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5 Things You Need to Know About Federal News From the Past Month

Changes in federal government keep coming fast. That’s why GovLoop gives you these monthly recaps of federal news that may affect agency management and employment. If you’ve fallen behind, check out the previous recaps.

By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be new developments. And, this roundup can’t include everything. The focus is on federal news most relevant to government employees. Check out the linked sources for more information to stay on top of the latest news in government.

1. New hires and confirmations

Trump hired Bill Shine as White House deputy chief of staff for communications. In 2017, Shine was forced out of his previous job as a co-president of Fox News for allegedly covering up sexual harassment behavior by the network’s chairman, Roger E. Alies. Media across the range of ideologies expressed concern about Shine’s joining the administration.

Robert Wilkie was confirmed as secretary of Veterans Affairs, an agency the New York Times characterized as suffused with “infighting and scandal.” Wilkie replaces acting secretary Peter O’Rourke, who will stay on at the agency in an unconfirmed role. Wilkie “intends to reassign several high-ranking political appointees at the center of the agency’s ongoing morale crisis and staffing exodus.” More than 1,170 VA employees have been fired, demoted, or suspended in 2018. Leading up to Wilkie’s confirmation, “Trump loyalists at the agency [took] aggressive steps to purge or reassign staff members perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda.” Some staffers, like Kayla Williams, the director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, left the agency.

Richard Stone took over as acting head of the Veterans Health Administration, replacing Carolyn Clancy, who shifted to a new role at the VA focused on research, development, and innovation.

The Senate confirmed Brian Benczkowski as assistant attorney general at the Justice Department. Benczkowski’s confirmation had been delayed over concerns that he has no experience as a prosecutor or in federal trials, and performed legal work for Russia’s biggest private bank, Alfa Group, which has ties to Russian government officials.

Grant Schneider, who had been serving as the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) acting chief information security officer, officially took on the role. Schneider also continues as the senior director for cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council.

Also confirmed: Paul Ney as general counsel at the Department of Defense; Scott Stump as assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education and James Blew as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, both at the Education Department; Emory Rounds III as the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE); Randal Quarles to a 14-year term on the Federal Reserve’s governing board; and Bruce Landsberg and Jennifer Homendy as members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The Palm Beach Post reported Trump asked the Labor Department for work permit visas for 78 low-wage foreign workers at his Mar-a-Lago Club for the 2018-2019 season, up from 70 last year.

2. Departures

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt resigned at the beginning of July after a series of ethics scandals. Federal Times provided a startling and informative timeline of the “downfall of Scott Pruitt.” Andrew Wheeler became acting administrator of the EPA, and faces criticism over his past lobbying for the coal industry.

The U.S. ambassador to Estonia, James D. Melville Jr., abruptly resigned following Trump’s controversial anti-Europe comments, writing that Trump was “factually wrong” in statements about the European Union and NATO.

John Bolton continues to reshape the National Security Council (NSC). Jennifer Arangio, the senior NSC director for international organizations, was forced out, possibly for clashing with Stephen Miller over immigration and for her efforts to “correct misleading information about refugees and migrants.” Several other NSC employees left during the past month, including Richard Hooker, senior director for Russia, Europe, and NATO; Joel Rayburn, senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; Michael Bell, the top Middle East adviser; and Michael Barry, senior director for intelligence programs.

Several of the FBI’s top cybersecurity officials have retired or soon will retire: Scott Smith, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s cyber division; Howard Marshall, deputy to Scott Smith; David Resch, executive assistant director of the FBI’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch; and Carl Ghattas, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch. Jeffrey Tricoli also left his position as co-leader of the FBI’s foreign influence task force, which has been looking into Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections.

Four members of the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC)—Richard Danzig, Elizabeth Holtzman, David Martin, and Matthew Olsen—resigned in protest over the Trump administration’s “morally repugnant” immigration policies. Council member Elizabeth Holtzman’s strongly worded resignation letter went viral on social media.

Christopher Sharpley, the acting inspector general at the CIA, resigned and also withdrew his nomination for the post. Sharpley had been accused of retaliating against two former CIA employees who became whistleblowers.

Maggie Cordish, a top adviser to Ivanka Trump on paid family leave, left the White House.

3. Staffing issues

On July 9, Trump’s executive orders took effect that make it easier to fire federal employees and decrease the power of unions in federal government. The controversial executive orders are being challenged in court and have sparked protests and rallies, like #RedforFeds. Union leaders said the executive orders “have sown chaos and confusion” as agencies are removing union officials from government office space and disciplining employees. Mark Janus, the Illinois state employee who in June won the Supreme Court case that ruled government employees who choose not to join a union cannot be required to pay fees to the union, quit his state job to work for the conservative think tank that financed his case. As a result of that Supreme Court ruling, an Oregon state employee has received the first refund of union dues.

