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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.

By Colum Lynch and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
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 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.

Correction, Jan. 27, 2021, 11:44 a.m. EST: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Rob Cohen, then-acting deputy chief of staff to the assistant administrator in USAID’s Bureau of Global Health, had used his position in the health agency to advance socially conservative causes and that he improperly bypassed the competitive hiring process. Those allegations were not substantiated by our reporting, nor was the suggestion that he was a political appointee. We apologize and regret the error.

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