The ‘Burrowing In’ of Political Appointees

With each presidential election and administration transition, concerns crop up about the doling out of permanent career positions to political appointees. But the White House’s obsessive focus on loyalty combined with the Trump administration’s politicization of multiple agencies has magnified the importance of investigating the potential “burrowing in” of political appointees.

In February 2018, the Office of Personnel Management updated its guidance regarding political appointees converting to civil service positions, requiring those employees to receive OPM permission before applying for a permanent position. Civil service laws prohibit hiring individuals into permanent, career positions on the basis of political affiliation or partisan loyalties, which has the potential to weaken the professional civil service. Such conversions, often referred to as “burrowing in,” are a frequent concern during transitions between administrations, with the fear being that political appointees of one party who are improperly installed into career positions could thwart future initiatives of a president of another party.

These fears have been amplified in the face of the Trump administration’s politicization of multiple federal agencies. At the same time, the White House’s post-impeachment purges of employees perceived as being insufficiently loyal to the president have accelerated. Shortly after the election, press reported that White House lawyer Michael Ellis had been hired into the career role of general counsel of the National Security Agency, raising concerns that it would be one of a wave of positions being filled by people serving the President Donald Trump’s political interests over those of the American public.

Adding to these concerns was Trump’s decision in July 2020 to nominate John Gibbs — a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had pushed a conspiracy theory about the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign — as the new head of OPM. That appointment came after the previous OPM chief, Dale Cabaniss, had abruptly resigned because of “poor treatment” by John McEntee, the director of the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office who had been spearheading the loyalty purges. Since then, multiple reports indicate that “burrowing” has become more widespread throughout the administration.

American Oversight is investigating the degree to which political appointees are improperly being converted to career status — and whether OPM’s guidelines are being followed throughout the federal government.

In particular, American Oversight is requesting documents with the potential to show whether and to what extent agencies have requested that OPM approve the hiring of political appointees into career positions, as well las documents that may shed light on whether hiring decisions were politically influenced. For example, we have sent requests for documents surrounding Ellis’ hiring as NSA general counsel, including records sufficient to show his qualifications for the position and whether applications from other candidates were appropriately solicited and considered.

Updates

Investigations Update: West Virginia Lawmaker’s Involvement in Capitol Attack and Trump’s Attempts to Overturn Georgia Election Results

January 19, 2021
See the latest in our investigations of the security at the U.S. Capitol, DOJ’s opioid settlement with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, and the “burrowing in” of Trump political appointees.

News Roundup: The Long Month Ahead

December 17, 2020
With just over a month left in his administration, there is still plenty of time for President Donald Trump to cause lasting damage.

Investigations Update: ‘Burrowing In,’ Medicaid Block Grants, and Pennsylvania County Election Certifications

December 1, 2020
See the latest in our investigations into troubling appointments, Oklahoma’s withdrawn block grant waiver application, and the administration’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census apportionment.

Investigations Update: Krebs’ Firing, Federal Record Preservation Laws, and Trump’s Contacts with Michigan Officials

November 24, 2020
See the latest in our investigations into the presidential transition process, the Trump administration’s compliance with document preservation laws, and false claims of widespread voter fraud.

Investigations Update: ‘Burrowing In,’ Voter Fraud Task Forces, and Federal Law Enforcement

July 28, 2020
Our latest investigations into political appointees moving to permanent positions, the designation of "antifa" as a terrorist group, and state-level voter fraud task forces.

Related Documents

November 17, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Records Regarding Chief Immigration Judge Tracy Short

Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review, Office of Personnel Management
FOIA Request
November 17, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Records Regarding New General Counsel Michael Ellis

Department of Defense, DOD - National Security Agency, Office of Personnel Management
FOIA Request
November 17, 2020

FOIA to DOD Seeking Email Communications Regarding General Counsel Michael Ellis

Department of Defense
FOIA Request
November 17, 2020

FOIA to DOD Seeking Records Regarding General Counsel Michael Ellis

Department of Defense
FOIA Request
October 23, 2020

No Records Response from OMB Regarding Records About Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

White House - Office of Management and Budget
Agency Reply
September 23, 2020

DHS Records Concerning Political Appointees Switching to Career Status

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Record
September 4, 2020

No Records Response from MCC Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Millennium Challenge Corporation
Agency Reply
August 31, 2020

No Records Response from EPA Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Environmental Protection Agency
Agency Reply
August 20, 2020

No Records Response from Treasury Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Department of the Treasury
Agency Reply
August 20, 2020

No Records Response from USCIS Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Agency Reply
August 17, 2020

Rejection Response from OPM Regarding Communications About Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Office of Personnel Management
Agency Reply
August 17, 2020

No Records Response from SBA Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Small Business Administration
Agency Reply
August 11, 2020

No Records Response from USTR Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

White House - Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Agency Reply
August 10, 2020

CFPB Records Regarding Dep. Director Tom Pahl

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Agency Record
July 31, 2020

No Records Response from ED Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Department of Education
Agency Reply
July 23, 2020

Rejection from MCC Regarding Records of Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Millennium Challenge Corporation
Agency Reply
July 20, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Records Regarding Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Environmental Protection Agency, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Small Business Administration, U.S. Agency for Global Media, U.S. Agency for International Development, White House - Office of Management and Budget, White House - Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
FOIA Request
July 20, 2020

FOIA to OPM Seeking SF-50s of Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Office of Personnel Management
FOIA Request
July 20, 2020

FOIA to OPM Seeking Records Regarding Requests of Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

Office of Personnel Management
FOIA Request
July 20, 2020

FOIA to OPM Seeking Communications Concerning Political Appointees Converting to Career Status

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FOIA Request
July 20, 2020

FOIA to CFPB Seeking Records Regarding Deputy Director Tom Pahl

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
FOIA Request