WASHINGTON – The political appointee charged with keeping watch over Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides has offered unsolicited advice so often that after just four weeks on the job, Pruitt has shut him out of many staff meetings, according to two senior administration officials.
At the Pentagon, they’re privately calling the former Marine officer and fighter pilot who’s supposed to keep his eye on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “the commissar,” according to a high-ranking defense official with knowledge of the situation. It’s a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal.
Most members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet do not yet have leadership teams in place or even nominees for top deputies. But they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty, according to eight officials in and outside the administration.
This shadow government of political appointees with the title of senior White House adviser is embedded at every Cabinet agency.
The aides report not to the secretary, but to Rick Dearborn, the White House deputy chief of staff for policy, according to administration officials. A top Dearborn aide, John Mashburn, leads a weekly conference call with the advisers, who are in constant contact with the White House.
The aides act as a go-between on policy matters for the agencies and the White House. Behind the scenes, though, they’re on another mission: to monitor Cabinet leaders and their top staffs to make sure they carry out the president’s agenda and don’t stray too far from the White House’s talking points, said several officials with knowledge of the arrangement.
“Especially when you’re starting a government and you have a changeover of parties when policies are going to be dramatically different, I think it’s something that’s smart,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “Somebody needs to be there as the White House’s man on the scene. Because there’s no senior staff yet, they’re functioning as the White House’s voice and ears in these departments.”
The arrangement is unusual. It wasn’t used by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. And it’s also different from the traditional liaisons who shepherd the White House’s political appointees to the various agencies. Critics say the competing chains of command eventually will breed mistrust, chaos and inefficiency — especially as new department heads build their staffs.
“It’s healthy when there is some daylight between the president’s Cabinet and the White House, with room for some disagreement,” said Kevin Knobloch, who was chief of staff under Obama to then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “That can only happen when agency secretaries have their own team, who report directly to them,” he said.
Every president tries to assert authority over the executive branch, with varying degrees of success.
The Obama White House kept tight control over agencies, telling senior officials what they could publicly disclose about their own department’s operations. Foreign policy became so centralized that State Department and Defense Department officials complained privately that they felt micromanaged on key decisions.
After then-Attorney General Eric Holder made some political gaffes, Obama aides wanted to install a political aide at the Justice Department to monitor him. But Holder was furious about the intrusion and blocked the plan.
Trump does not have long-standing relationships or close personal ties with most leaders in his Cabinet. That’s why gauging their loyalty is so important, said officials who described the structure.
“A lot of these [Cabinet heads] have come from roles where they’re the executive,” said a senior administration official not authorized to publicly discuss the White House advisers. “But when you become head of an agency, you’re no longer your own person. It’s a hard change for a lot of these people: They’re not completely autonomous anymore.”