The White House is quietly starting to pull the plug on its shadow Cabinet of Trump loyalists who had been dispatched to federal agencies to serve as the president’s eyes and ears.
These White House-installed chaperones have often clashed with the Cabinet secretaries they were assigned to monitor, according to sources across the agencies, with the secretaries expressing frustration that the so-called “senior White House advisers” are mostly young Trump campaign aides with little experience in government.
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The tensions have escalated for weeks, prompting a recent meeting among Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other administration officials, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. Now, some of the advisers are being reassigned or simply eased out, the sources said, even though many of them had expected to be central players at their agencies for the long haul. The tumult underscores the growing pains that are still being felt throughout Trump’s government, more than 100 days into his term.
“These guys are being set up for failure,” said one administration source. “They’re not D.C. guys. They’re campaign people. They have no idea how government works.”
The White House began deploying the advisers throughout the bureaucracy in January, assigning them to report back on what was happening in their departments. But according to several sources, their meddling quickly began to irritate high-powered officials accustomed to running their own shops — including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both former generals; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a successful financier; and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who’s been a Cabinet secretary before.
Mnuchin assigned his minder to the Treasury basement, according to senior officials at the Treasury Department. Meanwhile, administration sources said Mattis blew up when his White House-assigned senior adviser insisted on reviewing one of his briefings. And EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s senior leadership team repeatedly clashed with its uninvited guest, Don Benton, and iced him out of meetings, according to people close to EPA officials. Eventually Trump shifted Benton to a new job leading the Selective Service System.
Some officials have also been mocking the regular meetings of the senior advisers at the White House to discuss what’s going on at their agencies and how they can advance Trump’s agenda, calling these meetings brainstorming sessions for suck-ups.
“It’s like a roomful of Jonahs from ‘Veep,’” one administration official said.
Now the White House seems inclined to let Cabinet secretaries decide whether they want their minders to stay. A White House official said the advisers were hired on 120-day assignments that were never intended to be permanent, serving as points of contact for the White House while the administration has staffed up but officially reporting to the Cabinet secretaries or their chiefs of staff. The official pointed out that at some Cabinet departments, the advisers have already been hired for permanent jobs, while other advisers have moved elsewhere in the administration or left altogether.
“Most individuals serving in the temporary positions during the present transition will have the opportunity to move into a more permanent role within the Administration – either in the agency they now serve or in another area of the federal government,” the official said.
But sources outside the White House said that many of the senior advisers made it clear that they saw themselves as much more than temporary liaisons, claiming a mandate to ensure that Trump’s wishes were being carried out throughout the government.
For example, Kelly and his staff have often been at odds with the senior White House adviser at Homeland security, Frank Wuco, a former Navy intelligence officer, according to two people familiar with the situation. One person close to Kelly said Wuco “knows nothing about the mission” of the department and “serves little purpose or value.” The person said Wuco and Kelly’s staff have disagreed about staffing decisions, adding that only the White House’s slow pace in filling key jobs at the department has kept Kelly from ousting him.
“Dysfunction with personnel keeps these types of folks there,” the person said. Neither Wuco nor a A DHS spokesman responded to requests for comment.
At Treasury, career staffers have clashed with Camilo Sandoval, the senior White House adviser who once served as director of data operations for Trump campaign, over control of various projects, and Sandoval is now working from the department’s basement.
Sandoval doesn’t have a relationship with Mnuchin and is expected to leave the department next month, according to Treasury officials; he’s now seeking a job at the Japanese embassy, one official said.
Treasury staffers have also tussled with Andrew Smith, the department’s White House liaison, who has also been exiled to the basement. He isn’t expected to stay, either, the official said.
The tension between the senior advisers and Cabinet secretaries has put the White House in a tricky spot. Rick Dearborn, a White House deputy chief of staff, was instrumental in setting up the system of senior advisers and he’s seen as one of their biggest defenders in the White House, arguing that Trump needs to know what’s going on in his own government. And some former Trump campaign officials have complained to POLITICO that they’re being pushed aside in favor of Cabinet secretaries and their hand-picked staffers, portraying it as a betrayal of the president.
Nevertheless, the administration has already begun reassigning some senior White House advisers, starting with Benton at EPA. Jason Botel, a former senior White House adviser at the Education Department, was recently tapped as deputy assistant secretary at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. And a Transportation Department source said its White House chaperone, a former Pennsylvania lobbyist named Anthony Pugliese, is expected to be transferred soon.
The source said Pugliese got off to a rough start when he ordered the blocking of all outgoing mail in the early days of the administration, supposedly to prevent last-minute Obama decisions from going out the door, then neglected to lift the order. The result was a giant stack of mail full of obscure bureaucratic missives that nobody knew what to do with, the source said. A Transportation Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Chao, who already served as President George W. Bush’s labor secretary, was also taken aback when Pugliese told her he expected to sign off on all department policies before they went public, the source said.
“He told the secretary that once we both agree on something, then we can push it out,” the source said. “The Secretary was like, ‘Um, what’s your name again?’”