The Pentagon and the Army have been abruptly discharging reservists and recruits who joined the military through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. The MAVNI program provides a path to citizenship for qualified legal immigrants through military service.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Public Affairs worked to discredit two employees who retired from the agency after decades of service, Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland and Michael “Mike” Cox, who were critical of the Trump administration.

Trump issued an executive order mandating that the heads of federal agencies appoint administrative law judges, which preside over hearings within government agencies “in disputes over decisions such as claims for benefits and enforcement actions against individuals or businesses.” This change has raised concerns over whether these appointees will be qualified and impartial.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows the backlog of whistleblower and prohibited personnel practices cases at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel nearly doubled between 2011 and 2016, and the time to process the case filings has significantly increased.

The Washington Post reported that Corey Coleman, who resigned in June from his job as the personnel chief of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “is under investigation after being accused of creating an atmosphere of widespread sexual harassment over years in which women were hired as possible sexual partners for male employees.”

4. Agency issues

EPA staff appointed by Scott Pruitt are reportedly suppressing a report about the dangers of Americans’ exposure to formaldehyde “as part of a campaign to undermine the agency’s independent research into the health risks of toxic chemicals.”

Trump signed an executive order creating the Council for the American Worker that will focus on funding new job training programs. The New York Times pointed out that most of the companies that signed the pledge to “create enhanced career opportunities” had “already planned to greatly increase their job training and apprenticeship programs.”

Fifteen months after Trump created the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, its first quarterly report “provides no information on how many of the more than 4,000 calls it received involved crimes by undocumented immigrants.”

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) National Guideline Clearinghouse at guidelines.gov was closed on July 16. The website was an online database of life-saving medical guidelines and quality measures. Activists backed up the AHRQ resources.

The Interior Department inadvertently released documents that show government officials dismissed evidence about the benefits of national monuments in order to weaken protections, which could open the areas to commercial development.

The GAO determined the Energy Department “violated federal law when it tweeted about an opinion column by Energy Secretary Rick Perry” urging the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has diverted at least $40 million in the past two months from medical research, rural health, HIV/AIDS programs, and other priorities in order to pay for Trump’s policy of separating families at the border, is preparing to shift at least $200 million more, and faces a $1.9 billion shortfall. Meanwhile, there were 1,310 complaints of sexual assault of people held in ICE detention between 2013 and 2017, though experts estimate the number is much higher.

5. More agency issues

With the November midterm elections fast approaching, the House GOP voted along party lines to not renew funding for election security in the same month as a dozen Russian intelligence officers were indicted for 2016 election hacking, government officials and other experts called for ongoing and consistent election security funding, a Russian intelligence agency targeted a Senator’s re-election campaign, the U.S.’s top voting machine vendor admitted to installing remote-access software on election-management systems, and Facebook shut down a coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the midterm elections.

Facebook suspended another analytics company, Crimson Hexagon, and is “investigating whether the whether the analytics firm’s contracts with the U.S. government and a Russian nonprofit tied to the Kremlin violate the platform’s policies.” Agencies involved in business with Crimson Hexagon include the State Department, Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Secret Service.

At the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, after Vladimir Putin suggested the U.S. turn over 11 Americans for questioning, including former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, Trump and the White House initially said they were open to the idea. After an outcry, including some remarkably blunt comments by current and former U.S. diplomats, the White House rejected Putin’s proposal. Plenty more happened as a result of the Helsinki summit. A TIME cover story described how Trump “sided with America’s most dangerous enemy against the hundreds of thousands of men and women in the U.S. national-security apparatus.” The Washington Post provided an overview of the “daily scramble of corrections and clarifications” following the summit. The New Yorker characterized the summit as “the death of American foreign policy.”

Trump threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO, but then he didn’t. Later, Trump claimed he had stopped NATO from “going out of business,” which he hadn’t.

Note: This article not an opinion about or endorsement of any policies, regulations, or orders, nor of the behaviors of elected officials, political appointees, government employees, other individuals, organizations, or agencies.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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Jana Choi

I really love this series. It’s sort of like a government reader’s digest, and I appreciate that I can get a break down of the events in one place.

Lauren Girardin

I’m glad to hear that, Jana! There’s a lot of federal news out there that affects government employment and functioning. These monthly recaps are all about summarizing the most important stories for GovLoop’s community working at the local, state, regional *and* federal level.

Avatar photo Blake Martin

Great overview, and I love how you grouped these seemingly constant news items into a handful of buckets. This makes the whirlwind of news out of the federal government much easier to digest.

Lauren Girardin

Thanks, Blake. Federal changes are abundant, and each month is somehow more dynamic than the last! I could write one of these articles every week and still have more news than can fit.