Report: Trump Using Loopholes To Appoint Loyalists To Pentagon Before Election

Defense Secretary Mark Esper with President Trump.Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Public Domain

PMH

Civilian experts and Democratic lawmakers worry about the quality of appointees replacing longtime public servants.

POLITICO reports that President Donald J. Trump’s administration has used the Vacancies Act to “install loyalists… in acting senior roles at the Pentagon, effectively skirting the Senate confirmation process.”

  • The accusation arises because in recent months, Trump has filled vacancies in the Department of Defense through transfers from elsewhere in the federal government and acting appointments, rather than by tapping people within the Pentagon, as is traditional.
  • For example, the White House announced on July 13 that Michael Kratsios, a 33-year-old White House chief technology officer, will be the new head of research and engineering for the entire Pentagon.
  • Kratsios, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, will be replacing Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator with a doctorate in aerospace engineering.
  • The administration has also reportedly discussed appointing Anthony Tata, currently nominated to become the Pentagon’s top policy official, to a different position on an acting basis, thereby avoiding confirmation hearings anticipated to bring up now-deleted Islamophobic Tweets from Tata.
  • Some civilian experts and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns that the recent appointments are part of a campaign to root out staff seen as disloyal and replace them with “Trump acolytes” who may be underqualified.
  • For example, White House personnel have begun conducting interviews with current department appointees to “discuss second term opportunities at the Department and throughout the administration,” which critics claim are attempts to detect staff who may be insufficiently loyal to Trump.

Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor at the Naval War College specializing in civil-military relations, spoke to POLITICO in a personal capacity about the new hirings. She said,

The criterion that seems to be getting these particular young, inexperienced people in is personal loyalty to the president… This can actually undermine the entire idea of a meritocratic democracy because it creates power with connection with the patron as opposed to power within the structure of the system.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) was similarly critical and said,

This administration is shamefully circumventing the Senate confirmation process to install partisan puppets in senior Pentagon posts… they seek to escape congressional and public scrutiny of these underqualified officials. This is a threat to our national security and I will keep fighting to ensure rigorous oversight of executive branch appointees.

And Chip Unruh, spokesperson for Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), of the Armed Services Committee, said that

The real problem is the Trump Administration simply can’t attract top tier talent… The President prioritizes blind fealty to him above competence and it shows.

  • POLITICO explains that presidential nominations to federal positions comparable in rank to an acting undersecretary or higher typically require confirmation before appointment.
  • However, the Vacancies Act provides exceptions for appointees who have already been confirmed to a position in another department, “first assistant” appointees, and persons who have “been employed by the agency for at least 90 days and paid at least at a GS-15 rate.”
  • For example, as the White House chief technology officer, Kratsios received his Pentagon appointment under the first exception.
  • Some national security experts have defended Kratsios’s appointment and his record on technology issues. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for the White House position, and Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Defense Department’s Joint AI Center, said on July 13 that “I could not think of anyone better to step in behind Dr. Mike Griffin.”
  • However, Kratsios is anticipated to work both positions, balancing his work at the White House and as the head of research at the Pentagon.
  • Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy, warned that this balancing act was impractical and that “You can’t be dual-hatted and work at the Pentagon.”

However, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) defended the Trump administration’s hiring decisions. He said the following of Trump’s appointment of acting secretaries and officials:

This is not taking advantage of loopholes—but simply making sure our federal government is functional at all times, and I haven’t seen President Trump or his Administration abusing this process.

Despite this, POLITICO asserts that Trump “install[s] loyalists at the deputy level, and frequently shuffles them around wherever they are needed.” Appointees such as Daniel Green, Victorino Mercado, Michael Cutrone, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and Tom Williams have moved throughout the administration, sometimes filling multiple roles simultaneously.

Townsend, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, expressed his belief that such appointees are being appointed to report to the White House with information about other staffers, rather than as new blood for the agencies. He said,

These aren’t the bright-eyed, bushy tailed young master's degree students who worked in the campaign and are now being sent over to get some experience. They are not coming over to learn; they are coming over also to be the White House forward—the forward operating base.

And Cohn, the Naval War College professor, warns that the high volume of acting appointees and the long duration of their service is what makes the administration’s actions alarming.

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