The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House uses foreign aid agency to give jobs to Trump loyalists

President Trump turns to leave after attending an event on the economy from the South Lawn of the White House on July 27, 2018. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The White House has assumed control over hiring at a small federal agency that promotes economic growth in poor countries, installing political allies and loyalists in appointed jobs intended for development experts, according to documents and interviews.

Until the Trump administration, only the chief executive and several other top officials of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) were selected by the White House, former agency officials said. The chief executive, in turn, used authority granted to the agency by Congress to appoint about two dozen other staffers, primarily for their technical ­expertise.

But starting last year, the White House began naming political appointees to the lower-level positions, according to internal rosters obtained by The Washington Post and interviews with former employees and other knowledgeable people. The employees were warned by an agency leader they could lose their jobs to make way for the new political appointees, the former employees said.

Fourteen allies and Trump loyalists have been placed at the agency as political appointees so far — more than double the number of political staff on the day the president took office, the rosters show. Among them are a 2016 college graduate with a degree in English literature whose grandmother is a senior personnel official in the White House and a recent congressional intern who graduated in May with a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

The White House’s reach into MCC operations sheds new light on the administration’s appointment process and shows how even obscure parts of the federal bureaucracy traditionally viewed as nonpartisan are being drawn into partisan orbits.

In recent weeks, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, put a hold on a water project in Mongolia while congressional investigators examined the impact of the Trump appointments at MCC. Two weeks ago, he lifted the hold as part of a negotiation with Senate Republicans for limited access to MCC résumés and other personnel documents.

In a statement to The Post, Menendez condemned the administration’s “practice of replacing seasoned professional and programmatic experts with patronage hires.” He said that “blind loyalty seemingly trumps qualifications, experience and career public servants.”

“Congress gave MCC special hiring authority so that it could operate with efficiency and effectiveness, not so that it could become a dumping ground for unqualified partisan loyalists and lackeys,” Menendez wrote.

A Republican Foreign Relations Committee aide speaking on the condition of anonymity offered a more upbeat assessment.

“We were happy to work with our Democratic counterparts in resolving questions about hiring at MCC as we do regularly in exercising the committee’s oversight function,” the aide said. “Such oversight is important for all agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction, and we will ­continue working in a bipartisan manner moving forward.”

Menendez is continuing to examine the matter, according to spokesman Juan Pachon.

The White House and MCC have not responded to repeated questions and requests for interviews.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation dates to the early days of the administration of George W. Bush, which sought to create a technocratic alternative to sometimes wasteful, politically tinged foreign-assistance programs. Bush said he wanted such programs to be keyed to internal reforms and economic growth in client countries, and “defined by a new accountability” and measurable outcomes.

White House officials have not made clear to Capitol Hill or agency officials the exact reasons they are filling the appointed jobs. “They have just claimed those 30 jobs are [the White House’s],” said an official familiar with the political operation at MCC who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

In September, the White House appointed a political liaison to the agency — apparently the first in its history. Six employees have been reassigned to make room for Trump appointees. Those reassigned include the agency’s chief risk officer and the leader of the team responsible for coordinating efforts with the private sector.

Three others were forced to leave, according to interviews with former employees and internal documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Among them was Lorelle Atkinson, acting vice president of public affairs, a six-year veteran and nonpolitical appointee at MCC who previously had worked for four years at a global development nonprofit that focused on improving the plight of poor women. 

Atkinson told The Post she attended a June 2017 staff meeting at which employees were warned they might lose their jobs to make room for new political appointees. She said she was forced to resign in October — at a time when she was pregnant.

“I was proud of the work we did at MCC and was honored to have worked with the best and brightest the civil service has to offer,” Atkinson said.

Foreign aid veterans told The Post the appointments are subverting the agency’s technical-minded culture. They said the injection of inexperienced political appointees represents the kind of establishment machinations Trump has decried as “the swamp.”

“This is deeply troubling,” said Scott Morris, who worked closely with MCC’s board as a deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department in the Obama administration. “This will inevitably undermine the ability of this technocratic agency to fulfill its mission.”

Familiar ties

Congress authorized MCC in 2003 as an independent agency, including funding for 30 employees who could be appointed outside of the normal civil service laws and regulations. Congress gave the agency’s chief executive authority for hiring the majority of those employees. The appointment of about seven corporate officers is subject to approval by a governing board composed of the secretary of state, treasury secretary, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development and others with “relevant international experience.”

The MCC has about 300 employees and an $800 million annual budget. It has supported programs in dozens of developing countries.

After Trump’s inauguration, agency leaders did not initially hear from the White House, according to MCC employees at the time. In the spring of 2017, a senior official from the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) asked several members of the leadership team to send over their ­résumés for review, people familiar with the matter said. Before long, a PPO official began making claims on the 30 appointed positions authorized by Congress.

The PPO is a White House organization responsible for selecting and placing 4,000 political appointees who carry out the president’s policies and run federal agencies. It has been a source of controversy over its vetting of nominees and the pace of appointments. PPO director Sean Doocey and a senior official in the PPO office, Katja Bullock, have been involved in lining up the political jobs at MCC, according to documents and interviews with people with knowledge of the office.

