Trump's “sabotage” plan: Watchdog groups want to know who was “burrowed” into career jobs

Members of Trump’s Cabinet urged staffers to “be the resistance” against the incoming Biden administration

By Igor Derysh
February 25, 2021 10:55AM (UTC)
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Donald Trump and Joe Biden (JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Government watchdog groups are calling on congressional committees to release the names of Trump political appointees who have "burrowed" into career civil service positions over concerns they may attempt to "sabotage" the Biden administration.

Former President Donald Trump signed an executive order in October that stripped career civil servants of employment protections and opened the door for political appointees to "burrow" into career positions inside the government. The move came as Trump Cabinet members like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urged staffers to "be the resistance" to the incoming Democratic administration. President Joe Biden rescinded the order in his first days in office, but it remains unclear how many such appointees may have burrowed into career positions inside their departments.  

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Trump installed at least 26 political appointees in career civil service jobs in the first 10 months of 2020, according to data provided by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to Congress, but most conversions likely happened in the final months of Trump's presidency and those reports have not yet been turned over to Congress. The Washington Post reported last month that the White House was reviewing 425 officials that might move to career positions, but the Trump administration likely ran out of time to install all of them before Biden took office.

In a letter obtained exclusively by Salon, multiple watchdog groups called on key congressional committees — which receive reports detailing the conversion of political appointees to civil servant positions from the OPM — to release the names of any such appointees.

"Some of the Trump administration's political appointees may be lingering within agencies, seeking conversions to career civil service positions, a process commonly referred to as 'burrowing,'" the watchdog groups said in a letter to Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

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The letter was signed by government watchdog groups Accountable.US, American Oversight, Public Citizen, Campaign for Accountability, Government Information Watch and the Government Accountability Project. Accountable.US has also filed 60 public records requests to various government agencies, seeking the release of reports regarding political appointees who have been transferred to permanent career positions.

"In his final days as president, Donald Trump refused to work with the incoming administration to deal with historic crises he only made worse, and instead made it easier to pack the government with his crony political appointees," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement to Salon. "If any former Trump political operative is now working to sabotage and obstruct action against the pandemic and recession, the public deserves to know their names."

The Trump administration had previously pushed for Congress to change civil service laws over concerns that Obama administration holdovers might "try to set up … roadblocks" for the new administration. Just four years later, "many of his political appointees are attempting to retain power through the same process Trump preciously repudiated," the watchdog groups said in the letter.

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Though Biden ultimately rescinded Trump's order, the letter continued, "the will of the American people is now at risk of being undermined by a potentially historic number of holdovers from the previous administration."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., along with multiple advocacy groups, has already called for the Biden administration to oust Mark Brown, who was appointed by DeVos to head the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid through 2022, over concerns that he could undermine new changes sought by Democrats. Biden can easily remove Brown, but career civil service jobs "come with job protections that will make it difficult for Biden to fire them," Politico noted in a report detailing the "'deep state' of loyalists Trump is leaving behind for Biden."

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"We've identified some people already, but we don't know how many there are in total, or where exactly they're placed," a source close to Biden told Politico during the presidential transition.

Biden and his team have already removed top officials at the National Labor Relations Board, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and has also purged hundreds of Pentagon advisory board members to root out Trump loyalists. But "burrowing" officials are often classified as "Schedule F" employees, who do not receive the same protections as traditional civil service employees, but are protected against removal over their political affiliation.

One such official is Michael Ellis, a former top aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who served as a top legal adviser at the National Security Council before moving to a career position as top legal counsel to the National Security Agency despite reportedly lacking the necessary qualifications. Ellis was placed on paid leave within hours of taking over the new job after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to the Pentagon calling the "eleventh-hour" appointment "highly suspect."

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Others were moved to senior roles as assistant U.S. attorneys, general counsels, intelligence officials and immigration judges, The Washington Post reported last month.

Jordan Von Bokern, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett who served as a counsel at the Justice Department, got a pay raise of more than $15,000 when he became a career trial attorney at the DOJ's civil division.

Prekak Shah, a member of the Federalist Society who worked for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, before joining the Justice Department, was appointed to a career position as an assistant U.S. attorney in Texas.

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Michael Brown, a former coal executive who worked on former HUD Secretary Ben Carson's 2016 presidential campaign and later as a lawyer for the Energy Department, recently moved to a permanent position representing the Energy Department in Saudi Arabia. Kyle Nicholas, another adviser at the department, landed a similar job in Brussels.

Many of these hires quickly raised eyebrows. In one case, Christopher Prandoni, a young aide to former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, was named as a judge in the Interior Department's Office of Hearings and Appeals, even though he was only three years out of law school.

"The job that Prandoni was given was a gift," Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity told ProPublica last year. "He never in a thousand years would have gotten this job if he hadn't worked directly with David Bernhardt for months at a time implementing the Trump agenda."

Tracy Short, a former legal adviser at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, landed a $185,368-per-year position as the top immigration judge at the Justice Department.

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"He just doesn't have the courtroom experience to be a chief judge," Denise Slavin, the longtime former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told ProPublica.

Brandon Middleton, a former aide to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, was first hired at the Justice Department's environmental division after Sessions became attorney general, and later got a $172,508-per-year job as chief counsel for an Energy Department office that oversees toxic waste cleanup.

"He has the kind of background that makes me concerned that he might use his new career position for ideological purposes," Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight told Politico last month.

It might be difficult to fire some of these officials, but the Biden administration could reassign them.

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"Our options to respond to burrowing are really limited, which is why they do it," a Democratic aide working on the issue told Politico. "It's like whack-a-mole. Once you have found them, you can't fire them. Your recourse is to transfer them to somewhere they don't want to be, isolate them, and make working conditions bad to the extent you can, without crossing lines put in place to protect the civil service."


Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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