President Biden ran as a cure to former President Trump, but he’s relying on a handful of officials appointed under the prior administration and serving in critical governing roles who are tackling everything from hostage negotiations to the Kremlin.
One example is John Sullivan, a former deputy secretary of State who served under Rex Tillerson. He is in charge of running a skeleton-staffed embassy in Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Another is Roger Carstens, the State Department’s special envoy for hostage negotiations, who has been a central player in efforts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and other Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage in foreign countries.
Biden has also left in place FBI Director Christopher Wray, who is currently fighting off attacks from Trump’s allies over the bureau’s unprecedented search of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago property. Biden’s decision to keep Wray came despite objections from some on the left who wanted him to replace the Trump-appointed FBI director before the end of his 10-year term.
And last November, Biden decided to nominate Jerome Powell — a Republican nominated by Trump as Federal Reserve chairman — to a second term atop the Fed, which plays a primary role in fighting inflation.
But Biden has faced pressure from some corners to find ways to replace other officials appointed under Trump –– like those running the IRS and the Postal Service –– who have faced scrutiny for controversies that have occurred within their agencies under their watch.
The few Trump appointees that Biden has chosen to keep have some things in common, namely that they are not seen as diehard Trump loyalists and they have bipartisan support in Congress.
In the case of Powell, for example, Biden cited the Fed chairman’s bipartisan accolades and commended him for standing up to “unprecedented political interference” from Trump.
“I believe we need to do everything we can to take the bitter partisanship of today’s politics out of something as important as the independence and credibility of the Federal Reserve,” Biden said at the time.
Tom Shannon, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Trump years, described Sullivan as a “good governance Republican” who didn’t let politics get in the way of doing his job.
“He was brought in because of his long experience in government and the fact that [the Trump] administration had very few people that fit that bill and that had not already become ‘never Trumpers,’ ” Shannon said.
Sullivan served as acting secretary of State under Trump until Mike Pompeo replaced Tillerson to lead the department, after which Sullivan moved to the ambassadorship in Moscow in 2019.
“I think it was wise for the Biden administration to keep him in place because he was a known quantity to the Russians and he’s a tough-minded guy, so he wasn’t going to shy away from the tougher issues that we face in our relationship,” Shannon continued.
Some Democrats have called for Biden to take a more aggressive stance in ousting remaining officials left over from the Trump administration.
“We think they should all go,” said Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the progressive Revolving Door Project. “We just don’t trust them.”
Hauser was critical of Wray, blaming him for failing to disrupt the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“The idea that somebody redeems themselves fully by not going along with everything that Trump wants is just a bizarre standard,” he said.
Dan Coats, who served as Director of National Intelligence under Trump from 2017 to 2019, described Wray as someone who “walks down the middle and does everything he possibly can to protect the FBI’s reputation of not getting involved and doing things for political purposes.”
Coats also defended Wray amid criticism from the right over the Mar-a-Lago search.
“My first thought was Chris would not have signed off on that unless he thought the process was not working or they were not getting the right answers back from lawyers or others and it was serious enough to take that action,” Coats said in an interview with The Hill.
Max Stier, founding president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said that continuity even in a small number of positions can help minimize disruptions caused by the vast turnover in political positions — particularly those that require Senate confirmation — following presidential transitions.
“If you can find someone who’s going to do the job well, you’re well advised to keep them,” he said.
The continuity in Carstens’s role was welcome news to some families of Americans detained overseas who didn’t have to grapple with new leadership in an office handling their family members’ cases.
“The longer your family’s case goes on, that continuity becomes hugely helpful,” said David Whelan, whose brother Paul has been held in Russia since 2018, in a recent interview.
Shannon also said that Carstens’s background in the military — he is a former Green Beret — “gives him a certain amount of neutrality.” Carstens took on the role in 2020 left vacant by Robert O’Brien, who left State for the White House to become Trump’s fourth and final national security adviser.
Stier argued that the federal government is hampered by an over-reliance on political appointees, which he said total about 4,000. Career officials, who number about 1.9 million according to Stier’s organization, cannot be easily fired by incoming administrations.
Biden therefore faces limits in who he can remove. Some Trump-era political appointees reportedly “burrowed” into government agencies by transitioning to career roles before the Biden administration took over.
“The overall system, in my view, is broken,” Stier said.
But other Trump nominees that remain in their roles could be soon on the way out.
Biden is facing a decision as to whether to replace IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, whose current four-year term is coming to an end.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wouldn’t answer if Biden had confidence in Rettig earlier this year amid controversy over audits targeting former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired, and former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, who was dismissed under the previous administration.
Helming the IRS has acquired even more importance in recent weeks, as Congress passed and Biden signed a sweeping law that includes $80 billion in additional funding for the agency for hiring and enforcement.
The president has also faced pressure from the left to orchestrate the removal of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor and businessman who stirred controversy for making cost-cutting changes at the Postal Service that slowed mail delivery in 2020 during the pandemic.
Biden cannot himself remove DeJoy, but the postmaster’s critics have urged his nominees to the Postal Service’s nine-member board of governors to vote to remove him. But even with a handful of new Biden appointees confirmed, the board has not taken any steps to change leadership.
DeJoy has been focused on implementing a 10-year plan to boost revenue for the Postal Service announced last year.
“It is a great honor to serve as the 75th Postmaster General of the United States,” DeJoy said in a statement to The Hill. “The Postal Service has a proud and ongoing history which I have, and will continue to uphold, of performing our vital work in an apolitical and nonpartisan fashion.”
DeJoy said that he and his team “remain focused on implementing the Delivering for America Plan, and on ensuring that the United States Postal Service will be a vibrant and thriving organization for decades to come that will provide the American people and American businesses the high quality service they expect and deserve.”
Secret Service Director James Murray — whose agency is in hot water due to the deletion of text messages sought by the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6 — is expected to retire sometime this year, though he delayed those plans to help navigate investigations into the missing messages.
Hauser called on Biden to remove Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, another Trump appointee who has been under fire for his handling of the deleted Secret Service text messages sent and received around Jan. 6.
But Biden has been wary of purging watchdogs in a way that could remind Americans of Trump’s firing spree against inspectors general following his first impeachment, and the White House seems keen to allow the investigations to play out.
Asked whether Biden had plans to fire Cuffari during a briefing earlier this month, Jean-Pierre replied simply: “No.”
Source: The Hill