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USAID Chief Plans to Block Last-Minute Push to Add Trump Loyalists

Trump administration appointees at the U.S. Agency for International Development planned to use their final days in power to install allies who would help promote a conservative social agenda.

Airport personnel check humanitarian aid supplies from USAID
Airport personnel check humanitarian aid supplies after 60 tons of aid from USAID were unloaded from a plane at the airport in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on Sept. 2, 2014. Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images

The acting deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to block a last-minute push by Trump appointees to install political and religious allies in permanent federal jobs, a sign of how quickly the power of President Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters is evaporating in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a Trump-inspired mob.

Trump administration appointees at USAID planned to use their final days in power to install allies in permanent positions as a way to continue promoting a conservative social agenda in America’s premier development agency while rewarding loyalists.

Trump loyalists throughout the federal government have been using the waning days of the presidency to secure permanent jobs for friends, allies, and ideological fellow travelers through a process known as burrowing. The effort followed the president’s issuance of an executive order in October 2020 that stripped job protections for federal workers engaged in “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating,” making it far easier to fire career officials, creating openings that can be filled by political appointees.

But the effort at USAID faced pushback from career administrators, including from Human Resources and the Office of Personnel Management, as well as acting Deputy Administrator John Barsa, the agency’s de-facto administrator, who signaled less than a day after Foreign Policy sent USAID a long list of questions that he intends to block the hiring effort.

Still, in recent weeks, Trump administrators have been moving to install allies in jobs in an array of other federal agencies, including the State and Defense departments.

At USAID, Bethany Kozma, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, led the effort, which sought to short-circuit the agency’s competitive hiring process and to favor political allies over career employees and veterans, who have traditionally received preferential treatment in the hiring process, according to U.S. officials. Kozma, a former campaigner for limits on school bathroom access for transgender students, made the hiring of allies her No. 1 priority, according to two USAID officials.

The effort to reclassify political appointees as career employees has been playing out in the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, the Bureau for Global Health, and the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation. 

The political leadership in the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization mapped out vacancies and placed a freeze on opening them up for competition. Instead, it has identified five available posts and has requested that they be filled by five favored aspirants who would be directly hired without competition.

Just days before Christmas, John Anderson, the acting head of the conflict prevention bureau, asked to convert five positions into non-competition posts and earmarked them for political appointees: James Randall Tift, Mary Vigil, Amanda Vigneaud, Robert Gunderson, and Timothy Kaiser, according to an internal USAID email.

Vigneaud—a USAID contractor who currently works at the agency’s Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives—is being put forward for an administrative post in the Office of Transition Initiatives with responsibility for contracting and information technology. The job was first open for competition back in October 2020, generating scores of applications. But the process was subsequently placed on hold, delaying what USAID insiders say is an essential post that is vital for the department’s ability to function effectively.

The agency’s political appointees explored other ways to secure and fund the new posts, including by tapping into a COVID-19 relief fund that requires fewer bureaucratic hurdles for hiring. 

They also considered pushing some of the candidates through as Schedule A appointees, which permits the hiring of applicants with “intellectual disability, severe physical disability, or psychiatric disability” to apply for a position without a competitive process. The administration has previously used Schedule A to bypass the competitive hiring process.

Last year, Congress provided USAID with $1 billion in additional funding to combat the pandemic, providing enough money to fund nearly 100 new full-time positions. But many of those hires are not being channeled into the fight against COVID-19, and they will not be required to leave government after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. 

“These people are hand-selected by this administration and they are supposed to be working on COVID,” said one USAID official. “But a lot of them have a broad mandate unrelated to COVID. This is a violation of these funds.” 

This past July, USAID’s Bureau for Global Health tapped funding from the CARES Act to add three new staff members, including Rob Cohen, who was appointed acting deputy chief of staff to Alma Golden, the assistant administrator in the Bureau of Global Health, without a competitive process. 

Cohen—who was hired in July along with two others as Schedule A appointees, according to an internal announcement—has been named senior advisor of the department’s One Health initiative, which is aimed at curtailing the spread of infectious diseases. But officials say that his mandate is much broader and includes advancing the department’s policy on a range of conservative social issues, including its campaigns to push back on abortion.

“He is someone who does Alma’s bidding,” the USAID official said.

But the effort hasn’t been limited to USAID. In the months since the 2020 election, the Pentagon has become a critical destination for resume-padding among Trump loyalists, highlighted by a bloodletting that began on the Monday after Biden was projected the winner, when Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and, a day later, the head of the agency’s powerful policy shop, James Anderson. 

At the State Department, Denise Natali’s departure as the Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for conflict and stabilization operations allowed the Trump administration to push political appointee Alexander Alden, who Foreign Policy first reported had moved from a role on the National Security Council to become a new deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, to manage the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, moving on from acting Assistant Secretary Rob Faucher after a week on the job.

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

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

Tag: USAID

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