President Donald Trump may be leaving the White House in January, but repairing the damage done by his assault on our democracy requires rigorous inspection of the appointees he will leave behind, especially those in government oversight jobs. President-elect Joe Biden has announced his nominees to fill key several key Cabinet posts, but who are the Trump appointees who will remain at the top of some of America's other government institutions?
Even now, Trump is working to install loyalists as career civil servants throughout government, starting with the national security apparatus.
Notably, while Trump has drawn intense criticism for filling a lifetime Supreme Court appointment as Americans were voting to remove him from office, he has also continued to fill other key positions that will outlast his presidency. Even now, Trump is working to install loyalists as career civil servants throughout government, starting with the national security apparatus. Given this reality, Congress and the public must take action to ensure that these Trump holdovers are subject to robust scrutiny and accountability — if they keep their jobs at all.
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Perhaps the most infamous Trump administration official who will remain in government after Trump leaves office is Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump megadonor whose leadership of the U.S. Postal Service nearly sabotaged voting by mail. As postmaster general, DeJoy serves no fixed term and can't be removed by the president, meaning that with continued backing from the Postal Service Board of Governors, he could undermine voting by mail for years to come. (The majority of the board members are Republicans appointed by Trump.)
In October, the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General criticized DeJoy for abruptly implementing operational chances that "negatively impacted" the timeliness of mail delivery and for providing "incomplete" information to Congress about his conduct. In addition, a federal judge strongly admonished DeJoy for delaying the delivery of ballots, ignoring a court order and failing to "conduct Election Day sweeps of mail-processing facilities for undelivered ballots on Election Day." DeJoy's incompetence, conflicts and corruption certainly warrant his removal, but as long as he remains in the job, Congress and the inspector general must hold him — and the board — accountable. This means holding more public hearings, examining the selection process and continuing to investigate DeJoy's attacks on voting by mail.
Another Trump appointee who gained attention during the election cycle is Henry Kerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, who was confirmed to a five-year term in October 2017. OSC enforces the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits federal employees from using their government jobs to support or attack political candidates. While OSC has held numerous administration officials accountable for violations of the law, at least 22 senior Trump aides remain under investigation.
Typically, OSC closes investigations of government officials once they leave office. However, given the escalating violations by Trump aides leading up to Election Day, Kerner should continue investigating and publish his findings even after the offenders resign, as they presumably will do to make way for Biden's administration. Uncovering the full scale of these abuses is essential to ensure public accountability for violators and to develop substantive reforms to the Hatch Act.
As chair of the Federal Election Commission, Trey Trainor is another Trump appointee tasked with safeguarding our democratic process after Trump's tenure is over. The FEC is an independent agency that enforces federal campaign finance laws that apply to campaigns for Congress and president. Although the FEC's capabilities have been undermined by quorum issues, Trainor's hostility toward the agency's enforcement mission includes a stated preference for eliminating all campaign finance limits and his support for a right to anonymous political speech. Trainor's term doesn't expire until 2023, and Trump has three additional nominees pending before the Senate. Given Trump's abuse of campaign finance laws, Congress should carefully examine his FEC nominees and continue monitoring the commission's actions and inaction in a post-Trump world.
One of the previously obscure federal agencies thrust into the spotlight by Trump's corruption is the Office of Government Ethics, or OGE, which promotes compliance with federal ethics laws. Unlike many other Trump appointees, OGE Director Emory Rounds has performed admirably during the first three years of his five-year term. However, given the litany of ethics abuses in the Trump administration, beginning with his decision to ignore OGE advice to divest from his business while serving in government, Congress and the incoming administration should work together to bolster OGE and ethics rules by passing legislation making it harder to remove the director and giving OGE independent authority to speak directly with Congress.
Another longstanding check on government corruption has been the inspector general community, which investigates waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies. Given their mission, it is hardly surprising that Trump has openly waged war on these government watchdogs. Trump's attacks include firing and demoting IGs investigating his political allies and installing political appointees as IGs, including one of his White House impeachment lawyers as the special IG for pandemic recovery. Inspectors general are required to conduct independent oversight of government agencies, which is why their tenures aren't tied to the president who nominated them. However, given Trump's demands for political loyalty from his appointees, Congress must carefully review whether Trump's IG appointees and nominees demonstrate a fidelity to the public that their roles demand or allegiance to the president who appointed them.
Donald Trump is easily one of the most corrupt presidents in American history, but his removal from office is only the first step in rebuilding the pillars of government ethics and oversight. While several of the Trump appointees who will remain in government can play a crucial role in that work, others have undermined our institutions and resisted reform.
Americans know the big names — the Cabinet secretaries and senators and TV surrogates — who have enabled Trump's behavior for four years. Many of these men and women will either resign or be fired once Biden assumes the presidency on Jan. 20. But we can't lose sight of the lesser-known people who remain, some by choice or executive fiat. These people might not be on TV, but they collectively wield serious power. And so, as we begin working to reinforce the democratic norms and processes that Trump has broken, Congress and the American public must rigorously scrutinize the personnel he leaves behind.