But before he left office, he quietly embedded dozens of his own political appointees in career government positions and appointed other loyalists to influential boards and groups — one of the final, but possibly most enduring, ways he attempted to remake Washington in his own image.
Now, President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to root out some of those government employees, seeking to rid the broader federal bureaucracy of Trump loyalists who could hinder his agenda.
There was nothing new about Trump’s attempts to convert political appointees to civil service employees, a process called “burrowing” by some government watchers; outgoing presidents have done it for years. (Civil service workers have protections that political appointees do not, and are harder for new administrations to fire.)
But good-government advocates, government watchdogs and experts on the federal bureaucracy, including one member of Congress, said that Trump’s “burrowers” were both more plentiful, and more dangerous, than usual.
Further, these experts pointed to moves by Trump, in the final days of his presidency, to place allies in unusual positions like little-known advisory boards with close ties to decision-makers at key agencies, and low-level unpaid jobs on prestigious boards. Those allies retain access to lawmakers, decision-making processes and information that could ultimately make its way back to the former president.
“Under the guise of stopping a ‘deep state’ coup that never existed, Trump appears to have tried to create a deep state of his own,” said David Rohde, the author of the 2020 book “In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth about America’s ‘Deep State’” and the executive editor of NewYorker.com. Rohde called that effort, if it had proceeded unfettered, “an existential threat to democracy.”
Seeking to cut off any potential such damage, the Biden administration has in recent weeks terminated or placed on leave several government employees placed into their jobs by Trump in the waning days of his presidency, including the top lawyer at the National Security Agency and several members on Pentagon advisory boards.
In a statement to NBC News, a Biden White House official said the administration “is conducting a thorough review of several councils, commissions, and advisory boards,” adding that “as part of that review, we may remove individuals whose continued membership on the board would not serve the public interest.”
But experts warned that countless others are likely peppered throughout the federal government and that it would be difficult for Biden to identify and remove all of them.
“Not to be hyperbolic, but the damage some of these people could do is enormous,” said Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.
Finding Trump loyalists
Trump political appointees petitioned the Office of Personnel Management 49 times for conversion to civil service jobs from January 2020 through September 2020, a congressional aide with knowledge of the matter told NBC News. According to the aide, 15 were approved, 14 were denied, declined or withdrawn, and another 20 were still pending.
The OPM tracks such conversion requests on a quarterly basis and subsequently provides the information to members of Congress. The number of requested conversions for the last quarter of 2020 — the final months of Trump’s presidency — won’t be released to Congress until March.
Some agencies aren’t required to report conversions, and some agencies never announced their new hires, making it difficult for the Biden administration to truly know the extent of the reach of Trump loyalists.
The overall number of requests from the Trump administration in 2020 identified so far, however, outpaces Trump’s predecessor in the White House. During President Barack Obama’s final year in the White House, including the first 20 days of January 2017, his administration had a total of 39 conversion requests, the aide said.
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
The Trump administration conversion that caused the most concern, the congressional aide and numerous experts said, was Michael Ellis, a Trump loyalist who, one day before Biden took office last month, was sworn in as the top lawyer for the National Security Agency.
On Jan. 20, Biden’s first day in office, his administration placed Ellis on administrative leave while his transfer to the agency from his previous role at the Trump White House was reviewed by an inspector general for the Department of Defense.
Ellis, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who went on to work in the Trump White House, was involved in the placement ofa reconstructed transcript of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into a classified computer system, The Associated Press reported. That July 2019 call — on which Trump asked his counterpart to investigate Biden and his son Hunter — became the basis of Trump’s first impeachment trial. A National Security Council spokesman speaking on Ellis’ behalf at the time declined to comment to the AP.
Two years earlier, The New York Times reported that Ellis, then a lawyer working on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office, was involved in giving Nunes, then the House Intelligence Committee chair, access to intelligence reports that seemed to show Trump and his associates were incidentally included in surveillance efforts during the Obama administration.
Ellis, who later worked as a White House senior director of intelligence, a political job, was tapped to be the general counsel of the NSA, a civil service position that would extend beyond Trump’s time in office, in the weeks after he lost the election.
Experts on burrowing told NBC News that based on Ellis’ reported past actions, they were concerned that as NSA general counsel, he would have the opportunity to continue to evaluate intelligence in a way that would have benefited Trump or his allies.
“If there is a track record of mishandling classified information, that should disqualify him from this role,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight. “It definitely looked like an attempt to embed a political operative inside one of the most powerful spy agencies.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who as the chair of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations had pushed the Trump administration to be more transparent with the number of conversions it requested, added that Ellis is just one prominent example of why civil service jobs must not go to partisans.
“Many of former President Trump’s ardent political appointees were openly and unapologetically committed to tearing down those institutions. To allow them to continue in the federal government will hurt all Americans,” Connolly told NBC News.
Ellis did not respond to phone calls and messages from NBC News.
A former Trump administration official told NBC News that Ellis’ hiring process at the NSA began in 2019 and that Ellis went through the “standard process” an appointee would go through to get a career job. The former official also rejected any suggestion that Ellis was not qualified for the job.
“He is eminently qualified,” the former official said.
Because Ellis had already been sworn in when Biden took office, he benefits from robust civil service job protections and cannot be easily terminated. Trump signed an executive order days before the 2020 election that allowed federal agencies to work around rules mandating a merit-based application process by political appointees applying for career civil service jobs, a move experts said was designed to allow Trump to remake the civil service as he saw fit. Biden, however, signed an executive order during his first week in office undoing Trump’s order. As a result, Ellis may remain on administrative leave or be transferred to another job, experts said.
