Trump Taps Loyalists for Top Pentagon Liaison Jobs

It risks Trump burrowing loyalists into career positions to undermine a Biden administration, multiple former officials say.

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a full honors welcome ceremony for new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a full honors welcome ceremony for new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, on the parade grounds at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on July 25, 2019. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Trump administration has tapped a new White House liaison at the Department of Defense, its third in the last year, part of an effort to install more loyalists in key agencies for if President Donald Trump wins a second term, officials say. But these appointments could also have a lasting impact if Trump loses in November.

Joshua Whitehouse, a former New Hampshire state representative and Trump campaign worker, who was previously liaison for the Department of Homeland Security, took over as the Pentagon’s White House liaison in September, according to officials and his LinkedIn profile.

Whitehouse rounded out his team with two more staffers this month: Parker Doyle, another former official in the White House liaison office at Homeland Security who joined the Pentagon as deputy liaison, and Peter O’Rourke, who serves as a special assistant in the office. Both graduated college in 2018 and have limited government or national security experience.

The Defense Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the appointments. Politico first reported on news of Whitehouse’s appointment. 

A former Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that late in an election year a White House liaison typically aims to see which of the agency’s nearly 300 political appointees will stay for another term. The goal, the former official said, is to find appointees who can translate into action the administration’s ambitious defense agenda, including the call for a 500-ship Navy by 2045.

But multiple former Pentagon and U.S. officials who worked on personnel matters said the move was troubling because it raised the risk of the Trump administration burrowing loyalists into career positions that could undermine a possible Joe Biden administration. White House liaisons can help write position descriptions for the career service to directly match the resumes of political appointees, one official said.

“There’s no point to burrowing except to have your appointees influence your successor’s policy,” a former senior official in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel said. 

In past administrations, White House liaison offices have served as an influential link between executive branch agencies and Pennsylvania Avenue, providing slates of candidates to fill presidentially appointed slots. Liaisons typically come into these roles after years of executive branch experience. Many first serve as senior veteran national security practitioners in think tanks or government, former officials said. 

Trump is driving a different approach. In September, Axios reported that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows asked John McEntee, the 30-year-old head of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, to “look at replacing” the liaisons at many U.S. government agencies. “I ask that you encourage your teams to equip the [liaisons] with everything they need to support your agency and the President’s agenda,” Meadows said in the email obtained by Axios

Bishop Garrison, who served as an acting White House liaison at the Pentagon during President Barack Obama’s administration, said that officials typically come into the job with years of relationships across government and regularly sat in on senior Defense Department staff meetings with the chairman or vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. military’s highest-ranking officers. 

“It’s not just pushing paper around,” he said. “It’s being thoughtful on the issues of organizational health as they relate to the administration’s policy goals. I would argue that anyone fresh out of college isn’t going to understand that.” 

Whitehouse is the third person to hold the liaison job in the last year, after retired Army Lt. Col. James O’Beirne was ousted in August 2019. 

In 2020, the Trump administration has opted for recent graduates for liaison roles across the U.S. government. This summer, two 20-something staffers at the White House personnel office conducted a series of interviews with staffers at the Pentagon and in other agencies that officials considered to be loyalty tests to the president. 

Officials say recent hires in liaison offices have trended toward the younger and less experienced. Rebekah Clark, who became the Department of Education’s White House liaison in March, according to her LinkedIn profile, served as a special assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a White House advance associate while finishing her bachelor’s degree at Liberty University, where she graduated in 2019. 

The race to the bottom in terms of the quality of liaison personnel reflects the dearth of eligible talent for many appointments, especially in the Pentagon, former officials said, as Trump’s chances for a second term appear to be fading quickly. 

“They all believe Trump will lose and they will be gone in a few months,” a former senior Trump administration official said. That has led to less-experienced and more politically motivated officials filling those roles, the former official said.

Update, Oct. 12, 2020: This article was updated to note Politico’s prior reporting of Whitehouse’s appointment

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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