Trump’s Pentagon Now Vetting Nonpolitical Experts

Political-style vetting is now being applied to special government employees and other hard-to-find outside experts.

US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the US military following a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, July 20, 2017.
US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the US military following a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, July 20, 2017. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration has opted to extend background vetting of U.S. Department of Defense appointees to nonpolitical roles, current and former U.S. officials told Foreign Policy, a move that is said to be hampering top think tank experts and outside advisors from consulting with the Pentagon on policy matters.

The recent decision made by freshly minted Pentagon White House liaison Joshua Whitehouse, a loyalist to President Donald Trump and former New Hampshire state representative, could keep outside experts out of the Defense Department if they are found to hold anti-Trump views in a background check, which includes checking social media accounts. The positions are usually used to keep a continuity of knowledge inside the Pentagon amid personnel churn inside the building.

While the Trump administration has long policed social media accounts of possible hires, those decisions have typically been limited to political appointees at the Schedule C rank and above.

“The vetting is a black box,” one former official said on condition of anonymity. “No one is getting an SGE through,” the official said, referring to special government employees, one of the categories impacted by the decision.

Though the decision has apparently stalled nonpolitical experts from getting advisory jobs in the Pentagon, most of which allow outside advisors to work 150 days per year on Defense Department projects, it was not immediately clear how many appointees had been halted.

Officials said the decision would extend to those labeled highly qualified experts and special government employees, and also applies to appointees who come in through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, a law that allows think tank experts to serve in nonpolitical civilian jobs in the Pentagon while remaining employees of their home organizations.

Other officials described the move—which appears to target people who have made remarks critical of Trump on social media—as not just about finding new talent loyal to Trump but an effort to build out the Republican national security bench in the two months before the end of his term. That rationale has also been used to explain the promotion of several Trump allies through the Pentagon’s ranks after the firings of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson in a postelection purge earlier this month, including former National Security Council staffers Kash Patel, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Joe Francescon, and Tom Williams, who now hold high-profile roles near the top of the Defense Department’s organizational chart.

Responding to Foreign Policy‘s reporting, the Pentagon said in a statement that the policy conformed to long-standing efforts to look into the public profiles of nonpolitical appointees.
“The Department of Defense has a well-established process to review the background and vetting of employees and those assigned to work in the department. This process is apolitical and applied across the department in an equitable manner to ensure the integrity of our national security mission,” Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Uriah Orland told Foreign Policy in a statement. “Additionally, it is common and perfectly appropriate to review an individual’s public persona to ensure a level of professionalism and aptness before entering into a position of public trust.”

Extending vetting to specialized experts, including positions related to nuclear weapons infrastructure and innovation, is drawing criticism from former officials who fear the move could scare away hard-to-find experts.

“These roles aren’t political,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, the vice president of research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, who served as a senior advisor on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

“DODs own policies demand these positions be free of political influence. The [White House liaison] office should [have] no voice here, and including them in a system designed to bring in apolitical, tough-to-source expertise is extremely risky,” she said.

Whitehouse has also had interviews with outside experts in recent weeks, sources told Foreign Policy, though many of the questions appeared to stay in their policy lanes. But he has also angered some in the Pentagon for not respecting senior leaders in the building and failing to abide by mask mandates, current officials said.

The vetting of nonpolitical experts appears to be an expansion of an ongoing effort to weed out perceived Trump detractors from the ranks of political appointees. Earlier in the administration, the Presidential Personnel Office would find and flag social media posts of appointees at the Schedule C rank and above that were deemed to be a slight to Trump. But the Trump administration has shown interest in remaking the career civil service, too.

In October, Trump issued an executive order creating a new class of at-will employees in the career service known as “Schedule F,” and giving politically appointed agency heads wide latitude to hire and fire them, a move that prompted concerns that the administration would seek to further politicize key agencies. The directive asks cabinet officers to decide whether career and political officials in their agencies should be classified as at-will employees before Inauguration Day—a move that could also potentially give Trump appointees more latitude to stay put. According to an internal Office of Management and Budget memo reported on by Federal News Network, the agency’s director Russ Vought has classified 88 percent of his workforce, 425 people, as Schedule F.

There has also been a push at the Defense Department to target some civil service members. Foreign Policy previously reported that Whitehouse, the liaison officer, had pushed the Pentagon’s powerful policy office to oust Steven Schleien, its chief operating officer, despite civil service protections that likely made his dismissal illegal. The Presidential Personnel Office, led by influential former Trump body man John McEntee, spent several weeks this summer interviewing political appointees across the U.S. government for perceived loyalty to Trump, including inside the Pentagon.

Hires through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, known as IPAs, were first brought into the Defense Department from national labs to help with the U.S. nuclear program. The program has been expanded in recent years as the Defense Department’s policy shop has lost civilian employees, and it has also been used to bring on experts who can’t be hired permanently.

“The notion of doing political background checks on HQEs and IPAs is fucking insane,” said one former defense official. “That’s rank politicization of an apolitical body.”


Update, Nov. 25, 2020: This article was updated to provide comment from a Defense Department spokesman.

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

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