Another name that experts frequently mentioned in interviews was Brandon Middleton, a Trump loyalist who is now a top Energy Department lawyer. Middleton had earlier worked in the environmental and natural resources division under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He later took a job as a political appointee in Trump’s Interior Department before applying for and receiving a permanent civil service job as chief counsel in an Energy Department office dealing with toxic waste cleanup.
“He has a demonstrable track record of taking a pro-corporation view of environmental law. He doesn’t look like someone who will call balls and strikes in a straight way,” said Schwellenbach. Middleton did not respond to phone calls and messages from NBC News.
Other approved requests through the first nine months of 2020 for conversion of former political appointees to career civil service jobs included Prerak Shah, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Trump Justice Department who had served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s chief of staff, to an assistant U.S. attorney job for the Northern District of Texas. Shah was named acting U.S. attorney for that district last month.Tracy Short was granted a petition to be the chief immigration judge at the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, a civil service job, after he’d worked as a senior adviser at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a political job.
Shah did not respond to phone calls and messages from NBC News. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas declined to comment. A spokesperson for the EOIR said Short’s “selection, and subsequent career appointment” at the EOIR “followed a public solicitation for applications, a merit-based application review and interview process, and an established process with the Office of Personnel Management for sitting political appointees who are selected for career positions.”
Still other people whose names prompted concern have been cleared out.
Daniel Sitterly, who became deputy assistant secretary for the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in December, a career job, raised flags at the Project on Government Oversight.
“We were concerned he was placed there to protect VA leadership from accountability,” Hempowicz, the group’s public policy director, said.
While it was unclear whether Sitterly took part in a formal conversion application process, he went from a political job to a civil career job in December. He had previously been the agency’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, which is a political job, although prior to that, he held other career-track jobs.
In a January email that was provided to NBC News, the VA’s accountability office announced his retirement effective Jan. 31.
Sitterly did not respond to messages. A spokesperson for the VA declined to comment.
Low-level jobs full of loyalists, too
In interviews, experts also expressed concern over the dozens of loyalists appointed in late 2020 by Trump to several lower-level boards who will now — in many cases with no relevant experience — have the ability to provide meaningful input on schools, museums, nonprofits and even the public release of certain classified materials.
Among them are former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a member of Trump’s defense team at his first impeachment trial, who he appointed to the board of trustees for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Hope Hicks, a top aide to Trump for much of his presidency, who he appointed to the William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Trump also appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Richard Grenell, a fierce loyalist who served as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence for several months in 2020, and Andrew Giuliani, the son of Trump ally Rudy Giuliani and a former White House aide.
He tapped Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former White House National Security Council staffer who briefly served as acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board, an obscure position charged with advocating for public access to classified information.
The terms of these appointments are typically yearslong and removal can be challenging, experts said. The posts, all unpaid, “tend to be patronage jobs in nature, a reward,” Schwellenbach said.
“But it’s still an opportunity to hobnob with important people, get you in the door for important events, grease the wheels for deals you may have on the side, meet people, keep your ear to the ground, which I believe creates added concern … when you consider that this all is through the lens of Trump’s allies,” he added.
In a statement to NBC News, Grenell pointed to multiple actions he had taken as Trump’s ambassador to Germany, including having pressured the German government to ban Hezbollah, pushing U.S. officials to return Nazi prison guard Jakiw Palij to Germany, and having “confronted the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe,” as evidence of his qualifications for his appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council.
Giuliani did not respond to emails.
Bondi also did not respond to phone calls and messages. A Kennedy Center spokesperson said the organization has had, for decades, and across numerous presidential administrations, “a bipartisan board that works collaboratively and positively to advance the mission of the Kennedy Center.”
In a statement, Mark Zaid, an attorney for Cohen-Watnick, said his client “was a perfect choice to lead the bipartisan PIDB, and government watchdog organizations will be pleasantly surprised by what they will see during this tenure.”
“Ezra completely understands his lawful obligations to protect classified information and he will be led by career, experienced PIDB staff,” Zaid said. “I certainly have no concerns he would take any steps to cross an inappropriate line. Any concerns involving Ezra and Trump are completely misplaced.”
Hicks did not respond to phone calls and messages.
Pentagon advisory boards were another area where the Biden administration took action on Trump appointees.
NBC News reported this month that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had dismissed every member of the Pentagon’s advisory boards, a move officials said was driven by concern over last-minute appointments made by the Trump administration.
Among those dismissed were Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, and David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager. The board advisory positions that went to them, and all others relieved by Austin, were unpaid and not formal Pentagon employees. But experts said that the jobs are still highly sought-after because they provide access to top leaders at the department and can come with security clearances and access to sensitive information, like defense contracts.
Those jobs are of significantly less concern than partisans in critical career jobs, experts said. But no matter the level of the position, they said, there’s little room for diehard political ideology within a broad federal bureaucracy that is charged with solving a slew of historical challenges.
“Our government has a phenomenally large and complex and diverse set of problems to address. A pandemic, an economic crisis, cyberattacks,” said Max Stier, CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
“We have a system where a president gets to name any number of people to any number of jobs. But in so many cases, and certainly in the last administration, they’re not chosen for their ability. They are not the best and brightest.”