Finally, President Trump Moves to Gain Control of the White House Personnel System and His Administration

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a news conference after a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

 

Earlier, I posted a story on a speech by former White House Chief of Staff and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in which he revealed that he was basically opposed to President Trump and his agenda and yet took a job in his administration anyway, apparently seeing himself as some sort of fail-safe device.

This is an example of a larger problem and an ongoing critique of the Trump administration which runs something like this: he hired the guy, he knew what he was getting. Or as the TDS sufferers like to say, ‘he hires only the best people.’ (I really, really loathe those people.)

Not to dunk on Chuck Ross or anything, but that is a very superficial view of the situation. Unlike a George Bush (either of them), Donald Trump arrived in Washington, D.C. with no connections to the DC policy establishment. In fact, he arrived after a bruising primary and general election that left him alienated from the GOP establishment. The GOP establishment might not have called his supporters “a basket of deplorables” but they nodded their heads and chuckled when they heard it. The same establishment had gotten rich and fat off illegal immigrant labor and outsourcing American jobs to wherever. They were used to keeping the GOP base in line with promises and crumbs (George W. Bush had GOP majorities for 6 of his 8 years, how much did they accomplish in regards to slowing illegal immigration or reducing abortion?) while delivering zero. When Trump arrived in Washington he was reliant upon the very same people who had opposed his election to staff his administration.

Some hard-core NeverTrumpers were hired in an attempt to placate factions in the GOP. Some cabinet secretaries, like, for instance, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, pressed to retain Obama appointees or bring in registered Democrats with whom they had worked into senior policy positions. The head of the White House personnel office overseeing the hiring of political appointees went to an “end of the world party” when Trump dispatched Ted Cruz in Indiana. A guerrilla war was fought against the Administration by using the security clearance process to force out many of Trump’s most loyal followers.

Personnel, as they say, is policy. It makes no difference what Trump wishes to do if he doesn’t have the people in place to vigorously follow through and make sure things happen.

The current White House has also welcomed other never-Trumpers into the executive branch for political positions, which number about 4,000 and are filled by each presidential administration. They range from senior officials, whose nominations require Senate confirmation, to policy professionals, lawyers and speechwriters. In past administrations, a candidate’s allegiance to the president was vetted and considered a plus, if not a must. So why is the Trump White House filling any of these spots with people who have been openly (or privately) hostile to the president?

Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor summed up the absurdity of the situation on Fox News. “I think President Trump lost control of the whole appointment process in staffing the government shortly after the election,” he said. “He ended up appointing large numbers of people who subsequently brought in their friends, almost all of whom were opposed to Donald Trump and his agenda.”

Indeed, the appointment of never-Trumpers was aggressively championed and insisted upon by some senior Cabinet members. Some candidates were directly approved by the president himself, while others were proposed by White House political staffers as compromise picks with Cabinet secretaries. Many others slipped in because, despite their anti-Trump sentiments, they had not revealed — or were not asked about — their views in public. Some of the appointments appear to have been downright disastrous. Although many never-Trumpers hired early in the president’s term have departed, others have been elevated or reshuffled as new never-Trumpers continue to enter the administration’s ranks.

Earlier, I referred to this story:

Among Trump supporters, there’s long been skepticism of the PPO, and the nearly three-year-old messages are likely to amplify concerns of anti-Trump bias within his administration.

Fear about a bias toward establishment picks emerged in 2017, when Trump selected DeStefano to lead the PPO. He had worked as an aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, before leading Data Trust. Eyebrows raised with appointees with views at odds with some of Trump’s, such as former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former foreign policy adviser Dina Powell, and Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams.

“They have slow-walked pro-Trump people to the point that they drop out or lose interest,” a Trump ally close to the White House told the Washington Examiner. “They don’t like the pro-Trump crowd. They like to bring in Bushies.”

A former White House official said DeStefano, 39, set the tone for the PPO with an “us versus them” mentality, often referring to Trump backers as “the MAGA people.”

The official said: “He’s always complaining about how ‘the MAGA people’ are coming after him. But wait, aren’t you supposed to be a MAGA person? Johnny is constantly disparaging the president. He’s always making these jokes that the president is erratic, is irrational.”

This, by the way, is not unique to Trump. Historically, party outsiders have failed or been co-opted by the system because, just like Trump, they arrive with a popular mandate but because they are outsiders, and threatening outsiders at that, the formal and informal levers of power are often out of their reach because they can’t put enough of their supporters in mid-level policy positions. When results don’t materialize, the reformer is turfed out by the voters and we all go back to the way it was.

The inability of President Trump to gain positive control over the selection of personnel who would carry out his policies has, just as much as the Russia Hoax, helped rob him of three years of progress.

The problem of organizational loyalty is not a new one. In the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Wars era,  the prime threat facing that service was mutiny. Most of the sailors were not happy with their lot, there was no end in sight to the war, pay was irregular, discipline was harsh, life was hard. Once a mutiny took off, it tended to spread like wildfire (see the Spithead and Nore Mutinies that involved dozens of warships). To act as a deterrent to potential mutineers there was a detachment of marines but one of the most inspired strategies employed was to allow a captain assuming command to bring ‘followers’ with him. A captain of a ship-of-the-line could bring upwards of 40 officers and petty officers with him. This provided the captain with a cadre of loyalists who not only knew how he operated but who would act in his interests. If the impeachment process has impressed one fact upon President Trump it seems to be that he now clearly understands the importance of vetted loyal staff in key positions.

In May, the head of the White House personnel office left. A Trump loyalist, John McEntee, who was forced out by John Kelly, has been given the job of filling positions in the administration with pro-Trump people. Hope Hicks, a trusted adviser, has returned after an absence. The NSC is being pared down. While it was undoubtedly overstaffed, it was clearly overstaffed with openly anti-Trump Democrats from CIA and State and Defense. The current cabinet secretaries seem to be taking marching orders from the White House rather than from the entrenched bureaucrats or progressive interest groups.

If Trump is reelected this year, then he will be well-positioned to smoothly transition into a second term strongly supported by an administration fully staffed with people loyal to Trump’s agenda. If the worst happens, then this move is a sure contender for a winner of the Too Little Too Late Award.

streiff
Managing Editor at RedState
Former infantry officer, CGSC grad and Army Operations Center alumnus.
RedState member since 2004.
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