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.

*Note: These recaps are coming to an end. What started in January 2017 as a weekly look at the presidential transition morphed into monthly articles covering more than two years of dramatic changes at the White House and at government agencies. Have no fear! I’ll still bring you other important news about public service and management as a writer for GovLoop.

Before we begin…

The Justice Department released a redacted version of the Mueller Report to the public. The 448-page Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election is a statement of the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Attorney General William Barr redacted parts of the report that are  classified intelligence, grand jury material, information about ongoing investigations, and information that would infringe on personal privacy. According to ProPublica, approximately 6 percent of the publicly-released version of the Mueller Report is “within redacted blocks.”

Vox summarized the two main findings in the report: “First, Mueller found no criminal conspiracy between the president’s team and Moscow. Second, while Mueller declined to recommend charges against Trump, he found several instances where the president tried to influence or shut down the investigation — obstructing justice in all but name.” An analysis by the New York Times found at least 30 more contacts between Trump and his associates and Russians than had been previously known.

The Mueller Report also determined that Russia hacked U.S. voting databases and machines, and stole information about voters. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI issued a joint intelligence bulletin confirming that the Russia hacking targeted all 50 states.

1. Staffing issues

According to Government Executive, the Veterans Affairs Department’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP), “a new office created by President Trump early in his administration that was designed to protect whistleblowers from reprisal but is now facing allegations of aiding retaliation against them.”

Trump’s ban on transgender military service members went into effect on April 12, and is having a “hidden impact” on troops’ families. CBS News reported “the U.S. Naval Academy will ban people who are transgender from attending the school, beginning with the 2020 school year.” Meanwhile, the California National Guard will continue to allow people who are transgender to serve, calling Trump’s ban “unconscionable.”

TechCrunch reported a hacker group breached several websites associated with the FBI National Academy Association (FBINAA), an FBI-related nonprofit, and “uploaded their contents to the web, including dozens of files containing the personal information of thousands of federal agents and law enforcement officers.”

Trump signed an executive order that will transfer all security clearance work from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to the Defense Department (DoD). A new office, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, will begin processing the security clearances in September.

According to Federal Times, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ended its $297 million contract with Accenture to recruit and hire personnel. CBP has been losing more employees than it is able to hire, and has over 8,000 open positions.

Trump called former FBI and Justice Department (DOJ) employees “scum” and “dirty players”.

2. Departures and replacements

Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Then, Claire Grady resigned as acting deputy secretary just before she would have automatically become acting secretary once Nielsen officially departed. Grady’s resignation allowed Trump’s pick, Kevin McAlleenan, to become acting DHS secretary.

Trump fired Randolph “Tex” Alles, Secret Service director at DHS, and named James Murray to become director.  Trump also withdrew his nomination of Ronald Vitiello for director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the DHS. According to Pacific Standard, Trump decided to go “in a tougher direction.” Reports are that White House advisor Stephen Miller has been “handed total control of border policy.” The flurry of firings and compelled resignations at DHS has been widely characterized as a “purge.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein resigned. His last day will be May 11.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Ring, who had been serving as the commander at Guantanamo, was fired “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.” He was replaced by John Hussey, deputy commander of JTF-GTMO, who is serving as acting commander.

According to NPR, the Trump administration has ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to “lay off most of its Palestinian aid workers in its West Bank and Gaza mission.”

Other nominations were withdrawn. Robert Williams withdrew as assistant secretary for South Asian affairs at the State Department. No reason was given. The position has been vacant since Trump took office in January 2017. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain withdrew his pending nomination to the Federal Reserve Board because he did not like how the ethical restrictions would mean he’d have to give up “too much influence” and take a “big…pay cut.”

3. Other investigations

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom, where he’d been living since 2012 under political asylum. The UK government found Assange guilty of breaching his bail, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Assange for allegedly conspiring to hack classified government computers. It is unclear if and when Assange will be extradited to the U.S. to face charges.

Tricia Newbold, a White House security advisor and whistleblower told Congress that 25 security clearance denials were reversed by Trump administration since 2018 “despite concerns about ties to foreign influence, conflicts of interests, questionable or criminal conduct, financial problems, or drug abuse.” Congress is investigating.

4. Agency issues

The Daily Beast revealed that DHS disbanded a group of analysts within its Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) that focused on domestic terrorists, claiming the threat has been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that “white supremacy presents a ‘persistent’ and ‘pervasive’ threat,” and a DHS official said “homegrown violent extremism and domestic terrorism…remain among the most serious terrorism threats.” Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-proclaimed white nationalist who was accused of planning a domestic terror attack was released from jail. The U.S. government did not charge Hasson with terrorism, and he remains on active duty during his trial for firearms and drug charges.

Among several news stories about the administration’s border security policies, CNN reported that Trump told border agents “to not let migrants in” and “tell them we don’t have capacity.” Much of the U.S. actually has a “shrinking population and work force.” Later, agency leaders advised those agents that “if they did what the President said they would take on personal liability” because what Trump requested would not follow the law. Trump reportedly also promised to pardon Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan if he was jailed for illegally directing border agents to block asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Attorney General William Barr issued an order to federal judges to deny asylum seekers the chance to post bail, which “could keep thousands in jail indefinitely.”

According to a CNN investigation, “Defense Department personnel have charged more than $300,000 at Trump-branded properties since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency through last November.”

5. New hires

Jeffrey Kessler was confirmed as assistant secretary for enforcement and compliance at the Department of Commerce. To confirm Kessler and Roy Kalman Altman, a federal district court judge, Senate Republicans have implemented the “nuclear option,” a rule change some consider “drastic” and “partisan” that limits debate about nominees to two hours instead of the usual 30 hours for “lower-level administration nominees and U.S. district court judges.”

The Senate confirmed former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt as Secretary of the Interior. Just days after his confirmation, the Interior Department’s Inspector General launched two related ethics investigations, one into complaints against Bernhardt and the other into six of Trump’s political Interior appointees.

The Senate also confirmed Kip Tom as ambassador for food and agriculture to the United Nations. Tom is CEO of Tom Farms, which U.S. Business Executive describes as “one of Indiana’s largest grain commodity production companies as well as a leading supplier of seed corn to Monsanto.”

Mark Calabria was confirmed as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), where he is expected to lead housing finance reform. Calabria previously served as chief economist to Vice President Mike Pence.

Also confirmed: Cheryl Stanton as administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division; ambassadors to Malawi, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan; and several federal district court judges and U.S. marshals.

The Army Corps of Engineers hired Dovarius Peoples as its new chief information officer, replacing Greg Garcia, and DHS hired Brian Teeple as its new chief technology officer, replacing Mike Hermus. Jonathan Rath Hoffman, who has been at DHS, is the Pentagon’s new assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs. Defense News pointed out that DHA “has gone more than 300 days since providing an on-camera briefing to reporters.”

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.

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Sherin Shibu

It’s been quite a month Lauren! Sad you won’t be doing these recaps anymore but I’m really excited to see the other news you’ll bring to our attention!