Behind the chaos: Office that vets Trump appointees plagued by inexperience
By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg
White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, White House personnel director Johnny DeStefano, and National Security Council Chief of Staff Keith Kellogg follow President Trump as they walk to board Marine One from the Oval Office, Feb. 16, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
At the same time, two office leaders have spotty records themselves: a college dropout with arrests for drunken driving and bad checks and a lance corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve with arrests for assault, disorderly conduct, fleeing an officer and underage drinking.
The Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) is little known outside political circles. But it has far-reaching influence as a gateway for the appointed officials who carry out the president’s policies and run federal agencies.
Under President Trump, the office was launched with far fewer people than in prior administrations. It has served as a refuge for young campaign workers, a stopover for senior officials on their way to other posts and a source of jobs for friends and family, a Washington Post investigation found. One senior staffer has had four relatives receive appointments through the office.
On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to surround himself “only with the best and most serious people,” but his administration has been buffeted by failed appointments and vacancies in key posts.
From the start, the office struggled to keep pace with its enormous responsibilities, with only about 30 employees on hand, less than a third of the staffing in prior administrations, The Post found. Six senior officials over age 35 went elsewhere in government just months after their arrival, documents and interviews show. Since the inauguration, most of the staffers in the PPO have been in their 20s, some with little professional experience apart from their work on Trump’s campaign, The Post found.
Even as the demands to fill government mounted, the PPO offices on the first floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building became something of a social hub, where young staffers from throughout the administration stopped by to hang out on couches and smoke electronic cigarettes, known as vaping, current and former White House officials said.
PPO leaders hosted happy hours last year in their offices that included beer, wine and snacks for dozens of PPO employees and White House liaisons who work in federal agencies, White House officials confirmed. In January, they played a drinking game in the office called “Icing” to celebrate the deputy director’s 30th birthday. Icing involves hiding a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, a flavored malt liquor, and demanding that the person who discovers it, in this case the deputy director, guzzle it.
The White House confirmed that PPO officials played the Icing game but said it and the happy hours are not unique to the PPO and are a way to network and let off steam.
Little is publicly known or disclosed about the office’s inner workings under Trump. The White House declined requests from The Post for details about composition of the staff.
The Post compiled the names of 40 current or former PPO officials under Trump and then examined their qualifications, drawing on résumés, the White House salary disclosures for 2017, ethics filings, police reports and other public records. Reporters interviewed presidential scholars and current and former officials in the Trump, Bush and Obama administrations.
The PPO is ultimately responsible for recruiting and vetting candidates for more than 4,000 jobs, more than 1,200 requiring Senate approval.
Every White House faces personnel challenges and includes young and politically connected employees who get jobs through friends or family and senior officials who move on to other assignments. But the shortcomings of this office, and Trump’s appointment process in general, are among the most pronounced in memory, according to presidential scholars.
“No administration has done it as poorly as the current one,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that teamed up with The Post to track appointments.
White House officials said the PPO is performing well, even though they acknowledged the office “is a much smaller PPO than at any time in recent history.”
The officials asserted the office is working hard and starting to make progress on nominees for positions that require Senate confirmation. They blamed delays on Democrats and slow background checks. They said lower-level appointments lagged only moderately behind President Barack Obama’s at this point in the administration, even though experts said such appointments pale in importance to the unfilled jobs requiring Senate approval.
“Despite historic obstruction from Democrats in Congress, the Presidential Personnel Office is filling the administration with the best and brightest appointees who share the president’s vision for the country,” said Raj Shah, White House principal deputy press secretary. “Staff work tirelessly and have experience consistent with the practice of previous administrations.”
The Trump administration’s number of appointments gaining Senate approval is way behind that of previous administrations since detailed record-keeping began in 1989, according to data maintained by the Partnership for Public Service. At the same point in their presidencies — March 29 of their second year — Obama had 548 approvals and George W. Bush had 615, compared with 387 for Trump.
A number of Trump appointees have been embroiled in controversy and resigned their posts over questions about their qualifications, backgrounds and comments.
They include 24-year-old Taylor Weyeneth, who lost his job as deputy chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) after a Post account detailed his lack of experience and inaccurate claims on résumés submitted to the government. An internal memo shows that the PPO deputy director ordered that a senior civil servant in ONDCP be moved into another job to make way for Weyeneth’s appointment. Weyeneth declined to comment for this article.
Another appointee, Carl Higbie, stepped down in January from the federal agency that runs AmeriCorps after the media drew attention to remarks he made on Internet radio that disparaged blacks, Muslims, gays and women. He later said he regretted the remarks.
James Pfiffner, a scholar of the presidency at George Mason University who has tracked appointments and presidential transitions since the mid-1970s, said prior PPOs were led and staffed by senior officials who understood the importance of personnel and had extensive experience, political connections and knowledge of the executive branch.
