White House in­stalls eyes and ears at Cab­i­net agen­cies

Po­lit­i­cal aides are tasked with see­ing if sec­re­taries stick to Trump’s mes­sage


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 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 the Of­fice of Cab­i­net Af­fairs, which is over­seen by Rick Dearborn, a White House deputy chief of staff, 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, said that in­stead of hold­ing agen­cies ac­count­able, the ap­pointees 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 email. “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 gov­er­nor Sonny Per­due (R), 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 cen­tral­ized that State De­part­ment and De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials com­plained pri­vately that they felt mi­cro­man­aged on key de­ci­sions.

Af­ter then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. 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. Dur­ing his ten­ure as de­fense sec­re­tary, Robert M. Gates pushed back against a top of­fi­cial the White House wanted at the Pen­tagon to guide Asia pol­icy, wary of hav­ing 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 SE, ac­cord­ing to an agency of­fi­cial. His of­fice is just 20 paces from Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao’s, 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.

Ten­sions be­tween the White House and the Cab­i­net al­ready have spilled into pub­lic view. Mat­tis, the de­fense sec­re­tary, and Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly were caught un­aware in Jan­uary by the scope of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first travel ban. The pres­i­dent has been fu­ri­ous about leaks on na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ters.

Trump does not have long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ships or close per­sonal ties with most lead­ers in his Cab­i­net. That’s why gaug­ing their loy­alty is so im­por­tant, said of­fi­cials who de­scribed the struc­ture.

“A lot of these [Cab­i­net heads] have come from roles where they’re the ex­ec­u­tive,” said a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial not au­tho­rized to pub­licly dis­cuss the White House ad­vis­ers. “But when you be­come head of an agency, you’re no longer your own per­son. It’s a hard change for a lot of these peo­ple: They’re not com­pletely au­ton­o­mous any­more.”

Many of the se­nior ad­vis­ers lack ex­per­tise in their agency’s mis­sion and came from the busi­ness or po­lit­i­cal world. They in­clude Trump cam­paign aides, for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee staffers, con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists, lob­by­ists and en­trepreneurs.

At Home­land Se­cu­rity, for ex­am­ple, is Frank Wuco, a for­mer se­cu­rity con­sul­tant whose blog Red Wire de­scribes the ter­ror­ist threat as rooted in Is­lam. To ex­plain the threat, he ap­pears on YouTube as a fic­tional ji­hadist.

Matt Mow­ers, a for­mer aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) who was Trump’s na­tional field co­or­di­na­tor be­fore land­ing at the State De­part­ment as se­nior ad­viser, said through a spokesman that he “leads in­ter­a­gency co­or­di­na­tion” among the White House, agen­cies and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and “co­or­di­nates on pol­icy and per­son­nel.”

Mow­ers sits at the edge of Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s sev­enth-floor suite, dubbed Ma­hogany Row. But nei­ther Tiller­son nor his chief of staff are his di­rect boss.

Many of the ad­vis­ers ar­rived from the White House with the small groups known as “beach­head teams” that started work on Jan. 20. One of the man­dates at the top of their to-do list now, Bennett said, is mak­ing sure the agen­cies are iden­ti­fy­ing reg­u­la­tions the ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to roll back and vet­ting any new ones.

At the Pen­tagon, Brett By­ers acts as a go-be­tween be­tween Mat­tis’s team and the White House, largely on “bu­reau­cratic” mat­ters, said an of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss per­son­nel is­sues.

Ca­reer of­fi­cials who work near the “E” ring of­fices oc­cu­pied by se­nior Pen­tagon staff, sus­pi­cious that By­ers is not di­rectly on Mat­tis’s team, came up with the Soviet-era moniker “com­mis­sar” to de­scribe him, some­one fa­mil­iar with their think­ing said.

Else­where, re­sent­ment has built up. Pruitt is bristling at the pres­ence of for­mer Wash­ing­ton state sen­a­tor Don Ben­ton, who ran the pres­i­dent’s Wash­ing­ton state cam­paign and is now the EPA’s se­nior White House ad­viser, said two se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss per­son­nel mat­ters.

These of­fi­cials said Ben­ton piped up so fre­quently dur­ing pol­icy dis­cus­sions that he had been dis­in­vited from many of them. One of the of­fi­cials de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as akin to an episode of the HBO com­edy se­ries “Veep.”

Trump’s ap­proach may not be so dif­fer­ent from Abra­ham Lin­coln’s. Com­ing into the White House af­ter more than a half-cen­tury of Democrats in power, Lin­coln worked swiftly to oust hos­tile bu­reau­crats and ap­point al­lies. But he still had to deal with an Army led by many se­nior of­fi­cers who sym­pa­thized with the South, as well as a gov­ern­ment be­set by in­ter­nal di­vi­sions.

Get­tys­burg Col­lege pro­fes­sor Allen C. Guelzo de­scribed Lin­coln as “sur­rounded by smil­ing en­e­mies,” which prompted him to em­bed his friends into army camps as well as some fed­eral de­part­ments.

“I think that pres­i­dents ac­tu­ally do this more than it ap­pears,” said Guelzo, adding that Lin­coln dis­patched Quar­ter­mas­ter Gen­eral of the U.S. Army Mont­gomery Meigs to cir­cu­late among the Army of the Po­tomac to pick up any neg­a­tive “dog­gerel” or in­sults of­fi­cers made about him.


The net­work of po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers — at least 16 are em­bed­ded at var­i­ous agen­cies — re­ports to an of­fice led by Rick Dearborn, left, a White House deputy chief of staff, ac­cord­ing to ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.


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