The White House is installing senior aides atop major federal agencies to shadow the administration’s Cabinet secretaries, creating a direct line with loyalists who can monitor and shape White House goals across the federal bureaucracy.
The aides chosen by the White House — given the title of senior adviser in each agency — have already been responsible for hiring at some departments and crafting the blueprint of Trump policy before the Cabinet members win Senate confirmation to take office. They have worked with congressional aides, lobbyists and others seeking influence in the new administration.
The arrangement, described by four people involved in the transition planning, appears designed to help the White House maintain control over its priorities despite pledging to give Cabinet secretaries unusual autonomy. Having senior advisers reporting to both the agency chiefs and the White House could spur early tensions and create conflicts with that pledge of autonomy.
“They want to keep kind of a West Wing-infused attachment to the agencies,” said a person familiar with the arrangement. “There will be tentacles from the White House to these agencies. … The effort is to demonstrate that all points lead back to certain people,” such as Donald Trump’s son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, or chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Another person involved in the transition said Trump’s team wanted a “real strong line at the agencies to have someone monitoring and directing what they’re doing.”
That approach bears out in the administration’s picks for these posts, people who are far more political players than policy experts. Wells Griffith, for instance, will serve as the White House’s new senior adviser for the Department of Energy, following stints as the battleground states director for Trump’s campaign and as the former deputy chief of staff to Priebus at the Republican National Committee. Other campaign staffers have been given similar roles at several agencies, according to people familiar with the matter.
Historically, the liaison positions are held by more junior staffers, said Max Stier, who leads the Partnership for Public Service, which advised the transition. Administrations typically left the bigger tasks, such as the policy agenda or management of the agency, to the Cabinet secretary, deputy secretary and chief of staff.
Prior administrations have used liaisons to help coordinate low-level policy, staffing and operations between the White House and Cabinet agencies. President Barack Obama, for example, had them across the government for policy areas such as climate change and health care. They often gave the White House a lens into the agency and some understanding of the day-to-day operations, along with keeping tabs on their problems.
What’s different about the Trump hierarchy is the power these advisers are likely to have, according to people familiar with it. Obama’s liaisons were often less powerful, while Trump’s will connect directly to senior White House officials such as Kushner and Rick Dearborn, Trump’s deputy chief of staff for policy.
In Trump’s Cabinet, a number of the secretaries have expressed disagreement with Trump during lengthy confirmation hearings on issues ranging from Russia to climate change to the use of NATO. Some of the picks were neutral in the election or criticized Trump’s policies.
Two people involved in the transition said the new advisers are expected to maintain constant contact with the White House and the agencies and sign off on major decisions. The liaisons will also give the White House a window into agencies where Trump is not as personally close to the Cabinet secretaries, said a source close to the transition. Some of the senior White House advisers in the agencies have frequently met with their respective secretaries, who didn’t pick them for the post.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he modeled his own government that way, with a handpicked senior aide installed in every agency. “I told my commissioners when I was mayor, you’re going to have a spy in your agency,” Giuliani said. “I’m going to want to get two different perspectives of what’s going on.”
The jobs have rattled Obama administration political appointees, who have been surprised at young campaign hands having such authority at federal agencies. The advisers at each agency will not face Senate approval, like more than 1,200 other federal government positions, including deputy secretaries and administrators.
Trump himself is likely to have little involvement in the minutiae of the agencies; people close to him expect him to want top-level briefings and little else. He tends to like conflict among his top aides and advisers, with them competing for his attention and respect.
“The government is too big to run everything out of the White House,” added Stier. “That pipeline is too small to deal with the breadth and complexity of the federal government.”
Tevi Troy, a former White House aide and deputy secretary at Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, said there are potential upsides for these advisers. For instance, they aren’t likely to face subpoenas in the event of mishaps at the agencies.
Yet, they also could face tensions with the Cabinet secretaries for micromanaging or feel torn about where to spend the majority of their time, in the West Wing or at the agency itself.
“Proximity is everything in Washington,” Troy said.