Hundreds of key jobs across the federal government remain vacant as a result of an overworked White House personnel office that is frustrating Cabinet secretaries and hampering President Donald Trump’s ability to carry out his ambitious legislative agenda.
The process is bogged down as a result of micromanaging by the president and senior staff, turf wars between the West Wing and Cabinet secretaries and a largely inexperienced and overworked staff, say more than a dozen sources including administration insiders, lobbyists, lawyers and Republican strategists.
Trump personally oversees the hiring process for agency staff by insisting on combing through a binder full of names each week and likes to sign off on each one, according to two people with knowledge of the administration’s hiring process. Also weighing in on the names — and not always agreeing on final picks — are leaders of sometimes warring factions, including chief of staff Reince Priebus, senior strategist Steve Bannon, Cabinet secretaries and, sometimes, the White House’s top lawyer, Don McGahn.
“It’s like a medieval court,” said one person advising potential nominees through the confirmation process. “The White House meets once a week to go over personnel in some attempt to create uniformity, but in this White House, you just have to smile at that. … It’s hard to impose uniformity among the White House’s different coalitions.”
The only uniformity is that potential hires must show fealty to the president. One person close to the White House said a sense of “paranoia” has taken over amid fears that disloyal hires might undercut Trump’s agenda or leak to the press.
All of this adds up to unusual pressure on the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which is charged with filling thousands of jobs throughout the federal government, according to former personnel staffers from the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The top-heavy decision-making has put the Trump White House behind other West Wings in filling out the ranks of the federal government. Of the 553 key appointments that require Senate approval, the White House has formally nominated 46 people, 22 of whom have been confirmed, according to data from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service — to say nothing of the thousands of slots that don’t require confirmation.
By comparison, Obama had 54 people confirmed by April 7; Bush, 32; and Bill Clinton, 44.
“Not having the people in the agency offices means it’s harder to do different or new things,” said Clay Johnson, who ran the personnel office under Bush. “If you want to keep on keeping on, the career staff can do that.”
The White House disputes that its process is flawed and said the president weighs in only on Senate-confirmable positions.
“We didn’t come with the same type of bench that other presidents come in with,” said one senior White House official, referring to Trump’s lean campaign staff. “We’re being more deliberative and selective to make sure our hires are in line with the president’s objectives. I would not say we are slow. We are making progress.”
Personnel decisions were not supposed to go this way.
Leading up to Nov. 8, the Trump transition team, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, assembled hundreds of names of potential Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and other top political appointees. But three days after the election, Trump replaced Christie with Vice President Mike Pence — effectively wiping out months of work.
“This personnel operation started from scratch after the election,” said Johnson, who advised both the Clinton and Trump transition teams. “They started out at ground zero, without a playbook and no recommendations. Now, it places a large responsibility on them to get the right people in those positions.”
The head of the Office of Presidential Personnel, Johnny DeStefano, did not start until Inauguration Day, and some of the office’s problems are attributed to his leadership, say Trump allies, Republican strategists and lawyers familiar with the hiring process. The administration picked DeStefano, who had run the data operation of the Republican National Committee and worked for former House Speaker John Boehner but had no recruiting experience.
DeStefano, in turn, stacked the office with campaign veterans who demonstrated loyalty to the president but had little government experience.
While several administration officials praised DeStefano’s work ethic and willingness to take on what many view as a thankless job, two administration officials privately acknowledge his office is overwhelmed and understaffed.
“Johnny is caught in the middle of competing polices in the Republican Party,” said Mike Sommers, Boehner’s former chief of staff, who has worked closely with DeStefano.
“In many ways, he is the focal point of a civil war that is going on in the party right now,” Sommers added, referring to the White House divisions among economic nationalists like Bannon, New York banker types and conservatives in the mold of the Heritage Foundation and Pence — all with competing priorities for the administration’s make-up.
In recent weeks, McGahn has also expanded his grip on the hiring process. He sometimes attends the hourlong weekly meetings when Trump reviews nominees. He also has final sign-off on every hire at each agency’s general counsel office, down to the most junior lawyer.
As a result, DeStefano is not really empowered to make decisions, said one former transition official. “All decisions in this White House are made by the same group of people who made these decisions during the campaign, and this extends to personnel,” the official said.
Meanwhile, Cabinet secretaries struggling with skeletal staffs have started to chafe at the slow hiring and at what some regard as micromanagement.
The personnel office has given some secretaries a set number of hires they can make — with the majority chosen by the White House. In at least two cases, the personnel office sent secretaries a pre-approved list of three or four candidates for top spots at their agencies — moves that have frustrated secretaries wanting to handpick their own deputies.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called out the Office of Presidential Personnel last week as he vented his frustration about filling vacancies. "The executive branch is no different than any other branch. It’s a frustration of bureaucracy," said Zinke, who was sworn in in early March.
People close to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he’s also fuming about the hiring pace, worried he doesn’t have enough White House-approved personnel to quickly carry out the president’s agenda, which includes rewriting Obama’s climate change regulations.
“He’s trying to build a team, but it’s been very difficult,” said one person close to Pruitt.
Some Cabinet secretaries, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have tried to go around the office to hire their own staff, while Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly have all clashed with the White House over hiring.
Aides to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have fought to bring on hires regarded as potentially disloyal by the White House, such as senior aide Craig Phillips, a past donor to Hillary Clinton and Democratic causes.
A Treasury spokesman defended the personnel office, saying it had "made great progress in getting our department the critical personnel resources needed."
Filling national security jobs has been particularly difficult, since so many experts in that field openly criticized the president during the election.
One former personnel staffer from the Obama administration said he “could not imagine a process” where lower-level political appointees required anything more than the approval of the head of the personnel office.
The personnel office was a hastily assembled team that came together in just five days following the inauguration. (Both Obama and Bush entered the White House with a personnel team already in place.)
Thirty-eight people currently staff the personnel office, with a designee assigned to staff each agency. They, in turn, report to seven high-level appointees overseen by DeStefano and his deputy.
The transition team made some early missteps, like naming people before vetting them fully. That has led to bottlenecks that still plague the process. Just clearing a political appointee through the Office of Government Ethics and FBI background check can take from 40 to 60 days, and 170 potential hires are now in that pipeline, said one official.
Officials have changed the process and are doing the checks before naming hires, two administration officials said.
People tracking the sluggish pace of hiring also get the sense that top White House officials, grappling with the day-to-day management of the West Wing and combating a steady stream of negative news stories, aren’t focused on hiring at agencies.
Bannon’s call for a destruction of the so-called administrative state and Trump’s budget proposal making deep cuts to the federal workforce have reinforced that view.
"Honestly, I don’t think it’s a huge priority for the White House," said a lobbyist who has talked to administration officials about hiring.