One year on
Newsletter 108: The transition away from Trump isn't done yet.
It has now literally been a year since President Biden officially took office, yet Donald Trump’s legacy lives on across the federal landscape. Trump’s threat to governmental stability and Democratic policy priorities particularly endure in the bad-actor figures his administration installed in termed positions and within the federal bureaucracy.
The Revolving Door Project has continuously argued throughout the transition process and Biden’s first year that these actors have the ability to cause grievous harm if left in place and that Biden has the responsibility to defend the public from their malfeasance. To do so, President Biden can and must remove and replace these remaining officials. Some of the notable holdovers include:
Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
Wray was appointed to head the FBI in 2017. Under Wray’s leadership, the FBI has continuously allocated far too few resources to the domestic threat of white supremacist ideologies while simultaneously targeting and ruthlessly surveilling Black activists and the Black Lives Matter movement. January 6th was the logical endpoint of this approach. Such explicitly racist priorities are not new for the FBI but are wholly out of line with Biden’s racial justice goals. So, why has Wray not been removed? (Wray is also an improbable figure for any crackdown on corporate law breaking).
Workman was appointed to this position in 2018, with no real experience to justify it. As a voting member of FSOC, Workman is responsible for helping to coordinate the federal regulatory response to systemic financial risks and to determine adequate safeguards for them. Yet, Workman has demonstrated little understanding of the often complex details that are key to this responsibility while expressing additional skepticism regarding the threat of climate change. This skepticism is concerning considering that FSOC is key to forging a competent federal financial regulatory response to the climate crisis. As the insurance expert on the council, Workman also (ostensibly) observes and warns against problematic profiteering techniques within that industry. As such, the fact that he is not concerned with the climate while he observes an industry so dangerously entangled with fossil fuels is yet another regulatory red flag. Biden has no obligation to keep Workman in this position, and could nominate someone with a grasp on the issues the council deals with (including climate change) but hasn’t.
Dino Falaschetti, Director of the Office of Financial Research
OFR exists to alert financial regulators of emerging systemic risks to the financial system. Yet, prior to his appointment to head the office under the Trump Administration, Falaschetti sought to dismantle it while working on the Hill. Since he has been OFR’s director, its research output drastically slowed and the institution’s capacity for its work collapsed, as did its staffing and budget. Effectively, Falaschetti has dismantled the office from within it. As such, Biden must remove him from the office and appoint a leader who is committed to rebuilding the institution and fulfilling its mission.
Charles Retting, Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service
Retting was appointed to lead the IRS in 2018. Prior to his appointment, Rettig worked as a tax attorney specializing in defending the wealthy against audits and other enforcement actions. While at the IRS, Retting has made the agency more amenable to the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Though Biden has pledged to forge a more equitable tax system, Retting cannot be trusted to implement it, regardless of his congenial promises to the contrary.
Sebastian Gorka, National Security Education Board Member
Gorka, a former Breitbart contributor notorious for his Islamophobic commentaries, first made international headlines by wearing the pin of a Hungarian Nazi organization to Donald Trump’s inaugural ball. Later, while serving as Trump’s Deputy Assistant, he had his security clearance revoked. In 2020, Trump nominated him to the National Security Education Board, a position which he still holds. While the board itself is relatively unknown, Gorka does not belong in any sector of Biden’s federal government.
President Biden has the authority to fire each of the actors listed above, but he does not have the power to fire all Trump-era officials across the government. For some of these figures, it is instead the responsibility of officials such as Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate political agents in designated-career positions and, if warranted, reassign them to less sensitive posts. Two we have previously spotlighted are:
Alexander Haas, Director of the Department of Justice’s Federal Programs Branch
Haas held a slate of positions in Trump’s DOJ, and while nominally a career official, primarily served in political roles integral to advancing Trumpian goals. As the current Director of the Federal Programs Branch, Haas has continuously defended Trump-era legal policies, abused DOJ resources, and otherwise undermined Administration priorities.
Curtis Gannon, Deputy Solicitor General of the Department of Justice
Gannon joined the Trump DOJ as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, where he green-lighted Trump’s refugee ban and other problematic policy initiatives. In 2020, he moved to a career position within the Solicitor General’s office. As Solicitor General, he has argued that Nestlé is not responsible for its use of child slavery and, in defiance of the Biden Administration, that Puerto Ricans can legally be denied Social Security benefits.
Trump’s holdovers in U.S Attorney’s offices also merit consideration. There are five U.S. Attorneys, appointed by Donald Trump or Bill Barr still serving in Biden’s Department of Justice. U.S. Attorneys have immense power over the implementation of criminal justice policies, given each office’s independence and authority within their region. As such, U.S. Attorneys can either innovate or obstruct priorities like the prosecution of civil rights violations by law enforcement and municipalities and corporate law breaking. These figures, having at the very least survived Trump’s notorious loyalty tests, cannot be trusted to implement the ambitious reforms that the Biden administration aspires towards.
Clearing house of these figures is something Biden can do without congressional action and which would aid in the realization of his policy goals. With his first year in office marred by congressional inaction and intra-party gridlock, Biden must use the tools already at his disposal to craft a more competent federal system within the bureaucracy to deliver on his promises. That must include removing officials who actively impede achievement of his goals.
And what of his progress staffing his administration? According to the Partnership for Public Service, Biden has kept approximately pace with former Presidents Obama and Bush on nominations. That is not to say, however, that there aren’t still some notable omissions. Consider, for example, that there is no nominee to lead the Justice Department’s powerful Civil Division. Biden also has not put forward nominees for the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, and Social Security Commissioner, among others.
Nonetheless, these days it is the Senate’s dysfunctional confirmation process that has clearly emerged as the biggest obstacle to executive branch staffing. At present, almost 200 nominees are awaiting confirmation. Again, according to the Partnership for Public Service, the average time to confirmation has stretched to 103 days for Biden nominees (compared to 100 days for Trump, 80 for Obama, and 48 for Bush). This is particularly problematic at independent agencies, where acting officials cannot fill vacant seats. As noted in our most recent nominations update (and available always at agencyspotlight.org), there are 34 pending nominations for seats on independent agency boards. The delayed confirmation process has left many agencies without Democratic majorities over a year after Biden took office. It’s clear that something has to change. We continue to encourage reforms to the Senate rules, but if leadership can’t make that happen, they need to at least increase the costs of obstruction. Schumer should consider, for example, holding the Senate in session every weekend until the nominations backlog is confirmed or Republicans relent, whichever comes first.
With help from Toni Aguilar Rosenthal.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:
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