government Ethics, and given Feinberg’s work in the private sector, that would’ve been more than a little complicated.
But the billionaire, who contributed generously to a pro-Trump PAC shortly before the 2016 election, remained in the president’s orbit. In March 2017, for reasons that weren’t altogether clear, Feinberg joined Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis on a trip to Virginia to see a new aircraft carrier. A few months later, the White House invited Feinberg and Blackwater founder Erik Price to propose “alternatives to the Pentagon’s plan to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.”
Feinberg was also reportedly under consideration for a role at the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security, though he was, by one account, “blocked by senior officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.”
All of which led to late last week, when the president finally found a formal position for his pal. Vox explained:
The White House on Friday announced Trump’s plans to appoint Feinberg, 58, to become chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a group that reviews the intelligence community. […]
Under Trump, the board hasn’t had any members. Feinberg, however, doesn’t have any experience in the intelligence field.
The news doesn’t come as a complete surprise, but it’s curious nevertheless.
Foreign Policy reported back in January that Trump was likely to offer Feinberg this intelligence post, which the financier “angled for” over the course of several months.
The board, created in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, has typically been composed of independent experts in business and academia, or retired military and intelligence professionals. The members serve in an unpaid capacity as a personal resource for the president on intelligence matters – reviewing everything from bioweapons to intelligence failures, like the Bay of Pigs scandal.
Over the years, the board has had varying degrees of impact; it helped create the Central Intelligence Agency’s science and technology division and the Defense Intelligence Agency. However, the board’s effectiveness has often depended upon its leadership and how close the chair is to the president.
Feinberg won’t be the first billionaire on Team Trump – it’s been tough to keep up with them all – but given his background, Feinberg’s new role may be one of the more difficult to understand.