The White House’s deep involvement in hiring decisions across the government is frustrating some of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet secretaries, spurring early tussles between the president’s advisers and leaders of federal agencies.
White House officials have sometimes rejected candidates who have previously criticized the president — even if they boast sterling credentials or have the endorsement of top Republicans. And they’ve often imposed their choices on agencies, according to more than a dozen people inside and close to the administration.
Many Cabinet nominees joined the administration believing they’d have wide latitude to pick lieutenants, but they’re beginning to realize Trump’s powerful advisers are looking over their shoulders. The White House’s approach has already slowed hiring — and the dozens of vacancies at key agencies could make it more difficult to implement some of Trump’s policy proposals.
So far, Trump has nominated fewer than three dozen of the 550 most important Senate-confirmed jobs, according to an analysis by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that advised Trump officials during the presidential transition.
Top officials at the Defense and Homeland Security departments have disagreed with White House aides over potential deputy hires and political appointees, administration and government officials say. Some candidates dropped out of the bid for national security adviser because Trump’s team appeared reluctant to let them pick their own people, sources say.
A White House official said it was the Trump administration’s right to hire at agencies across the board. “We won the election because people wanted us to run the government,” this person said. “We are putting our people in place to do that.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday that the new choice for national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has full authority over his hiring and that sources saying other national security adviser candidates didn’t have that opportunity were inaccurate.
A White House spokesperson said later Tuesday that the hiring process was “collaborative” and that hiring would quicken if Senate Democrats confirmed existing Cabinet nominees.
Examples of clashes have popped up across the government, according to agency officials, lobbyists and others with knowledge of the process.
When an informal adviser to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently recommended a candidate for a high-level Senate-confirmed position at the agency, the adviser was told that the candidate had little chance of getting the job because the person had previously worked for an organization that was seen as being at odds with Trump’s policy positions, one person familiar with the issue said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has clashed with White House officials over top officials in his department, sources say. The White House saw some of Mnuchin’s picks as too liberal or not supportive enough of Trump, sources say. Trump has yet to name Mnuchin’s No. 2, nor has he tapped any undersecretaries or assistant secretaries at the department.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has struggled with the White House to appoint his own aides, with significant pushback from the White House over deputy positions and ambassadorships. Several high-level people were delayed or scuttled because they didn’t agree with Trump during the campaign or because the White House preferred someone else, including Elliott Abrams, who Tillerson wanted to be his No 2. One person said Tillerson “basically has nobody in his agency yet” to fill out the top ranks.
At Housing and Urban Development, Shermichael Singleton, a top official, joined the department before being terminated when criticism of Trump surfaced in a final White House review. Singleton was helping HUD nominee Ben Carson plan a national tour after his confirmation and had worked for him for years, a source close to the situation said. Singleton was told by the HUD chief of staff that he would be dismissed because of his comments, the source said, after the comments were flagged to the White House. His last day was last week. The New York Times first reported the Singleton departure.
Heavily involved in the hiring process has been White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who has told allies he wants his people across the administration, both in the West Wing and the federal agencies. The White House has even signed off on low-level hires at times.
Also involved in the process have been John DeStefano,Trump’s director of presidential personnel and a longtime Republican aide who worked for Speaker John Boehner, and Bill Stepien, the White House political director.
DeStefano has told associates he sometimes has to clash with agency heads who want to hire their own people. DeStefano referred a request for comment to the White House press office.
Another person close to the White House dismissed agency officials’ frustration about not being able to hire their preferred picks. “In some cases, the teams of Cabinet secretaries (rather than the secretaries themselves) have gotten confused about who won the election and for whom political appointees work,” the person said in an email.
Priebus and his team have made numerous hiring suggestions at agencies, and prospective hires have faced serious White House vetting over their loyalty to Trump.
Several people who have spoken to top officials in the administration say they are struggling because talented people would have to take a pay cut to join the government, while others are skeptical of working for Trump. The White House’s involvement in hiring is adding to those challenges, several people with knowledge of the process say.
Former government officials said there is often tension between agency officials and the White House over hiring. During the George W. Bush administration, “the unofficial theme was, we’re going to do it with you, we’re not going to do it to you,” said Matt Schlapp, who in his capacity as Bush’s political director helped coordinate hiring at agencies.
But even when the White House and top agencies officials try to collaborate, there are often disagreements.
“The personnel process takes a lot of time if you’re going to pick qualified people. And there’s a lot of conflict,” Schlapp said, warning against simply populating agencies with friends and confidants. “It often breaks down into trying to appoint your allies into jobs and that can lead to a lot of bad policy formulations.”
Still, the moves have rattled a number of the secretaries. Tillerson’s pick for a No. 2 has stalled with no front-runner, a person familiar with the matter said, after the Abrams imbroglio.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is “getting high marks within the building,” one transportation source said, “but she is frustrated with the White House.” Several people in or close to the department say they were confused earlier this month when two different officials purported to be the chief financial officer. It was unclear who was in charge, who had the backing of the secretary and who was backed by the White House.
A Chao spokesperson said the secretary’s team was working well with the White House.
“I think the initial signal from the White House was that you could hire your own team and once nominees started putting up names, it was met with opposition because they had not supported Trump, or in some cases were anti-Trump,” said one person close to the Trump administration. “So it was a conflicting signal that offended people.”
Among the complications is the White House’s heavy hand with secretaries, according to several people familiar with the issue. The White House has created a new position, called senior White House adviser, atop agencies and in many cases installed top campaign aides in those spots.
“A lot of these special advisers are overwhelmed, because they have very little relevant issue area expertise and are sometimes way out of their depth,” one person involved in Trump’s administration said.
For example, Sam Clovis, who led Trump’s national campaign for some time, is the adviser at the Agriculture Department. Wells Griffith, another former campaign official, is at the Energy Department. Several other Trump campaign aides are now in these positions, and they frequently meet with political appointees and the White House.
“There are times in which they’ve gotten stuck because they’ve gone down the path of finding someone and picking someone without having engaged the agency head in the process,” said Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, which worked with the Trump transition.
Lauren Gardner, Kenneth P. Vogel and Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report.
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