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High number of Trump political appointees sought permanent jobs in final year

Many of the attempted conversions made in the period between Election Day and Joe Biden’s inauguration did not move forward, according to documents obtained by NBC News.
Image: Donald Trump Campaigns For Re-Election In Michigan
Supporters watch a video of President Donald Trump while waiting in a cold rain for his arrival at a campaign rally at Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Michigan on Oct. 27, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The number of political appointees who sought permanent positions in the final year of former President Donald Trump’s term outpaced the number who did so under his predecessor during the same time frame, according to documents obtained by NBC News.

Fifty-eight Trump administration appointees sought conversion from Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan 20, 2021, according to the Office of Personnel Management documents. Of those, 31 conversions were approved, six were denied, 15 were returned or withdrawn, and six remained pending. During the corresponding period under former President Barack Obama — Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017 — 46 appointees sought conversion, with 36 approved, six denied and four returned or withdrawn.

All but one of the 13 Trump administration political appointees who sought permanent civil service jobs in the weeks between President Joe Biden’s election and inauguration were not approved, according to the OPM reports obtained by NBC News for the last quarter of 2020 and the first 20 days of January. Five requests were withdrawn or returned and six remained pending and under review by the OPM. By comparison, nine of the 11 Obama administration political appointees who requested approval for conversion to civil service jobs from Election Day 2016 through Trump’s inauguration were approved.

At least one of those attempted conversions during that period under Trump was denied by the OPM because the agency said it couldn’t conclude the attempted appointment was free of “political influence,” according to the documents.

The OPM tracks such conversion requests on a quarterly basis and subsequently provides the information to members of Congress. NBC News previously reported on the Trump administration’s conversions through the first three quarters of 2020.

There is nothing new about Trump’s attempts to embed political appointees into civil service jobs; outgoing presidents have done it for years. (Civil service workers have protections that political appointees do not, and new administrations find it harder to fire them.)

The latest disclosures reveal the extent to which Trump’s political appointees sought, in the former president’s final months, weeks and even days in office, to stay on in career government positions — a process some government watchdog groups called “burrowing.” Successful conversions would give Trump a legacy of influence in parts of the federal government that would endure far past his time in the White House.

Experts interviewed by NBC News expressed concerns over the numbers and timing of political appointees seeking conversion to permanent jobs after the election in particular, as well as about the number of appointees who had previously applied for and were granted conversions after the election.

It is normal for some political appointees who are nearing the end of their time in government to seek stronger job security in permanent positions, as it is for some political appointees who are passionate about the work and who are qualified for relevant permanent jobs, experts said. But they also said that in this case, the large number of conversion applications and the post-election timing, as well as the large number of rejections by the OPM, were unusual.

“You can see in the number of non-approvals by OPM that there are a bunch of political appointees [who sought career jobs] that are clearly problematic,” Max Stier, CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said. “Why are these people only coming into these jobs only after the candidate who wanted them there has lost?”

Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said: “It’s the kind of thing where people inside the administration know that it’s coming to an end.

“Some of these people, either on their own, or at the behest of others, start seeking conversions so they can stick around."

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

The latest report obtained by NBC News also provided updates to previously pending conversion requests from the third quarter of 2020.

Among those requests, on two occasions, a political appointee’s conversion request was denied because the OPM “could not conclude appointment was free of political influence and complied with merit system principles and applicable civil service laws and regulations.”

One denial pertained to an unnamed political appointee inside the White House Counsel’s office who had requested approval for a conversion to be an attorney in an ethics job within the general counsel office of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a crucial agency that regulates U.S. derivatives, options and futures markets.

The other was a political appointee within a Montana office of the Department of Agriculture who had requested approval for a conversion to another Montana office within the agency.

In both cases, the names of the appointees were redacted.

Meanwhile, government watchdog groups expressed concerns over two people whose initial conversion requests had since been approved.

