Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly declared that “the last thing we need is another Bush,” as he vowed to take on two political dynasties — the Bushes and the Clintons.
But as president, Trump has been increasingly dipping into the talent pool from the George W. Bush administration that he regularly vilified during the campaign to now fill critical administration posts.
Trump promised to drain the swamp and instead rely on Washington outsiders, but nearly 100 days into his term, the staffing and political realities have set in, and his team has been turning to some of the top old hands of the Bush administration.
Just this past week, the White House sent out a press release announcing the nomination of four confirmation-level hires, with three out of the four being former Bush administration staffers.
Marshall Billingslea, a Bush State Department and Pentagon alumni, was nominated to be assistant secretary for terrorist financing in the Department of the Treasury; Gilbert B. Kaplan, a Bush deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department, was nominated to be under secretary of commerce for international trade; and John J. Sullivan, who served in senior posts in the Justice, Defense, and Commerce Departments during the Bush administration, was nominated to be deputy secretary of state.
Those nominations are on top of earlier waves of appointments of Bush-era officials, including high-profile aides such as Dina Powell, who now serves as national security adviser H.R. McMaster’s No. 2.
Seven sources involved in the staffing process, including two administration sources, have said there’s been a concerted outreach to some old Bush hands to serve as the "adults" at some of the top agencies. Their appeal is that they likely can be confirmed quickly through the Senate in key posts like deputy secretary, undersecretary and assistant secretary positions.
Those involved said there has been varying levels of resistance from the Bush veterans despite the outreach, as they decide whether it’s more important to help a relatively inexperienced president than to harbor grudges about Trump’s scorched-earth campaign. There’s also a risk that a heavy presence of Bush officials in Trump’s administration could turn off the president’s base of supporters, who revel in his outsider reputation and are already wary of Trump’s recent tack away from some populist stances.
One senior administration official said the percolation of Bush alumni is partly due to the administration’s frustration with the slow hiring and confirmation process. Some rushed appointments during the transition were done without proper vetting which resulted in the withdrawal of the nomination of Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder and Army Secretary nominee Vincent Viola.
Since the early embarrassments, vetting procedures have been tightened up, but the extra scrutiny has slowed down the nomination process, frustrating many staffers in federal agencies who are still left dealing with Trump’s beachhead teams, the official said. According to the Partnership for Public Service, Trump still needs to nominate 475 of the 554 key positions that require Senate confirmation.
"It’s not a big secret that the administration has been working hard to get staffed up, and the biggest natural pool of available talent willing to serve the country also served in the prior administration," said Phil Musser, who served as deputy chief of staff and senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the George W. Bush administration.
"The bottom line is that you need experienced hands in the boiler rooms of the agencies. … Personnel ultimately is policy, and the administration is wise to rely on a stable of experienced hands, irrespective of what their position was during the campaign,” added Musser, who has been a political adviser to Vice President Mike Pence but has not formally joined the administration.
The White House did not comment about the influx of Bush-era officials.
Many Republicans have been waiting in the wings for eight years for another GOP administration, especially those who served in more junior roles in the Bush administration. An administration job typically has huge cachet in Washington, but for the Trump administration, the pool of Bush officials who are willing to serve is relatively small.
Trump’s harsh words against George W. Bush and his decision to go into Iraq — not to mention Trump’s attacks on his brother Jeb Bush — turned off many of these potential candidates. The administration’s requirement that job candidates must have never been against Trump makes the pool even smaller. A big chunk of the Republican national secretary community under Bush signed "Never Trump" letters which automatically disqualifies any candidate.
Eliot A. Cohen, a State Department counselor during the Bush administration, briefly helped to recruit talent for the Trump administration until he was turned off by their resistance to talented "Never Trumpers." He predicted that more Bush alumni will feel comfortable coming into the administration if it continues to shift to the conservative mainstream, which has accelerated over the past couple weeks as Trump bombed Syria, embraced NATO and abandoned his plans to name China a currency manipulator.
Cohen said some Bush veterans see the marginalization of chief strategist and populist hero Steve Bannon as a sign that it’s safe to work for Trump. "As the administration is looking a bit more normalish, there will be more people who will be willing to go in," he said.
"What would be transformative would be if Bannon quits or is fired. I think that would be an indication that it will be somewhere closer to a Republican establishment administration. That will change a lot of people’s attitudes,” Cohen added.
While Trump mostly filled his Cabinet with Washington outsiders, he has already tapped a handful of high-profile Bush acolytes.
Elaine Chao, former labor secretary under Bush, was picked to be transportation secretary. And Brian McCormack, a notable Bush alumnus who maintains a listserv to connect former Bush staffers, is chief of staff to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The Bush administration has not just permeated the agencies, but the upper echelons of the White House. White House press secretary Sean Spicer served as assistant for media and public affairs at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative during the Bush years, while Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, was a regional liaison for congressional affairs at the Department of Education during the administration.
Meanwhile, Powell, Trump’s senior economics and deputy national security adviser who previously worked in the personnel office of the Bush White House, has been credited with bringing Bush alumni Ashley Hickey Marquis and Jeremy Katz into the National Economic Council.
Joe Hagan, who served as deputy chief of staff for operations under Bush, has picked up the same job in the Trump White House.
Some loyalists see Trump’s reliance on old Bush hands as a sign that the establishment is slowly getting its grip on the administration. Part of Trump’s appeal on the campaign trail was his constant bashing of the Bush administration and the Republican establishment.
“Agency jobs are different — you need people with the proper experience. The White House is where it’s problematic," said Sam Nunberg, former campaign adviser. "Those are all people who wanted President Trump out of the primary the day he announced."
“The Bushies will have no problem drowning the Trump presidency in the swamp,” he added.