“Kitchen cabinet” is a reference to a president’s informal circle of advisers, as opposed to the official members of his cabinet.
The term was first used during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jackson took office in 1829, after a bruising and divisive election. The president found his cabinet members ineffectual (some say that the president, in a kind of power play, purposely appointed lackluster men to cabinet positions.) As a result, Jackson turned to his own trusted friends when he wanted advice on politics.
The so-called kitchen cabinet lasted until 1831. In that year, a series of scandals within the administration led to the resignations of both secretary of state Martin van Buren and secretary of war John Eaton. The president ordered the entire cabinet to resign, and appointed new, more trusted men to fill their places. As a result, the kitchen cabinet declined in importance.
The concept of the “kitchen cabinet” persisted long after Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Abraham Lincoln had his own close circle of advisers, many of whom were not actually political figures. Lincoln corresponded with newspaper editors like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune; James Gordon Bennett, of the New York Herald; and Henry Raymond, of the New York Times. These men all gave the president counsel and came to be known as Lincoln’s own kitchen cabinet.
Much later, John F. Kennedy had his own kitchen cabinet. JFK’s advisers included members of his own family – notably his brother, Robert Kennedy. Ted Sorensen, a lawyer and speechwriter, was another of the president’s closest advisers, although he did not serve in the cabinet. Years later, Sorensen described his close relationship with Kennedy, which he saw as a friendship and a meeting of minds:
“Despite all our surface differences—he was a millionaire’s son, a Roman Catholic, a war hero, a Harvard graduate—and I was at the opposite end of almost all of those. Nevertheless, we found that we wanted this to be a better country, we both believed in public service, we both were interested in public policy, and we both wanted to see a peaceful world.”
In the 21st century, many of Donald Trump’s critics grumbled that the president was listening too closely to his “kitchen cabinet” and that he was isolating himself from the kinds of highly experienced policy makers who could have given him better advice.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Dov Zakheim, a one-time deputy director of defense, argued that Trump was relying on “amateurs” rather than on experts. The piece, titled “Beware Trump’s Kitchen Cabinet,” claimed that while other presidents have had kitchen cabinets in the past, the Trump presidency had pushed the executive agencies further away than any previous administration. Zakheim wrote,
“When President Donald Trump has met with, or spoken by phone to, foreign leaders, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn has not always been at hand. But Bannon, the president’s political consigliere; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; and Steve Miller, Bannon’s deputy and protégé, have always been present. They are clearly the policy advisors of last resort, and, presumably, are in a position to invalidate, or for that matter block, any other inputs the president might otherwise have received.”