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 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. Also, 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.

Before we begin…

Even though these monthly summaries are about news affecting the work that happens inside agencies, there were a few headlines too big to ignore.

George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, died at the age of 94. December 5 has been declared a national day of mourning, and most federal government offices will be closed.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office alleged that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, repeatedly lied to federal investigators, violating his plea deal. Donald Trump submitted written answers to questions as part of Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, pleaded guilty again, this time to lying to Congress about the negotiations for a Trump Tower Moscow project.

The midterm election is over—sort of. A few Congressional offices and hundreds of state legislative seats remain unsettled. The Senate stays majority Republican, while Democrats flipped the House. As of November 29, voter turnout was 49.7 percent—the highest turnout for a midterm election since 1914.

1. Departures and withdrawn nominations

Less than 24 hours after polls closed on Election Day, Trump forced out Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general at the Justice Department (DOJ). Trump appointed Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general. Trump also removed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein from his role overseeing the Russia investigation.

A DOJ spokesperson said acting AG Whitaker will oversee the Russia investigation, a role from which Sessions had recused himself. In an op-ed Whitaker wrote before he joined the DOJ, he criticized the Russia investigation, calling it a “witch hunt.” Some experts have said Whitaker’s appointment is unconstitutional. Other concerns about Whitaker have emerged.

Mira Ricardel was fired as deputy national security adviser and left the National Security Council (NSC) after First Lady Melania Trump’s office issued a statement that Ricardel “no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House” after an unknown conflict. The statement was characterized as “unusual,” “extraordinary,” “dangerous” and “cruel.” The White House said Ricardel will continue to work for the administration in a yet unidentified role.

John “Jay” Gibson, the Pentagon’s first ever chief management officer, was compelled to resign, after being effectively forced out for “lack of performance” less than nine months after he took the job. Lisa Hershman the deputy CMO, became acting CMO.

Onis “Trey” Glenn, the administrator of the EPA’s Southeast Region (Region 4) office, resigned after being indicted on multiple felony ethics violations. Mary Walker was made acting regional administrator.

Without explanation, Trump withdrew his nomination of retired Navy admiral Mark Montgomery to be assistant administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Days later, The Washington Post reported the Navy had censured Montgomery for committing graft, accepting illicit gifts and other misconduct related to the “Fat Leonard” scandal.

Trump’s “body man,” Jordan Karem, deputy assistant to the president and director of Oval Office Operations, announced he will leave his job by the end of this year.

2. Staffing

The Veterans Affairs Department (VA) told congressional staffers it won’t repay veterans whose GI Bill benefits were underpaid. To deal with the GI Bill benefits problem, the VA implemented mandatory overtime that is costing taxpayers about $300,000 each week. Trump skipped two important events honoring veterans, one because he was “extremely busy” and another because it was raining. Trump has not made any visits to military service members serving in combat zones because, as The Washington Post reported, “he does not want to associate himself with wars he views as failures” and “fears…risks to his own life.”

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) Hatch Act Unit issued new guidance on “political activity,” directing civil servants to avoid “strong criticism or praise of a presidential administration’s policies and actions,” advocating for or against impeachment, and talking about the Resistance while on duty or at the workplace. Various experts called it an “overreach and potential First-Amendment violation,” and the OSC quickly issued some clarification. Meanwhile, the OSC cited, but will not pursue disciplinary action against, six former and current White House employees for violating the Hatch Act by sharing Trump’s campaign slogan on their official Twitter accounts.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) deleted or changed information about the respectful treatment of transgender and gender non-conforming federal employees. The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to review the administration’s effort to ban transgender people from serving in the military, which was earlier blocked by lower courts.

The Atlantic reported that “almost half of the top-level jobs in the State Department are still empty almost two years into the administration,” including many key ambassador roles.

A new watchdog report has criticized the “revolving door” of Department of Defense (DoD) officials and military officers who “became lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for defense contractors within two years of leaving the department.”

3. Agency issues

A judge ruled it is illegal and unconstitutional for the Trump administration to withhold federal funds from law enforcement in “sanctuary cities,” which are jurisdictions that have chosen to protect undocumented immigrant residents.

Just before leaving office, now former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions limited “consent decrees,” court-enforced agreements between the DOJ and local governments to change policing practices that violate the law.