“They were well-connected and wanted the government to work well,” Pfiffner told The Post. “They understood how to make the government work well.”
Months of wasted work
Two weeks after the election, Donald Trump greets then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
In 2016, Trump named New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the leader of transition planning. Christie assembled a team of more than 100 researchers and lawyers, who generated names of candidates for critical posts for a potential administration. Just after the election, they delivered hundreds of pages that outlined a framework for the new administration.
The reports underscored the importance of the Presidential Personnel Office, saying it was essential to “provide the President with outstanding candidates,” according to documents reviewed by The Post. The Christie team estimated the job would require more than 100 people before and after the inauguration, documents show.
“Building a strong team to lead U.S. government agencies is not only critical to the effectiveness of the President, but also for the welfare of the nation,” the documents said.
On Nov. 11, 2016, Trump fired Christie and his team and relaunched the transition. All the planning — including at least 100 candidates proposed for top jobs and 200 other prospective appointees — was in limbo. “The idea that you can take six months of work . . . and throw all that out, turned out to be a big mistake,” Christie said later at a news conference.
One official who stayed with the transition and continued working on personnel matters was Sean Doocey, a 28-year-old aide who had joined the campaign in July as a director of research. Doocey had been a low-level staffer in the PPO under Bush and had worked for more than three years as a human resources and security executive at a small government contractor, according to a financial disclosure filed with the Office of Government Ethics, or OGE. A White House spokesman said Doocey declined to comment for this article.
Doocey and the few others working on personnel issues struggled to find volunteers to screen potential nominees, transition and White House officials said.
The Obama administration drew on legions of lawyers willing to donate their time to review candidates for the most important Senate-approved nominees, according to former Obama officials and one official involved in the Trump transition. Trump did not have that luxury, partly because he was so critical of the Washington establishment, including traditional Republicans, the officials said.
There was also a much smaller pool of candidates to draw on compared with prior administrations. In 2009, the Obama personnel office had access to a database containing more than 300,000 applicants, while Trump’s office had just 87,000, according to Pfiffner, the GMU scholar.
On Jan. 4, 2017, just two weeks before inauguration, Trump named John DeStefano, a GOP political operative, to be director of presidential personnel. He had previously worked as political director for Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), then speaker of the House. He also served for three years as chief executive of Data Trust, a voter aggregation and analysis firm that catered to Republicans. A White House spokesman said DeStefano declined to comment.
DeStefano’s appointment was a departure from prior administrations, which placed a premium on management and personnel experience, according to presidential scholars. In 2001 and 2002, for instance, Clay Johnson III served as director of the office under Bush. Johnson, a graduate of Yale and MIT’s Sloan School of Management, was then in his middle-50s. He had been Bush’s roommate at Yale. He had also served for a decade as president and chief executive at a mail order company, as chief operating officer of the Dallas Museum of Art and five years as the director of appointments for Bush, when he was governor of Texas.
At the start of Obama’s first term, the office was led by Donald Gips, a graduate of Yale’s School of Management who had previously worked as a chief domestic policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore and spent a decade as a senior executive at a global telecommunications company as well as chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s International Bureau.
‘It’s a disaster’
Taylor Weyeneth (at right with red tie and pointing) celebrates with other Trump supporters as election returns come in Trump's election night rally in Manhattan. Weyeneth, 24, was deputy chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White House office responsible for coordinating the federal government’s anti-drug initiatives. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Some PPO staff got their jobs in part as thanks for working on the Trump campaign, White House officials acknowledged. And DeStefano brought at least two former Data Trust employees into the office. One is a 2016 college graduate who worked as an intern at Data Trust for four months and made $62,000 last year as a deputy associate director at the PPO, her LinkedIn page and the White House salary disclosures show. The other is a 24-year-old who worked at Data Trust for a year and earned $94,000 last year as a special assistant at the PPO, documents show.
From the start, Trump’s appointments lagged far behind those of prior administrations. By June 20, 2017, the Senate had confirmed only 44 appointees, compared with 170 for Obama and 130 for Bush in the same time period, according to Pfiffner.
“It is a disaster,” Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told The Post.
DeStefano and Doocey, who became his deputy, turned to some experienced people from federal agencies for help. When they moved into other jobs, less-experienced employees took senior posts in the office, records show.
One of the newcomers was a former Trump campaign worker named Caroline Wiles. Wiles, then 30, is the daughter of Susan Wiles, a prominent lobbyist and political operative in Florida. Caroline Wiles joined the Trump administration as a deputy assistant to the president and director of scheduling in the White House. News accounts said she was one of six White House staffers dismissed for failing FBI backgrounds checks, but the White House official would not confirm that. She was eventually moved to the PPO, where she was made a special assistant to the president, a post that typically pays $115,000.
The younger Wiles has an unusual background for a senior White House official. On a résumé she submitted to the state of Florida, she said she had completed course work at Flagler College in Florida. On her LinkedIn page, she simply lists Flagler under education. A Flagler spokesman said she never finished her degree.
