Thirty-Five Trump Appointees Have Converted to Career Federal Jobs Over the Last Year
Six more Trump-era politicals who sought to "burrow in" at the 11th hour are currently pending review.
About three-dozen Trump-era political appointees have accepted permanent civil service jobs at federal agencies through a process known as “burrowing in.”
Seven of those individuals received approval from the Office of Personnel Management to convert to career roles after Election Day, while another six who submitted their requests during the lame duck period are still awaiting a decision. Since 2010, OPM must approve the conversion of current or recent political appointees into civil service roles. The agency denied six attempts to make the switch in 2020, noting it could not rule out political influence or that the hiring would comply with merit system principles.
The data, provided to Congress and made available through public records requests by the watchdog group Accountable.US, only tracked the conversions attempted and approved in 2020 and 2021. Under the Obama administration, OPM approved 78 conversions of political appointees between Jan. 1, 2010, and March 17, 2016, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office. It rejected another 21 applications in that period. OPM approved 36 requests in Obama's final year-plus, from Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017, according to a Biden administration official.
Though sparingly used, lawmakers have voiced grave concerns about burrowing and sought to boost transparency over the process for several consecutive transitions. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who at the time was leading then President-elect Donald Trump’s transition effort, vowed in 2016 to change civil service laws if necessary to root out any holdovers. Following Trump’s election, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chaired the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked OPM for weekly updates on all conversion requests throughout the post-election transition period. House Democrats made similar requests after the 2020 election.
In some of the recent cases OPM reviewed, the agency found an applicant was not in its purview or the appointee ultimately opted not to accept the career position.
The most recent appointees to be cleared for career jobs include three at the Justice Department and two at the Agriculture Department. Of note, two former advisers to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rachael Tucker and Lindsey Freeman, are now assistant U.S. attorneys. In another example, Erik Baptist, who spent six years at the American Petroleum Institute before serving as an associate administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, is now an assistant chief counsel at the Transportation Department.
A Justice spokesperson said Tucker and Freeman are no longer in "policy setting roles" and were selected only after a competitive process "that proceeded in the normal course," adding OPM's review ensured their hiring was free from favoritism.
Having approved their cases, OPM has found the individuals were qualified for the positions and their political affiliations played no part in their hiring process. Still, Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, accused Trump of hypocrisy for allowing his appointees to burrow in after decrying the practice. He accused the prior administration of leaving “right-wing zealots” and “industry henchmen” behind at federal agencies.
“As the Biden administration grapples with the major crises it inherited, the public deserves to know if the political operatives Trump also left behind intend to use their positions to sabotage and obstruct progress,” Herrig said.
Under a recent federal court ruling, agencies may use improper burrowing as cause to fire an employee.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of appointees who converted to career positions in Obama's final year.