The Trump administration’s lack of formal processes to coordinate with agencies ahead of the release of executive orders and other big policy decisions leaves some career and high-level agency officials in the dark, sources tell CNN.
Just this past week, President Donald Trump blindsided State and Department of Homeland Security officials by pulling aid from three Central American countries. Additionally, administration officials were left scrambling after the President once again threatened to close the Mexican border. Many of the officials in charge of implementing the action were left watching Trump’s Twitter feed for cues on what he might do.
And now, the President is backpeddling on his public pledge for Republicans to roll out a health care replacement after Republican senators pleaded with him to wait until after the 2020 election.
In previous administrations, government agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget or the National Security Council would typically lead formal interagency processes for major initiatives that involve multiple cabinet departments – coordinating policy, major projects, executive orders and formal announcements to ensure smooth implementation. But the Trump White House has instead stood up interagency processes only sporadically, current and former administration officials say.
The sources now describe the process as more ad hoc than a formal organized process, and is instead run through the White House by officials in the White House Counsel’s Office and the office of the Staff Secretary.
A version of this process was put in place at the start of the Trump administration, and was meant to supplant the process the Office of Management and Budget previously undertook, according to the sources.
Part of the challenge for administrations officials now is also the President’s impulsive tweeting of big policy decisions first, leaving officials to deal with the fallout on the back end in public view rather than on the front end, which is what would happen during a traditional interagency review.
Erica Newland, a former Justice Department official, who is now at a nonprofit organization called Protect Democracy, told CNN the administration’s lack of formal agency coordination can lead to oversights.
“That puts those offices that are involved in reviewing proposed actions in an awkward position of trying to gather facts and other information themselves — and that sets them up to miss things,” she said.
But a White House official pushed back on the notion that these staff would be in an awkward position, saying the only difference is a new interagency process run by the White House rather than the Office of Management and Budget.
White House deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell runs a policy process in coordination with acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and the staff secretary’s office coordinates the text of any executive orders that emerge from that process, the White House official said.
While agencies may not be using career employees as much as they used to, there is no Cabinet secretary in the dark about policy changes, the official added. But information gathered by internal government watchdogs and congressional testimony, however, suggests that several agency heads were caught by surprise by the White House edicts.
During recent congressional testimony, Nielsen told lawmakers that while she discussed “zero tolerance” with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, she didn’t know he was going to announce it until the day he did.
Similarly, at a recent hearing, Jonathan White, the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps commander, told lawmakers that he had raised concerns about separating families apprehended at the US-Mexico border to three Trump appointees before the administration’s controversial “zero-tolerance” immigration policy was announced.
Throughout the hearing, White said several times that to his knowledge, no one at the Department of Health and Human Services – including Secretary Alex Azar – knew the zero-tolerance policy was going to happen.
The Government Accountability Office also released a report last fall, which found that the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services did not plan for family separations that resulted from the zero-tolerance policy because they had no advanced warning.
“According to DHS and HHS officials we interviewed, the departments did not take specific steps in advance of the April 2018 memo to plan for the separation of parents and children or potential increase in the number of children who would be referred to (Office of Refugee Resettlement),” the report stated.
“DHS and HHS officials told us that the agencies did not take specific planning steps because they did not have advance notice of the Attorney General’s April 2018 memo. Specifically, (Customs and Border Protection), (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and (Office of Refugee Resettlement) officials we interviewed stated that they became aware of the April 2018 memo when it was announced publicly,” the report said.
The report also states that Department of Health and Human Services leadership advised the Office of Refugee Resettlement not to engage in planning for continued increases of separated children when the office observed an increase in separated children in their care months ahead of the zero-tolerance memo’s release.
Department of Homeland Security officials were similarly left scrambling after the President issued his travel ban in 2017.
According to a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report, the department “was largely caught by surprise” when the travel ban was signed, with then-Secretary John Kelly having seen only two drafts in the days before the release.
Customs and Border Protection “had practically no advance notice” of the executive order, when it would become effective and what it would contain, the inspector general said. The department also “had no opportunity to provide expert input” in the drafting of the ban, and “(no) policies, procedures and guidance to the field were developed.”
The ban went into effect while travelers were in the air bound for the US, requiring “real-time” policy improvising by the Homeland Security, Justice and State departments, the report concluded.
CNN’s Tammy Kupperman, Priscilla Alvarez, Geneva Sands, Greg Wallace and David Shortell contributed to this report.