Yahoo News reported on previously unreported “crippling intelligence failures” of a secret CIA communications system, resulting in serious damage that “will persist for years.” Meanwhile, a report by the DoD inspector general showed that agencies have not fully implemented the Cybersecurity and Information Sharing Act (CISA), a law designed to improve cybersecurity through enhanced sharing of information about threats. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis created the Protecting Critical Technology Task Force (PCTTF). DoD also failed its first ever audit. A bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump will rename the Homeland Security Department‘s National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) as the Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (yes, another CISA).

According to the Associated Press, a 2017 Education Department audit found Navient Corp., “one of the nation’s largest student loan servicing companies may have driven tens of thousands of borrowers struggling with their debts into higher-cost repayment plans.” Yet the Education Department did not share the findings with plaintiffs in  federal and state lawsuits against Navient.

A court upheld the injunction preventing the Trump administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children.

The EPA inspector general ended the office’s investigations into reports of misconduct by former Administrator Scott Pruitt “because investigators were unable to interview him before he resigned.”

4. New hires

Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) director Scott Lloyd was reassigned to a new role at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), becoming senior advisor to the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives. ORR’s chief of staff Jonathan Hayes will serve as interim ORR director.

The Senate confirmed Stephen Vaden as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Trump nominated Vaden more than a year ago, who faced opposition for allegedly being anti-union. Also confirmed: Karen Dunn Kelley as deputy secretary at the Department of Commerce, after acting in the role since November 2017 and serving as undersecretary for economic affairs; and Michelle Bowman as a Federal Reserve governor.

Beth Killoran was hired as deputy chief information officer at the General Services Administration (GSA), moving over from HHS. Heidi Grant is now the director of DoD’s Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA).

5. By the numbers

A report issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program said extreme weather disasters are getting worse in the U.S. because of climate change. Extreme weather disasters like floods, wildfires, and hurricanes have cost the U.S. almost $400 billion since 2015.

California firefighters and first responders battled several megafires. November’s “Camp Fire” is the deadliest and most destructive wild fire in the state’s history and the deadliest wild fire in the United States in 100 years, with 88 people confirmed killed.

U.S. life expectancy decreased again, in part due to rising suicides and opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’ National Center for Health Statistics. The last three years have seen the largest drop in life expectancy since World War I.

The number of children who don’t have health insurance increased for the first time in the U.S. in nearly a decade. An additional 276,000 children were uninsured in 2017.

The U.S. deficit reached $779 billion dollars for the 2018 fiscal year which ended September 30. That is a six-year high. The New York Times published a detailed analysis of the economic effects of the Trump tax cut, such as the elimination of 140,000 jobs by the 1,000 largest companies.

6. Border policies and actions

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking a proclamation Trump signed suspending entry into the U.S. by asylum seekers except at ports of entry. The White House authorized “extensive new powers for U.S. troops” stationed at the U.S. border, including the use of lethal force. The Trump administration made a deal with Mexico “requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims move through U.S. courts.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked the departments of State, Labor, Energy, Transportation, Interior and Justice to deploy civilian law enforcement officers to the U.S.–Mexico border, and requested DoD extend the military’s border deployment until at least January.

The U.S. Border Patrol used tear gas on a group of asylum seekers, including children and infants. Vox pointed out that “tear gas is considered a chemical weapon under international law…illegal for international use,” and that the “tear gas canisters clearly crossed an international border.”

DHS has been “gathering intelligence from paid undercover informants inside the migrant caravan” including “monitoring the text messages of migrants.” A former acting undersecretary of intelligence for DHS told NBC News that “paying informants, placing officers in the region or monitoring the communications of non-U.S. citizens is not illegal…but it does raise some concerns about the allocation of resources.”

News media investigations revealed that “the Trump administration has put the safety of thousands of teens…at risk” by not running FBI background checks on the approximately 2,000 staff who care for children at the Tornillo migrant detention facility. The Office of the Inspector General confirmed the findings.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is detaining over 44,000 people, an all-time high, raising questions about how the agency is paying for immigrant detention centers.

A transgender asylum seeker who died while being held by ICE had “endured physical assault and abuse while in custody.”

Note: This article is 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.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply