Changes in federal government keep coming fast. That’s why GovLoop is giving you these weekly recaps of presidential transition news that may affect agency management and employment. If you’ve fallen behind, check out all 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 presidential transition news most relevant to federal employees. Check out the linked sources for more information.
Finally and importantly, this 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.
1. Non-trivial contacts with Russia
The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., twice in 2016, a fact Sessions denied while testifying under oath during his confirmation hearing. The same day, the New York Times reported that, before the end of Obama’s presidency, administration officials “rushed to preserve” government intelligence on Russian efforts to influence the presidential election and possible contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.
Democrats and Republicans alike called on Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia inquiry, and some are calling on him to resign. Sessions eventually recused himself from “matters with the Trump campaign.”
According to USA Today, Trump advisers J.D. Gordon and Carter Page also spoke with the Russian ambassador during the GOP convention. There are other reports about a previously undisclosed meetings and contacts between the now dismissed national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and the Russian Ambassador
With several investigations in progress, this story will continue throughout the coming week and beyond.
2. Budget worries
Federal workers are “increasingly nervous” about Trump’s upcoming budget plan. One source of the anxiety is that Trump said his budget proposal will cut $54 billion from most federal agencies, and add an equal “historic increase” in defense and security spending.
An Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official told the Washington Times that “foreign aid programs will take a disproportionate share of the cuts.” Cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are expected to be “massive” at up to 25 percent of the agency’s budget and 20 percent of staff, with the most significant cuts aimed at research and environmental justice programs.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is said to face a 17 percent budget cut. The departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Interior, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and State, and many social programs are also bracing for deep cuts. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Social Security and Medicare will be spared for now.
Former OMB director Alice Rivlin told Government Executive that the budget cuts “would require drastic layoffs,” reductions that would be in addition to the current hiring freeze.
Ultimately, Congress determines the budget and does not have to enact the president’s budget proposals.
3. Agency woes
Steve Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state” seems under way at the State Department, according to The Atlantic. The article describes a suddenly quiet agency with “little left to do.” One reason cited is that, over a month after the inauguration, key positions are still not filled. Considering that Trump told Fox News that he thinks that hundreds of senior political appointees are “unnecessary,” it’s possible that many positions will remain unfilled indefinitely.
Reuters reported an ongoing “brain drain” at the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies as career workers and contractors look for jobs in the private sector. A lack of mission clarity, low morale, inadequate pay, and Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community are mentioned as factors contributing of the loss of workers at these agencies.
According to Politico, Trump’s advisers are pushing for a “purge” of remaining Obama polticial appointees in an effort to stop leaks to the media.
4. Iffy ethics
The White House decided against having its staff, Cabinet nominees, and other political appointees take an ethics training program. Politico stated “the program could have better prepared officials for working within existing laws and executive orders, and provided guidance on how to navigate Senate confirmation for nominees and political appointees, how to deal with congressional and media scrutiny, and how to work with Congress and collaborate with agencies.”
Meanwhile, ProPublica reported that the Trump administration is “either ignoring or exempting top staffers” from the executive order rule that prohibits former registered lobbyists from working for the government on the issues they sought to influence. Because Trump’s executive order also ended the requirement for the Office of Government Ethics to disclose any exemptions made to the lobbying rule, it’s uncertain if the public will ever know whether the administration is complying with its own ethics policy.
5. Staff changes
Fiona Hill, author of a book critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin was appointed to run the White House’s Russia policy. The new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, eliminated two deputy assistants positions to the National Security Council.
The Senate confirmed Ben Carson as Secretary of HUD. Carson accepted the position even though his business manager told The Hill that Carson “feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
Rick Perry was confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Energy, the agency he famously forgot the name of when trying to say he’d eliminate it if he became president. Perry has since “learned” more about the Energy Department and said he regrets his earlier statement.
What other presidential transition developments have caught your attention? What stories are you and your colleagues talking about at the office? Share your thoughts in the comments. (However, please keep politics out of the conversation.)