Controversial Trump USAID Appointee Returns from Absence

While seasoned federal officials are being fired, Trump’s loyalists are coming back, threatening fresh tensions between the outgoing administration and Congress.

A USAID mural, to commemorate the building of supportive walls and road shoulders, is pictured in the village of al-Badhan, north of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on August 25, 2018.
A USAID mural, to commemorate the building of supportive walls and road shoulders, is pictured in the village of al-Badhan, north of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on August 25, 2018. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images

A controversial political appointee of outgoing President Donald Trump who has sought to remake important programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development is set to return to the agency following a two-month absence, after he had been accused of mismanagement and hostility toward employees, according to U.S. and NGO officials.  

The return of Pete Marocco, who took leave after USAID officials documented complaints with the Trump loyalist in a 13-page memo first obtained by Politico, comes after concerns about his slash-and-burn tactics toward aid programs raised alarm throughout Washington. Morocco had sought to scale back funding for the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, known as CPS, which he leads.

Marocco, who has been running the new Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), sought to slash money to help build democratic institutions in countries such as Bosnia and Ukraine while boosting funding to protect Christian minorities, particularly in Iraq, raising questions from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who had pushed for those democracy programs. 

It was not immediately clear whether Marocco had begun taking meetings at USAID again, but sources described his return to his previous role leading CPS as imminent. A spokesperson for USAID did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

But Marocco’s arrival could cause more problems at the agency, which has been plagued by personnel churn and overreaching policy influence from the White House. In recent months, USAID has been riddled with tumult, with several appointees loyal to Trump coming on board despite publicly espousing anti-LGBT and Islamophibic views. Last month, the White House abruptly fired USAID’s number-two official, Bonnie Glick, to allow for Trump’s hand-picked acting chief, John Barsa, to stay in place despite running up against the 210-day time limit for temporary officials under federal vacancy laws. 

A Trump loyalist who received major promotions despite being previously dismissed from positions at the State and Defense Departments over similar concerns, Marocco’s return comes just as executive branch agencies are under deadline to decide whether to strip workplace protections from career federal civil service workers. (The Office of Management and Budget has already reportedly sought to reclassify 88 percent of its workforce under the new category, known as Schedule F, according to an internal memo reported by Federal News Network.) A former U.S. official familiar with the move feared that Marocco could influence USAID’s decision.  

Yet Marocco’s ability to shake up USAID’s programs may run into stiffer internal resistance. The appointment of Jenny McGee as USAID’s assistant administrator for relief, response, and resilience—a role overseeing Marocco—brought significant complaints about the embattled OPS chief, including claims that he was micromanaging agency operations in the field to an unprecedented degree.   

Those complaints were also consistent with concerns about Marocco’s handling of the Pentagon’s Africa Office and the State Department’s bureau for conflict and stabilization operations, where current and former officials said he frequently disregarded the chain of command and would try to ditch handlers on regional trips and arrange meetings without the knowledge of ambassadors or other higher-ranking officials. Before being dismissed from the State Department, he was sent to a migration conference in Hungary, which has championed hardline anti-migration policies. 

At the State Department, former colleagues told Foreign Policy that Marocco racked up more than half a dozen complaints with the agency’s inspector general over workplace concerns and held unexplained personal grievances against top contractors. In one incident, officials said that Marocco became convinced that Creative Associates International, which contracts for the State Department and USAID, was improperly winning grants and urged officials to take money back that had already been programmed, despite regulations preventing that. 

In some cases, Marocco has also allegedly sought to bend the bureaus under his purview to fit the Trump administration’s policy goals, despite seemingly tenuous legal footing. At the Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations at State, former colleagues also said that Marocco championed the idea of conducting data mining on violence patterns in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other Northern Triangle countries. His idea was seemingly to hone in on the most dangerous areas and inform immigration judges to prevent them from granting asylum to migrants from specific hotspots. The effort stalled when subordinates told him the project fell outside of the State Department’s purview. 

Marocco’s return comes as Trump has begun ousting dozens of top officials throughout the government to reward loyalists faithful to the White House and speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. On Monday, Christopher Maier, the top Pentagon civilian official overseeing the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State, was abruptly dismissed, just days after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via a tweet and removed acting Pentagon policy chief, James Anderson. 

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

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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