“She did not continue her enrollment or graduate from here,” said spokesman Brian Thompson.
Wiles has had a string of political jobs, including work at her mother’s lobbying firm and as a campaign aide for candidates her mother advised, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Donald Trump. She also worked for an education organization that helped provide health care to needy students.
Over the years, she has had multiple encounters with police. In 2005, she had her driver’s license suspended for driving while intoxicated, police records show. In 2007, she was arrested for driving while intoxicated and arrested for passing a “worthless check.” She was found guilty of a misdemeanor for driving under the influence. The charge related to the bad check was dropped in a plea agreement.
Wiles did not respond to requests for interviews.
Another special assistant to the president is Max Miller, 29, a Marine reservist and former Trump campaign worker. He works on the selection and placement of appointees to the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
Miller was introduced to Trump campaign officials by his cousin, Eli Miller, then a senior finance official in the campaign and now chief of staff at the Treasury Department, a Treasury spokeswoman said.
On his LinkedIn page, Miller said he attended Cleveland State University from 2007 to 2011. A Cleveland State spokesman confirmed that Miller, who previously attended other schools, graduated in 2013.
Miller described himself on his LinkedIn page as a Marine recruiter and said he worked for the presidential campaigns of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Trump. But after The Post raised questions about his biography, Miller removed the dates of his education and the claim that he was a Marine recruiter.
In an interview, he called them mistakes and blamed them on a relative who he said made the LinkedIn page for him.
Miller has been charged by police in his home state of Ohio with multiple offenses. In 2007, he was charged with assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after punching another male in the back of the head and running away from police, police records show. He pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges, and the case was later dismissed as part of a program for first offenders, court records show.
In 2009, he was charged with underage drinking, a case that also was later dismissed under a first offenders’ program. The following year, he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge related to another altercation in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. That episode was related to a fight involving Miller shortly after leaving a hookah bar at about 2 a.m. one morning. During the fight, Miller punched through a glass door, cut his wrist and left a trail of blood as he wandered off, a police report said.
In an interview with The Post, Miller acknowledged that his cousin helped him find work with the Trump campaign but said it was his “work ethic” that won him the White House job. He said the arrests several years ago were mistakes that he would not repeat.
“Growing up, everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “Who I was in the past is not who I am now.”
The most senior and experienced leader in the office is Katja Bullock, the 75-year-old special assistant to the president who worked in the office under Reagan and both Bush administrations. She joined the Trump transition in December, according to a financial disclosure, and now serves as an administrator, according to people familiar with the office operations.
The president recently appointed her to the Federal Salary Council, an advisory board that suggests changes to the government’s pay scales.
Since Bullock joined the Trump transition, four of her family members received political appointments to federal agencies. Her son became deputy assistant administrator at the United States Agency for International Development. His wife is a White House liaison at the Office of Personnel Management.
One of their sons serves as a “confidential assistant” at the Social Security Administration, agency records show. And another son received an appointment in February as a “staff assistant” at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign aid agency that works to end global poverty, agency records show. According to voter registration records, all four live in the same Kensington home.
In a brief telephone interview, Bullock said she had no involvement in the appointments of her family members. “None,” she said, adding: “I am really not authorized to talk to the press.” Her relatives did not respond to requests for interviews.
She is not the only PPO official with family ties in the administration. Jimmy Carroll III, recently named an entry-level staff assistant in the office, is the son of James Carroll II, a former deputy chief of staff in the Trump White House who was recently appointed acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Carroll III graduated in August 2017 from Marymount University in Arlington, Va., where he was the sports editor of the school newspaper and created a group for Christian men called Men of Virtue, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The Carrolls did not respond to requests for interviews.
In an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity, a White House official praised Caroline Wiles, the special assistant to the president, saying she had demonstrated her competence as a scheduler and organizer during the Trump campaign.
“We do feel confident in her ability,” the official said. The same official said Miller’s experience in the Marine Corps Reserve “speaks volumes to his willingness to serve his country” and praised his work for the PPO.
The official said that nothing in the police records described by The Post would preclude them from working at the PPO. “For the positions they’re in, I’m not aware of any restrictions that the FBI or anyone else would have placed on their appointments,” the official said.
The official also said that PPO officials made sure Bullock was not involved in the decisions relating to her family members. He said each of them was qualified by prior experience, participation in the Trump campaign and their ideological alignment with the president. “We want people who are committed and passionate about supporting the president’s agenda,” the official said.
On Feb. 9, President Trump promoted DeStefano to assistant and counselor to the president, with responsibility for overseeing the offices of Presidential Personnel, Political Affairs and Public Liaison, an unusual portfolio for one person. At the same time, Doocey was made day-to-day leader of the PPO and named deputy assistant to the president for presidential personnel.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.