This is a sad tale of three nondescript federal agencies. But it could end with obliteration of the legitimacy of the federal government as we know it.
The United States government has approximately 2 million full-time employees, excluding uniformed military personnel and U.S. Postal Service workers. Like any large employer, the feds have a human resources agency that deals with health and retirement benefits for federal employees, among other important issues. It’s called the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Yet like much else in the executive branch that worked in a fairly measured and professional way before Donald Trump took office, OPM is being brutally politicized to rid suspected “Never Trumpers” of their career positions. Federal workers and their families—as well as the public they serve—will lose as a result.
Some background: OPM is an “independent establishment” created by Congress and housed within the executive branch. It is headed by an acting director, Michael Rigas, who took over in March. His predecessor at OPM, Dale Cabaniss, suddenly stepped down after she served only six months on the job.
Just one week after Rigas was put in charge of OPM, he was also was tapped to serve simultaneously as the acting deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB is an office within the White House that prepares the president’s budget; its mission is to “assist the President in meeting his policy, budget, management and regulatory objectives and to fulfill the agency’s statutory responsibilities.” (You may recall when OMB was last in the headlines for a major political mess: When it broke the law by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated to the Department of Defense for security assistance to Ukraine in the summer of 2019.)
The third government agency in this story is the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO). Also lodged in the White House bureaucracy, the PPO vets new appointees and candidates for White House positions—approximately 4,000 in total, of which about 1,600 are subject to Senate approval. In 2018, an investigation by the Washington Post revealed that the Trump PPO was staffed with people “in their 20s, some with little professional experience apart from their work on Trump’s campaign,” including “a college dropout with arrests for drunken driving and bad checks and a Marine Corps reservist with arrests for assault, disorderly conduct, fleeing an officer and underage drinking.”
In February, Trump installed John McEntee, 29, as the new director of the PPO. McEntee has been involved in Trump world since 2015. Before joining the Trump campaign as a volunteer, he had been the starting quarterback for the UConn Huskies—where a video of his trick shots went viral—and he later worked at Fox News. After the 2016 election, McEntee became Trump’s personal assistant—but in 2018 he was fired by then-chief of staff John Kelly and escorted out of the White House after being denied a security clearance reportedly due to problems related to online gambling and his taxes. Within 24 hours, he was rehired to Trump’s reelection campaign as a senior adviser for campaign operations. But with Kelly long gone, McEntee was brought back into government earlier this year. Since taking over the PPO, McEntee hired a college senior, James Bacon, 23, to serve alongside him. Bacon previously worked for McEntee on the president’s reelection campaign.
McEntee has initiated a Never Trump witch hunt. According to Politico, he held a meeting on February 20 “with White House liaisons of Cabinet departments where he asked officials to find Trump appointees who may be anti-Trump, according to an administration official familiar with the meeting.” He also reportedly “told them that PPO was going to take a look at all appointees at some point and re-vet them to see if they’ve been disloyal in any way.” While dramatic changes are “likely to be delayed until after November,” McEntee reportedly warned the agencies “to stop moving around officials who are viewed as anti-Trump to other agencies.”
So how do the political happenings at OPM, OMB, and PPO come together?
McEntee is reportedly behind the resignation of Dale Cabaniss from the directorship of OPM. She had been confirmed by a 54-38 vote on September 11, 2019—only the second person who did not serve in that position merely in an “acting” capacity since July 2015. She resigned in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Politico reported, “because of, what two people familiar with the matter said, was poor treatment,” most notably from McEntee. Around the same time Cabaniss quit as director, OPM’s then-chief of staff, Jonathan Blyth, was also moved out of his position, reportedly “reflect[ing] McEntee’s growing clout within the administration.”
Under Rigas, an alumnus of the conservative Heritage Foundation who replaced Cabaniss, OPM has refused to brief numerous congressional committees on the status of the agency and its handling of federal workers during the coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve never been denied a briefing like this before,” a Senate aide told Politico.
Rigas has also reportedly told others at the agency “that he questions the constitutionality of the 1883 Pendleton Act . . . and believes that all executive branch employees should be political appointees.” The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed after the revenge assassination of newly inaugurated President James A. Garfield, who, while boarding a train in Washington, D.C., was shot by Charles Guiteau—a stalker who had been denied a political appointment. The statute was designed to remedy the “spoils system” under which civil-service jobs were awarded to loyalists, supporters, and friends.
The Pendleton Act established a system of federal hiring based on merit rather than political affiliation, and has become a hallmark of good government in America. The law made it illegal to fire government officials for political reasons, barred solicitations of campaign dollars on federal government property, and allowed the president to carve out particular positions for political appointments, among other reforms.
The dismantling of the Pendleton Act has already begun.
On April 22, for example, Dr. Rick Bright was dismissed as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS) and deputy assistant secretary of HHS for preparedness and response. He said in a statement that his dismissal was a result of his refusal to direct money to Trump’s COVID-19 drug of choice, hydroxychloroquine, one of several “potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.”
Meanwhile, under Rigas’s dual-management posture, OMB effectively supplanted OPM as the agency issuing policy memos relating to the federal workforce and the coronavirus, beginning in March. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who chairs a government operations subcommittee that oversees OPM, complained that “the Trump administration’s mismanagement and political appointees have once again brought chaos to the federal workforce,” when “at the very moment we need OPM to operate smoothly and efficiently, including expanding telework for all eligible workers and contractors, we are instead faced with uncertainty that threatens to paralyze this agency.”
What is at stake here is the politicization of the federal workforce to the detriment of science, the public interest, and basic competence in government. Not to mention the health and well-being of federal employees who continue to work amid the pandemic, as well as the soundness of national policy for reopening the government to ensure that vital services are performed on behalf of the American people.
A day of reckoning is coming for Trump and his cronies for catastrophically disavowing and botching the federal government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has already claimed over 67,000 lives in the United States. November is a time for holding the president and his political appointees accountable at the ballot box, and to bring to an end his corrosion of our system of laws, norms, professional civil service, and law enforcement.