But before he left office, he quietly embedded dozens of his own political appointees in career government positions and appointed other loyalists to influential boards and groups — one of the final, but possibly most enduring, ways he attempted to remake Washington in his own image.
Now, President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to root out some of those government employees, seeking to rid the broader federal bureaucracy of Trump loyalists who could hinder his agenda.
There was nothing new about Trump’s attempts to convert political appointees to civil service employees, a process called “burrowing” by some government watchers; outgoing presidents have done it for years. (Civil service workers have protections that political appointees do not, and are harder for new administrations to fire.)
But good-government advocates, government watchdogs and experts on the federal bureaucracy, including one member of Congress, said that Trump’s “burrowers” were both more plentiful, and more dangerous, than usual.
Further, these experts pointed to moves by Trump, in the final days of his presidency, to place allies in unusual positions like little-known advisory boards with close ties to decision-makers at key agencies, and low-level unpaid jobs on prestigious boards. Those allies retain access to lawmakers, decision-making processes and information that could ultimately make its way back to the former president.
“Under the guise of stopping a ‘deep state’ coup that never existed, Trump appears to have tried to create a deep state of his own,” said David Rohde, the author of the 2020 book “In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth about America’s ‘Deep State’” and the executive editor of NewYorker.com. Rohde called that effort, if it had proceeded unfettered, “an existential threat to democracy.”
Seeking to cut off any potential such damage, the Biden administration has in recent weeks terminated or placed on leave several government employees placed into their jobs by Trump in the waning days of his presidency, including the top lawyer at the National Security Agency and several members on Pentagon advisory boards.
In a statement to NBC News, a Biden White House official said the administration “is conducting a thorough review of several councils, commissions, and advisory boards,” adding that “as part of that review, we may remove individuals whose continued membership on the board would not serve the public interest.”
But experts warned that countless others are likely peppered throughout the federal government and that it would be difficult for Biden to identify and remove all of them.
“Not to be hyperbolic, but the damage some of these people could do is enormous,” said Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.