Administration installs “commissars”
White House has 16 senior aides planted in departments to monitor loyalty, according to sources.
washington» The political appointee charged with keeping watch over Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides has offered unsolicited advice so often that after just four weeks on the job, Pruitt has shut him out of many staff meetings, according to two senior administration officials.
At the Pentagon, they’re privately calling the former Marine officer and fighter pilot who’s supposed to keep his eye on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “the commissar,” according to a high-ranking defense official with knowledge of the situation. It’s a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal.
Most members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet do not yet have leadership teams in place or even nominees for top deputies. But they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty, according to eight officials in and outside the administration.
This shadow government of political appointees with the title of senior White House adviser is embedded at every Cabinet agency, with offices in or just outside the secretary’s suite. The White House has installed at least 16 of the advisers at departments including Energy and Health and Human Services and at some smaller agencies such as NASA, according to records first obtained by ProPublica through a Freedom of Information Act request.
These aides report not to the secretary, but to Rick Dearborn, the White House deputy chief of staff for policy, according to administration officials. A top Dearborn aide, John Mashburn, leads a weekly conference call with the advisers, who are in constant contact with the White House.
The aides act as a go-between on policy
matters for the agencies and the White House. Behind the scenes, though, they’re on another mission: to monitor Cabinet leaders and their top staffs to make sure they carry out the president’s agenda and don’t stray too far from the White House’s talking points, said several officials with knowledge of the arrangement.
“Especially when you’re starting a government and you have a changeover of parties when policies are going to be dramatically different, I think it’s something that’s smart,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “Somebody needs to be there as the White House’s man on the scene. Because there’s no senior staff yet, they’re functioning as the White House’s voice and ears in these departments.”
The arrangement is unusual. It wasn’t used by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. And it’s also different from the traditional liaisons who shepherd the White House’s political appointees to the various agencies. Critics say the competing chains of command eventually will breed mistrust, chaos and inefficiency — especially as new department heads build their staffs.
“It’s healthy when there is some daylight between the president’s Cabinet and the White House, with room for some disagreement,” said Kevin Knobloch, who was chief of staff under Obama to then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
“That can only happen when agency secretaries have their own team, who report directly to them,” he said. “Otherwise it comes off as not a ringing vote of confidence in the Cabinet.”
The White House declined to comment about the appointees on the record, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters and internal operations. But a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, contested their mission of holding agencies accountable and said they technically report to each department’s chief of staff or to the secretaries themselves.
“The advisers were a main point of contact in the early transition process as the agencies were being set up,” the official said in an e-mail. “Like every White House, this one is in frequent contact with agencies and departments.”
The advisers’ power may be heightened by the lack of complete leadership teams at many departments.
The long delay in getting Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, confirmed means that Sam Clovis, who was a Trump campaign adviser, and transition team leader Brian Klippenstein continue to serve as the agency’s top political appointees.
“He and Brian Klippenstein are just a handful of appointees on the ground, and they’re doing a big part of the day-to-day work” said Dale Moore, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s public policy executive director.
Every president tries to assert authority over the executive branch, with varying degrees of success.
The Obama White House kept tight control over agencies, telling senior officials what they could publicly disclose about their own department’s operations. Foreign policy became so centralizedthat State Department and Defense Department officials complained privately that they felt micromanaged on key decisions.
After then-Attorney General Eric Holder made some political gaffes, Obama aides wanted to install a political aide at the Justice Department to monitor him. But Holder was furious about the intrusion and blocked the plan. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed back against a top official the White House wanted at the Pentagon to guide Asia policy, wary of someone so close to the president in his orbit.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a Trump adviser, said the president needs to dispatch political allies to the agencies to monitor a bureaucracy that’s being targeted for reduction.
“If you drain the swamp, you better have someone who watches over the alligators,” Gingrich said. “These people are actively trying to undermine the new government.And they think it’s their moral obligation to do so.”
At the Transportation Department, former Pennsylvania lobbyist Anthony Pugliese shuttles back and forth between the White House and DOT headquarters on New Jersey Avenue, according to an agency official.
His office is just 20 paces from Secretary Elaine Chao, the official said.
Day to day, Pugliese and his counterparts inform Cabinet officials of priorities the White House wants them to keep on their radar. They oversee the arrival of new political appointees and coordinate with the West Wing on the agency’s direction.
The arrangement is collegial in some offices, including at Transportation and Interior, where aides to Chao and Secretary Ryan Zinke insisted that the White House advisers work as part of the team, attending meetings, helping form an infrastructure task force and designing policy on public lands.
The White House’s 16 senior aides in Cabinet agencies report not to the secretary but to Rick Dearborn, left, the White House deputy chief of staff for policy. Jabin Botsford, The Washington Post