It has been nearly five months since Donald Trump formed the Office of American Innovation, an initiative led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to make the federal government run more like a business.
Aside from the presence of Kushner, the New Jersey housing heir who married the president’s daughter and who once demonstrated his business acumen by spectacularly overpaying for a Manhattan skyscraper, this was a classic presidential gambit. Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama all tried their hand at making the federal government more efficient, always with the rhetoric of the private sector close at hand.
The initiative was also of a piece with Trump’s strategy of nominating business leaders (or simply rich people) to Cabinet positions, several of whom signaled a break with the executive branch’s long-standing preference for expertise and government experience: Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at the State Department, neurosurgeon Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, billionaire conservative activist Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education.
You had to wonder: Would these private-sector success stories reboot their respective bureaucracies as corporate-style dynamos? Would career staff push back to maintain the status quo or resign en masse? Would politically inexperienced Trump appointees be able to implement the president’s agenda?
Four new, in-depth magazine articles have offered some insight into those questions, portraying an executive branch that does look like a business—just not a very successful one. Instead, the departments in question resemble takeover targets being sold for parts, where the talented are leaving, the opportunistic are plotting their next steps, and nobody else knows what to do. More like Yahoo, less like Amazon.
In the September issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis profiles the Department of Energy—the one being run by a man who once believed it should be eliminated, and then forgot its name. In Monday’s issue of New York, Alec MacGillis looks at HUD under Carson, the neurosurgeon with no prior experience in housing or government. In Foreign Policy, Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch write about the State Department under Tillerson, the Texan who spent his career hunting the world for oil. In GQ, Elaina Plott goes horseback riding on the National Mall with Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior who served a two-year term in Congress before being offered the job in January, after a 100-second conversation with the president-elect, during which he was also offered a different Cabinet post, as the head of Veterans Affairs.
Some departments, of course, have been effective in implementing right-wing policy—the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has been transformed by industry priorities, and the Department of Homeland Security's immigration police force has struck fear in immigrant families across the country.
But the impression left from reading these four accounts in succession is that Trump may well be fulfilling erstwhile aide Steve Bannon’s goal, the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Only by accident, though. What follows are some common threads from those pieces, each of which is worth reading in full.
We see, for example, how slow the Trump transition was compared with those of his predecessors. It’s said that between the election and the inauguration, Lewis reports, no one from the Trump team set foot inside the Department of Agriculture, which employs more than 100,000 people. Meanwhile at DOE, where Obama had sent several dozen representatives the day after the election, it took a month for the leader of the Trump “landing team” to arrive—an oil and gas lobbyist named Thomas Pyle. His time inside the department barely added up to half a day. The invaluable opportunity to mine the knowledge of predecessors went unused.
Pyle was typical of the bunglers and bundlers Trump sent in. At HUD, MacGillis reports, the January “beachhead" team included a Manhattan real-estate broker, the campaign’s “student and millennial outreach coordinator,” and the degree-exaggerating party planner-turned–housing administrator Lynne Patton. The leader of the group wound up being a startup employee with a Trump connection who, prior to landing at HUD, helped investors find rental properties to buy. At Interior, the recently confirmed deputy interior secretary—a former water bottle lobbyist—just reversed an Obama-era rule to reduce water bottle sales in National Parks.
Across the executive branch, the first moves included purging Obama appointees and digging for dirt. At DOE, Pyle initiated a small, early scandal by requesting a list of employees and contractors who had been involved in climate change research. “It reminded me of McCarthyism,” Obama-era Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told Lewis. This happened at the State Department, too. In a speech to former colleagues in May, a onetime U.S. ambassador to Russia "warned against ‘pernicious' attempts to question the loyalty of career diplomats 'because they worked in the previous administration,’” Gramer, De Luce, and Lynch write. The emphasis on loyalty continued: In February, one of Carson’s top aides at HUD was fired after Trump’s people learned he had been critical of the president during the campaign.
