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Trump on election night. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Top Trump loyalists are trying to cling to power by firing critics, rehiring other loyalists, instructing federal government employees that the election isn't over yet, and threatening appointees that their future work prospects could get crushed if they try to abandon ship now.

Driving the news: In leaked audio of a Monday conference call with USAID staff, obtained by Axios, the agency's top-ranking official John Barsa told staff to "play until the whistle blows" and that "DC, at the end of the day, is a really small town" — which participants read as a threat to anyone who starts job hunting.

The big picture: Monday's leaked call came as Trump and his inner circle continued to publicly deny the reality that rival Joe Biden has won the election.

  • Trump announced on Twitter that he had "terminated" Defense Secretary Mark Esper — "effective immediately."
  • Officials tell Axios they expect CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray to face the axe next.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development, which falls under Mike Pompeo's State Department, did not respond to a request for comment.

Details: On the USAID call, Trump loyalist Catharine O'Neill, newly installed as the agency's White House liaison fresh off a stint with the re-election campaign, declared: "The election is still happening. The Electoral College has not voted yet."

  • And Barsa also told staff that "there is no transition in place" until the General Services Administration makes a determination about who won the election, which GSA administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, has thus far resisted. This portion of comments from the call were first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
  • Barsa referenced Friday's firing of USAID's second-highest ranking official, Bonnie Glick, saying simply, "Bonnie is no longer with us."

Behind the scenes: Beyond USAID, Trump administration officials are telling agencies' staffs that the usual presidential transition are not to begin because the election isn't over.

  • A source familiar with internal discussions says some agency officials have been told to operate under the assumption Trump is serving a second term.
  • And as CNN's Jake Tapper first reported, and Axios confirmed, White House Presidential Personnel Office director John McEntee "is spreading the word throughout the administration that if he hears of anyone looking for another job they will be fired."

Between the lines: Veterans of past presidential transitions, including former GOP White House officials, are urging the Trump administration to begin the formal transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden, as Politico first reported.

  • "While there will be legal disputes requiring adjudication, the outcome is sufficiently clear that the transition process must now begin," the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition wrote in a letter obtained by Politico.

Go deeper

Jan 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Mark Meadows' new gig

Mark Meadows at a Make America Great Again rally in October. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is joining the Conservative Partnership Institute, a group run by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint that operates as a "networking hub" for conservatives, sources familiar with his plans tell Axios.

Between the lines: Meadows, who is still in frequent contact with former President Trump and has been advising him ahead of his impeachment trial, will now operate behind the scenes to help create more members like Jim Jordan, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley — conservative firebrands with strong networks and staffs.

The front-runners for Biden's Supreme Court pick

Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson (left) and Justice Leondra Kruger (right) Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images and Lonnie Tague, US Department of Justice

Two highly accomplished Black female judges — Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California Supreme Court — are seen as the early front-runners to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

The big picture: Jackson is a powerful federal judge with a record that progressives feel they can trust. Kruger was a highly regarded litigator and has carved out a reputation for working well with conservative judges.

Fed: Rate hikes "will soon be appropriate"

The Federal Reserve's headquarters building. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Federal Reserve officials expect "it will soon be appropriate" to raise the central bank's main target interest rate, setting the stage for a rate hike at its next meeting in mid-March.

Driving the news: In a statement following a two-day meeting published Wednesday afternoon, however, the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee teed up its next move without taking new action.