A highly influential clique of senior aides installed by the White House have been charged with supervising U.S. Cabinet agencies to ensure secretaries’ loyalty, according to officials affiliated with or close to the Trump administration.
Records first obtained by ProPublica through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the White House has installed at least 16 senior advisers at departments including the Department of Energy and Health and Human Services, as well as smaller agencies such as NASA. These “overseers” are always no more than two steps behind Cabinet leadership, as they’re stationed at offices either in or right outside the secretary’s suite.
The Washington Post reported that these advisers don’t report to Cabinet secretaries, but rather to the Office of Cabinet Affairs, which is supervised by White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn. One of Dearborn’s top aides, John Mashburn, holds weekly conference calls with the advisers, who remain in constant contact with the White House, according to administration officials.
While the arrangement is highly unconventional, Trump surrogates maintain that such governance is necessary to ensure Cabinet leaders and their staff are carrying out the president’s agenda accordingly and not deviating too far from the White House’s talking points.
“Especially when you’re starting a government and you have a changeover of parties when policies are going to be dramatically different, I think it’s something that’s smart,” said Barry Bennett, a former adviser for the Trump campaign. “Somebody needs to be there as the White House’s man on the scene. Because there’s no senior staff yet, they’re functioning as the White House’s voice and ears in these departments.”
Among the political appointees embedded at nearly every Cabinet agency are an ex-Trump campaign aide who claimed Democrats committed “ethnic cleansing” in a plot to “liquidate” the white working class, a New Hampshire supporter who just graduated high school and a handful of health care industry lobbyists, among others, according to ProPublica. The non-profit news group, which produces investigative journalism in the public interest, is working to publish the names of the nearly 400 people Trump quietly hired to fill federal positions.
What ProPublica journalists said they found striking was the number of former lobbyists appointed to serve as White House senior aides. So far, they’ve found at least 36, ranging from industries like health insurance and pharmaceuticals to construction and finance.
“The list we obtained includes obscure campaign staffers, contributors to Breitbart and others who have embraced conspiracy theories, as well as dozens of Washington insiders who could be reasonably characterized as part of the ‘swamp’ Trump pledged to drain,” the independent news site stated. “… There are many former congressional staffers, several top officials from the George W. Bush administration — and even a handful of holdovers from the Obama administration.”
So, what exactly are the roles of these so-called “beachhead” advisers at Trump’s Cabinet agencies? That aspect remains largely unclear and critics fear that advisers might have a heightened influence in the absence of complete leadership teams at a number of Cabinet departments. Since entering office, Trump has failed to fill many jobs that require a Senate confirmation. Until he does so, the appointed senior advisers will temporarily act as his eyes and ears to monitor Cabinet leadership.
“The advisers were a main point of contact in the early transition process as the agencies were being set up,” a White House official told The Washington Post via email. “Like every White House, this one is in frequent contact with agencies and departments.”
In mid-January, the Trump administration announced that nearly 520 staffers would be hired for the beachhead teams. These advisers are temporary employees serving just four-to-eight-month stints, though many of them may move into permanent positions.