Even though other federal agencies involved in national security began receiving and distributing vaccine shots in Washington four weeks ago, USAID was completely left out of the plan. There’s a dispute within the agency over who is to blame. Some current and former officials point the finger at USAID’s leader, John Barsa, who was elevated to the agency’s top role last April over career professionals, despite his scant development experience.
A loyal Trump political appointee, Barsa leaves behind a tenure marked by scandal and dysfunction. The White House’s Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) filled Barsa’s staff with hacks and MAGA extremists. An Islamophobe was appointed as USAID’s top religious freedom adviser. An anti-transgender activist was appointed deputy chief of staff. An anti-LBGTQ activist was appointed deputy White House liaison and then fired.
After the election, the White House fired the deputy USAID administrator, career professional Bonnie Glick, as a maneuver to keep Barsa in charge, even though he was never confirmed by the Senate. Barsa’s team initially refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election and refused to engage with the Biden transition team until the General Services Administration certified the results on Nov. 23, arguing it was just following the law. Then, on Nov. 25, Barsa announced he had contracted covid-19 and didn’t return to the office until late December. It was during this period that USAID missed the boat on vaccinations for its employees. Many inside the agency blame Barsa for general incompetence and failing to secure shots for his people, many of whom are actively involved in the pandemic response. But a spokesperson for USAID told me that the Barsa and USAID leadership are not at fault.
“In late November, we responded to a Government-wide inquiry from the Office of Management and Budget regarding our priority needs for vaccines for our mission-critical domestic workforce. Subsequently, we received word that we would not be receiving a direct allotment of the vaccine,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Instead, we have understood USAID staff should seek the vaccine through the allotments provided to State governments, as is the case with most Federal Departments and Agencies.”
In other words, USAID employees and officials are on their own. By the end of December, the State Department actually found itself with an unexpected surplus of vaccine shots and expanded the number of Washington-based employees who could receive them. Yet USAID still got none. On Jan. 5, facing pressure from his own officials, Barsa called Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao and asked him to give USAID enough shots to vaccinate 107 essential and nonpolitical USAID employees in Washington, officials told me, which arrived late last week. The $31-billion-a-year agency has over 3,000 employees in Washington and more than 9,500 total.
After the rioters stormed the Capitol Jan. 6, USAID’s White House liaison Catharine O’Neill tweeted out a threat to any Trump administration officials considering resigning.
“I have been with President [Trump] since the beginning and will stand with him until the end,” she tweeted. “To my colleagues in the Administration who are not doing the same: your masks are off, we see you, we will remember you. #2022.”
On Thursday, Barsa put out a statement to USAID employees that condemned the storming and desecration of the U.S. Capitol as “unacceptable” but announced that he would not resign and would stay in office as the “acting deputy administrator” until inauguration.
The office of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to respond to queries on this story despite multiple requests for comment. It is clear that Pompeo’s office doesn’t even care enough about USAID to answer basic questions about the health and safety of its employees. This is part of a long pattern of the Trump administration mistreating USAID, including repeated attempts to gut funding for the agency, an effort blocked by a bipartisan bulwark in Congress.
Some officials say Barsa is not to blame for the mess at USAID because the White House Presidential Personnel Office actually calls the shots and Barsa has no real power. But that excuse is viewed skeptically by lawmakers and congressional officials on both sides of the aisle, who believe Barsa could have and should have done more to protect his organization and its people in the middle of a pandemic.
“The White House wanted people who were compliant in these positions. Barsa was really a puppet; he did the bidding of other people,” one senior GOP Senate aide said. “But he failed to defend the institution and its core values against the whims and fancies of people at the White House who don’t understand the role of development in foreign policy. That’s a failure of leadership at its core.”
Biden has yet to announce whom he will appoint to lead USAID, but the rumor mill in Washington has Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as his likely choice. If selected and confirmed, her first job will be to clean up the mess Trump and his minions created, so America’s aid professionals can get back to the urgent mission at hand.