One such conversion was that of Carl Risch, whose October conversion request to be the deputy director, the No. 2 job, at the Executive Office for Immigration Review within the Department of Justice (a civil service job), was approved in December. Risch had been an assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, a political job. His new job came with a $10,000 raise.

His is at least the second conversion in the last year to land at the EOIR, which conducts removal and deportation proceedings in immigration courts across the country.

“It’s a red flag when there are multiple people being converted to jobs at a single entity. It really raises an even larger concern,” Stier, of the Partnership for Public Service, said. “The process is supposed to be that a political appointee in no way has a leg up on the competition for a career job, but when you see multiple go to the same agency, you really have to wonder how it can be possible that the best qualified individuals are not once, but multiple times, people who are political appointees.”

Risch did not respond to multiple requests for comment. EOIR spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said Risch went through the standard pre-hiring review process with the OPM and that the agency had approved his new position.

Another conversion that drew attention from Schwellenbach, Stier and other experts was that of Keith Gray, whose July request to become the associate administrator at the Department of Agriculture’s risk management agency office was approved Jan. 17, just three days before Trump left office. Gray had been a chief of staff at the division, which helps determine farming subsidies for certain groups of farmers. His new job came with a $26,000 raise.

Stier pointed to a specific OPM conversion review rule that says a career job opening “cannot be created or tailored solely for the benefit of the current or former political appointee” as a reason that the conversion of Gray, who had held a leadership position in the division, caught his eye.

“The fact that he is getting a job inside the division that he was the chief of staff of, I don’t really know how you do that within the confines of the OPM review process,” he said. “I don’t know how you can be assured that it was a free and fair competition when you have someone on the inside throwing their hat in. It strikes me, on its surface, as implausible that it was a free and fair competition.”

The nonpartisan government watchdog Accountable.US raised questions over Gray’s conversion to a career job citing his prior experience as an agriculture industry lobbyist.

Gray did not respond to multiple messages. The Department of Agriculture and its risk management division both declined to comment.

Separately, government watchdog groups pointed to apparent ongoing attempts to embed political appointees at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a pivotal agency that regulates the transmission, transportation and sale of electricity and natural gas in interstate commerce. FERC also reviews proposals to build interstate natural gas and oil pipelines.

Half of the pending conversions from the period from Election Day through Trump’s last day in office were for conversions of employees elsewhere in the federal government to civil service jobs at FERC.

Two requests, filed Dec. 22 and 23 with the OPM, were for conversions to “attorney advisor” jobs within the agency. A third, filed Jan. 4 with the OPM, was for a trial attorney job inside FERC’s legal department.

The names of the people, and their initial political appointment positions, were redacted.

E&E News, a widely read energy trade publication owned by Politico, reported in December that FERC had been politicized during the Trump administration. In November, Trump fired the commission’s chairman in a rare move that E&E News reported was viewed by many as an act of retribution for comments he had made supporting climate action.

“Having political people burrow in at an agency like FERC is a huge problem with real consequences,” Stier said. “Just look at what happened in Texas,” he added, referring to the fact that FERC’s warnings to Texas that its power grid wouldn’t handle a brutal cold snap went unheeded, leaving millions without power after a storm in February.

FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll said in a statement, “It is not unusual for either Republican or Democratic commissioners to hire current or former political appointees from other agencies as advisors” and that “all FERC hiring procedures are done with the oversight and approval of OPM.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., as the chair of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, has pushed for more transparency surrounding the number and identities of conversions to civil service jobs requested during the Trump administration.

He said the names and situations identified by NBC News in the latest reports prove how crucial an apolitical civil service is for the government to function successfully — and called for measures that would further examine all, and possibly remove some, of Trump’s conversions from their jobs.

“Our country is just now coming out of a pandemic, and continued progress requires a civil service of committed, competent officials. Many of President Trump’s political appointees were openly and unapologetically committed to tearing down the institutions they were tasked to serve and lacked expertise,” he said in a statement. “To allow them to continue in the federal government will hurt all Americans and they must be removed,” he added.