Jun 14, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump's loyalty cop clashes with agency heads

Photo illustration of John McEntee and excerpts from the PPO questionnaire.

Photo Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump, in a highly unusual new effort, has begun making significant staffing changes inside top federal agencies without the consent — and, in at least one case, without even the knowledge — of the agency head, according to officials familiar with the effort.

Why it matters: This campaign — helmed by Trump's loyalty enforcer, a 30-year-old former body man who now runs hiring for the government — is part of the systematic purging or reassigning of those deemed insufficiently supportive of Trump.

  • The effort's pace has alarmed top officials, according to 11 current and former officials with direct knowledge of the situation.

Behind the scenes: Trump has empowered John McEntee, director of the Presidential Personnel Office, in a way his predecessors never were. In his short time on the job, McEntee has flexed this power, steamrolling Cabinet officials and agency heads to install his chosen candidates.

  • An extraordinary scene played out late in the morning on March 26, according to two administration officials with direct knowledge of the events, when Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, learned he would have a new head of public affairs at his agency.
  • A crucial position such as this would normally be appointed only with the agency head’s support. But Wolf learned about his new public affairs chief, Alexei Woltornist, by reading the White House's public press release.
  • Wolf was furious, according to these sources. He called the White House Situation Room to try to reach McEntee to find out how this could happen without his knowledge, let alone consent. And he complained privately to colleagues about how PPO treated him.
  • McEntee's PPO has also clashed with the acting chief of immigration and customs enforcement over personnel, as Politico first reported.

The other side: Wolf is an acting Cabinet secretary, so McEntee can overrule him on staffing in a way he wouldn’t do with a favored Cabinet official like Mike Pompeo. And given the importance that both the president and his conservative allies place on immigration, they are determined to install their preferred political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security.

  • In this instance, Wolf succeeded in saving — at least for the time being — his existing head of public affairs, Dirk Vande Beek, who had only recently been hired at DHS. Vande Beek remains in charge of DHS public affairs, and Woltornist is working as his deputy.

McEntee also bulldozed Dale Cabaniss, the head of the Office of Personnel Management — the federal government's HR department. Politico reported that she quit in March because of "poor treatment" from McEntee. Sources familiar with the situation shared additional details with Axios.

  • Without Cabaniss' consent, McEntee appointed Paul Dans as a new White House liaison to OPM.
  • Dans came in and immediately told his Senate-confirmed boss that everything she did would now have to go through him. He also told Cabaniss she would be getting a new chief of staff, whether she liked it or not.
  • Cabaniss pushed back and phoned McEntee to try to overrule Dans' decision about her new chief of staff. McEntee bluntly told her she had to follow Dans' orders. She then quit.

And, to the growing frustration of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, McEntee is trying to exert more control over staffing at the Defense Department. Trump's conservative allies have long told the president he needs more loyalists there, per two sources with direct knowledge.

  • Before McEntee took over PPO, Esper had already made selections, which the White House had cleared, to fill a number of vacancies. But McEntee restarted the selection process and overrode Esper's decisions on key positions.
  • For example, Esper had green-lit Katie Wheelbarger to be the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. McEntee overruled that decision, even though the White House had already announced her nomination in a press release.
  • McEntee killed the nomination of Elaine McCusker as the Pentagon's comptroller, also over Esper's objections. The Senate already had her paperwork.
  • And Esper had decided to promote David Trulio to an assistant secretary position, but McEntee squashed that plan and moved Trulio to the Export-Import Bank. This was coupled with Trump's firing of John Rood, the Pentagon's undersecretary for policy.
  • Despite this, Wheelbarger and McCusker still remain at the Pentagon in acting positions. McEntee simply blocked Esper from getting them into Senate-confirmed roles.

The big picture: McEntee is doing exactly what Trump wants him to do, administration officials say. And his moves have thrilled conservative activists, who've long urged Trump to purge his administration of insufficiently loyal officials and to install people who, in their view, will more aggressively implement his agenda.

  • But many others at the senior levels of Trump's government are sounding alarms about the loss of expertise and institutional knowledge, as well as unnecessary controversy.
  • McEntee has appointed at least three college seniors to administration posts well beyond their experience, as Politico has reported. He's also approved controversial hires that have brought about internal complaints at several agencies.
  • A new McEntee appointee to the United States' foreign aid agency, Merritt Corrigan, is an illustrative example.
  • Two sources with direct knowledge said that before McEntee took over, Trump's PPO had blocked Corrigan for an administration role specifically because their research quickly found she had a history of making anti-gay statements. But McEntee pushed her through.
  • Corrigan has since attracted media attention for her past public statements, including her complaints about America's businesses being oppressed by a "homo-empire."
  • Corrigan's and other recent controversial hires at USAID have sparked such an uproar from staff inside the agency that acting Administrator John Barsa felt compelled to issue a statement defending the new appointees.

In response to this reporting, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said in a statement: "John McEntee is an invaluable member of the White House and he's been doing an excellent job leading the critical Presidential Personnel Office which is responsible for staffing up hundreds of political jobs across the federal agencies." The Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon and the Office of Personnel Management did not respond to requests for comment.

  • In response to Axios' questions about USAID's recent controversial hires, acting spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said: "USAID has the finest workforce in the federal government, and we stand by the professionalism of our employees."
  • "While I cannot speak directly to any of the specific cases or allegations due to privacy concerns, let me be clear: there is a zero tolerance policy of any form of discrimination or harassment based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or any other possible distinguishing characteristic..."

Between the lines: McEntee tests job seekers' loyalty to Trump in informal conversations, and he has formalized this emphasis in a new "research questionnaire."

  • Axios has obtained McEntee's questionnaire for potential political appointees. CNN first reported the existence of the document.
  • One question on the form: "What part of Candidate Trump's campaign message most appealed to you and why?"
  • We've uploaded the previous version of the questionnaire and McEntee's new version:

Read the old version.

Read the new version.

How it works: Top personnel officials from previous administrations say they looked for people who supported their presidents' agendas and avoided candidates with the potential to publicly criticize or embarrass the president. But they said McEntee’s heavy emphasis on loyalty over experience is unusual.

  • Rudy Mehrbani, the director of President Obama's Presidential Personnel Office, said of the new McEntee questionnaire: "We never used a form like this one — designed to test a candidate's fealty to the president and his ideology —when I was at PPO. As I've written and said elsewhere, these questions provide further proof that this iteration of PPO prioritizes loyalty to Trump over quality and competence."
  • A former senior official in President George W. Bush's PPO said: "I would venture to say we placed a much bigger emphasis on experience and qualifications than this White House appears to be doing."
  • "All nominees need to be supportive of the president, but you also need experience," the former Bush official added. "And when the people selecting don't have the experience to vet candidates, you have a problem."

The bottom line: A senior administration official said his concern about McEntee's modus operandi is that "there's no way that PPO can ever be in a position to assess if an appointee is professionally qualified to fill a role — the subject matters are too varied and there are internal politics at play in the departments."

  • "PPO needs to work with the Cabinet secretaries and not against them," the official said. "Otherwise you're going to end up with sidelined ideologues in all of the senior positions, and the secretaries will rely on career leadership."
  • Another senior official said of PPO: "The problem I have with them is the effort to get rid of current, competent people who have been serving the president for three years, and replace them with unqualified individuals because of a perceived loyalty interest.
  • "It makes no sense, because if you're in this administration as a political appointee serving this president you're doing it at great personal and professional expense and cost to credibility."
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