WASHINGTON – Inside and outside the Trump administration, black and Latino staffers and aides worry that the increasing complications, scandal, and scrutiny surrounding the White House will mean even less diversity as the administration struggles to fill positions across government.
That situation, they say, could have enormous consequences when it comes to the implementation of policy issues like immigration and criminal justice — places where President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions diverge from even some in their own party.
Even just from a public relations perspective, an administration official said it was possible that experienced black political operatives at the Department of Education could have prevented the debacle at Bethune Cookman University, in which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was roundly booed by students during her commencement remarks — or a memo in which historically black colleges and universities were lauded, incorrectly, by the secretary as “pioneers of school choice.” (At the time of their founding, black students weren’t permitted to attend white institutions.)
The source of these staffers’ worries: the already slow nomination and confirmation process for the hundreds of political appointments that power an administration.
Democrats have made a point of slowing down confirmations as a device to stall Republicans’ legislative agenda, but the Trump administration has deeply struggled with just putting forth nominees. Between the complications in the White House and the increasing attention in the Senate toward investigations, that process could break down even further.
Because temporary appointments eventually expire, an administration source said it seemed possible that the Trump administration could lose as many as three-fourths of its black, non-White House appointees unless the administration prioritizes these individuals.
The source, a diversity advocate who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about hiring practices, said they were satisfied with progress after a shaky start, but that it seemed increasingly likely that disappointment was forthcoming. “It’s one thing to be building on the gains we made, and quite another to be losing ground on those gains,” the source said.
It’s something that there has been awareness of inside the White House, as well.
On May 4, a day before Cinco de Mayo, a handful of Hispanic leaders met at the White House to discuss the Obama-era program that allows undocumented youth to stay in the U.S. and work, as well as the economy and Hispanic wages. In the meeting, chief strategist Steve Bannon, a controversial figure to many outside the administration, stunned the group with a request.
“We need more Hispanics in this administration,” he said, according to three sources familiar with his comments, and asked the Hispanic leaders to flood the zone and get back to the administration with qualified candidates.
Days later, the avalanche of two weeks of bad news would begin. Trump fired the FBI director James Comey who was investigating his campaign's ties to Russia, a report emerged that the president divulged classified information to Russian officials who visited the oval office, it was learned that he asked Comey to end his investigation into Trump friend and former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and much more.
A White House official initially told BuzzFeed News that the administration does not ask people to identify by race, but that they would manually put together the information on the number of Hispanics in the administration as well as political appointees. In a subsequent conversation, the official said the information would take a few weeks to gather and the best bet was to go agency by agency asking them for their numbers. The Office of Personnel Management said the information would only be made available through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A former George W. Bush administration official familiar with how that administration approached hiring, said that recruiting diverse candidates must be deliberate. “The only reason they're not giving numbers out is they're not satisfied with where they are,” the source said.
A former senior Obama administration official concurred.
“They probably didn't have those numbers, pulled them together, and then realized they looked bad and it wouldn't be good share them,” the source said.
Asked to comment on the possibility of losing black and Hispanic temporary appointees, a White House spokesperson said the administration was prioritizing temporary appointees whose date to be made permanent was approaching.
“With the exception of the State Department, we have converted all but less than 10 individuals to permanent placements and we have a plan for all of them,” the spokesperson said. “At the State Department, there are a handful of individuals who may need their temporary appointments extended while they are transferred to a permanent position within the department.”
By the administration's count, government-wide, there is one black aide at the State Department who is on a temporary appointment. After the employee emailed late last week expressing concern about their temporary appointment expiration date in June, “they were reassured that the paperwork is being processed (those expiring sooner were prioritized) and that there is a permanent slot for that individual at the State Department,” the spokesperson said.
In the past, senior allies like White House chief of staff Priebus helped lead initiatives to usher quality minority candidates into positions at the Department of Housing and Development, the Office of Management and Budget and the Labor Department. But three black Republicans close to the administration said that now seems unlikely, with daily distractions dominating the news cycle and the majority of aides’ time.
From the very moment of Trump’s victory, black Republicans began implementing a strategy to place black operatives in government. Omarosa Manigault — in one of her many unofficial White House roles — presided over a list of qualified candidates. (“She knows about it, she’s aware,” a source said when asked if she was privy to nervousness among the rank-and-file at various agencies.)
About 20 black appointees were assigned to temporary so-called “beachhead” teams designed to keep federal agencies running while the president’s cabinet nominees awaited confirmation. “That was the easiest way to ensure diversity” at the time, a source said, calling that development “a bright spot” for people of color who wanted to work for Trump.
Mario Rodriguez, the CEO of the Hispanic 100, a political organization that works to get Latinos to vote for Republicans, served on the Trump Hispanic advisory council during the campaign and at the May meeting with Bannon and Priebus said he would gather Latino candidates for the administration.
Rodriguez told BuzzFeed News the administration absolutely wants to find qualified Hispanics and he's going to help any way he can but acknowledged that the White House is behind.
“It's ongoing but the sooner you get folks in the better. They're getting through the process of a lot of folks that have applied. But being the business guy that I am you want to see things happen,” Rodriguez said.
But Hector Sanchez, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a nonpartisan coalition of 45 of the top Latino organizations across the country, who attended a meeting with incoming Trump officials during the transition, dismissed talk that the administration cares about diversity.
“Trump is the worst president in recent history on diversity and inclusion,” Sanchez said.
He added that NHLA has met with presidents and cabinet members for the last 25 years — but outside of meeting with friendly Hispanic business groups — the Trump administration has shut the door.