In a previous interview, a White House official acknowledged that Doocey and Bullock are former Bush administration colleagues and longtime friends, who with others traveled to Germany on vacation last year.

Several months after the trip to Germany, Doocey appointed Bullock’s grandson, Dillon Seamus Bullock, to MCC as a “staff assistant,” the Dec. 5 memo shows. Dillon Seamus Bullock, who was given a $50,000 salary, had no professional experience after graduating with an English degree from Belmont Abbey College in December 2016, according to his résumé and the Doocey memo.

As The Post has previously reported, Dillon Seamus Bullock is one of four of Katja Bullock’s relatives who have received political appointments in the Trump administration.

Doocey and Katja Bullock declined requests for interviews. During a brief phone call, Dillon Seamus Bullock also declined to comment.

Doocey’s office also arranged for the agency to hire Adrienne Spero as White House liaison. Though she was paid by MCC, she reported to Doocey, according to interviews with current and ­former employees. After the publication of this report, Spero denied that she reported to Doocey.

Spero is a 2013 graduate of Ohio Northern University’s Pettit College of Law who worked as a contractor as a law clerk at the Justice Department and other agencies in 2015 and 2016. She and her husband, Casin Spero, a political appointee at Veterans Affairs, are social friends of Doocey’s, according to current and former Trump administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Before the presidential election, Casin Spero and Doocey both worked at Barbaricum, a federal contractor.

Adrienne Spero declined an interview request, and VA did not respond to a request for an interview with Casin Spero.

Kirk Bell, a Trump campaign worker, told The Post that PPO officials placed him in the agency’s communications office last year, even though he did not seek out the job. Bell resigned months ago amid questions relating to his security clearance. He declined to discuss the details.

“I was asked by the White House to go to MCC,” Bell said, adding that he felt duty-bound to follow White House instructions. “I was basically told, ‘This is what we have for you.’ ”

Another appointee is Karen Sessions, a former Verizon Communications executive and municipal official in Winter Park, Fla., who made an unsuccessful run for Congress as a Republican in 2010. In 2012, she married Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), a Trump supporter. She is vice president of congressional and public affairs.

Yet another is Eric M. Ueland, who was recently placed at MCC after his nomination to be undersecretary of state for management failed to receive Senate support. Ueland is a veteran Republican Senate staffer who has worked for former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and as the staff director for the Senate Budget Committee under former Alabama U.S. senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In a personal biography online, ­Ueland describes himself as a “senior strategy officer” at MCC.

The Post requested copies of emails between agency officials and the White House under the Freedom of Information Act in March. In response,  MCC identified 59 emails that could be responsive. But none of the emails — which were sent to the White House for review — have been released.

“We’re simply just waiting for the White House to reply,” said Tamiko Watkins, the agency’s chief Freedom of Information Act officer. “Our hands are a little bit tied.”

Politicalization worries

The most controversial of the new appointees is Robert Blau, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as a speechwriter on Trump’s campaign. He was named MCC’s vice president of compact operations in the spring of 2017.

Soon after arriving, he filled his office with Trump campaign memorabilia, which he later removed after colleagues suggested it was not appropriate for a federal office, according to officials at the agency at the time who spoke on the condition of anonymity. During a staff town hall meeting last year, Blau, who was then director of operations, described himself as “a partisan conservative Republican” and complained that certain media were “out to get Trump every day,” according to a routine recording of the meeting made by the ­agency.

He assured them his political views would not influence his management decisions, the recording shows. But he also urged agency employees to watch Fox News and read Breitbart News.

“If you are only using CNN and The Washington Post, you’re getting a very biased view of the news,” he said, according to a transcript of the audio first made public by Foreign Policy magazine earlier this year.

Blau also expressed skepticism about a speaker at the agency who had recently promoted gay and lesbian pride.

“His talk was sort of ‘celebrate diversity,’ ” Blau said, noting that his wife is an immigrant from Africa and that his sons are mixed race. “I’m not someone who celebrates diversity, or engineers it. To me, diversity just happens,” he said.

Menendez condemned the remarks in a Feb. 23 letter to then-acting chief executive Jon Nash: “I write to seek a full accounting of this behavior and MCC’s response to it, as well as a commitment from MCC leadership that individuals who engage in such behavior will be held accountable.”

In a letter back, Nash wrote that the remarks “do not reflect MCC’s values” and said that the matter had been referred to the agency’s general counsel.

Through a spokeswoman, Blau declined requests for an interview.

On May 25, Blau was promoted to interim leader of MCC, effective three days later. The White House officials made the move after repeated delays in Senate consideration of the nominee to be MCC’s chief executive, which has been pending since early January.

The nominee, Sean Cairncross, is a Washington insider who served as chief operating officer of the Republican National Committee in the 2016 election cycle. In the Trump administration, he served as deputy assistant to Trump and senior adviser to the chief of staff.

But he has no foreign development experience, according to his testimony during his nomination hearing in February.

During that hearing, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) asked Cairncross about White House politicization of MCC. Cairncross said he knew nothing about it.

“If confirmed, I would strive to keep the MCC a performance-based professional development organization,” Cairncross testified. “I am not looking to politicize the MCC.”

Cairncross’s nomination is still pending.

Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.