Once they were installed, Trump’s team blended general disinterest with stifling micromanagement. At HUD, for example, all requests had to be rooted through the top brass, which rejected routine requests. At State, Tillerson hired a management consulting firm to administer a survey, asking how staffers might eliminate aspects of their job. Half the 75,000-person staff did not fill it out, Foreign Policy reports. A further layer of administration consisted of the “shadow Cabinet” that allowed the White House to supervise and clash with its appointees, which a Republican operative described to Plott as “zombies loyal to Jared.”
For the most part, though, top-level positions went vacant. At State, that meant regional assistant secretaries for conflict zones and important ambassadorships. Memos that once took hours to sign languished for weeks. Across the Cabinet departments, outsiders didn’t know whom to call. Canada, for example, is now discussing climate change and trade policy with states, rather than State.
Part of the problem begins with Trump: According to the Partnership for Public Service, out of 591 agency positions that require Senate confirmation, only 117 have been confirmed. There are 368 open positions with no nominees. But the department heads are having trouble, too. Zinke was two for 15 at the end of July, and the Senate committee delayed the hearings for Zinke’s other nominees for his department the day after he threatened its chairwoman, the GOP Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for her lack of support for the president’s health care bill.
Of the four secretaries, Zinke seems the most interested. At Energy, Perry “has no personal interest in understanding what we do and effecting change,” a staffer told Lewis. “He’s never been briefed on a program—not a single one, which to me is shocking.” “Secretary Perry is a wonderful guy," Zinke told Plott. "I think he thought his department was more about energy than … science. Mostly, it's science.” At a HUD MacGillis portrays as slipping into disfunction, an oblivious Carson can only tell him, in response to a query at a press conference, “it’s coming along quite nicely.”
Across the executive branch, the career staff—granted anonymity to express themselves—give strikingly similar descriptions of the atmosphere. These are less offices run by hardcore ideologues than offices not run at all.
- At HUD: “It was just nothing,” said one career employee. “I’ve never been so bored in my life. No agenda, nothing to move forward or push back against. Just nothing.”
- At Energy: “The biggest change is the grinding to a halt of any proactive work. There’s very little work happening. There’s a lot of confusion about what our mission was going to be. For a majority of the workforce it’s been demoralizing.”
- At State: “I used to wake up every morning with a vision about how to do the work to make the world a better place. It’s pretty demoralizing if you are committed to making progress. I now spend most of my days thinking about the morass. There is no vision.”
Tom Countryman, a longtime State employee who retired in January, told FP that morale was at an all-time low. That means, he says, that people are seeking opportunities to exit. He has tried to dissuade them. “My advice was to do your best to stay and serve the American people until it becomes truly unbearable for you in a moral sense. … I sought to encourage them by reminding them that no administration lasts forever.”
The same is true at Energy, especially among the cadre of supersmart scientists who can easily find more lucrative work than monitoring the nation’s nuclear waste. “People are heading for the doors,” Tarak Shah, a former chief of staff to the undersecretary for science and energy, told Lewis. “And that’s really sad and destructive. The best and the brightest are the ones being targeted. They will leave fastest. Because they will get the best job offers.”
The result of all this is a talent whirlpool, as thousands of years of institutional knowledge drains from Washington all at once. At HUD, MacGillis writes, the Bush appointee and homelessness official Ann Marie Oliva "was barred from attending a big annual conference on housing and homelessness in Ohio because, she inferred, some of the other speakers there leaned left.” At State, Tillerson has substituted an expanded front office of political hires with little diplomatic experience for the vast collected knowledge of Foggy Bottom, and is increasingly turning only to them.
At Energy, Lewis writes, the CFO simply departed, not having been told what else to do. The head of the nuclear weapons program—a three-star Air Force general—was asked to resign, before the Obama Energy chief, nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, called senators to warn them of the danger, and he was called back. He was the exception that proved the rule: Many people like him left.
To say nothing of all those who never arrived.