Even now, Trump admin officials face White House 'loyalty tests'

While Trump criticizes coronavirus tests, his team imposes loyalty tests. That's the opposite of what White House priorities ought to look like.
Image; White House exterior, President Trump Says He May Reschedule G7 Meeting for Camp David
An exterior of the White House past fencing on May 20, 2020.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

John McEntee, who's only 30 years old, used to be Donald Trump's personal assistant, as part of a job known as the presidential "body man." McEntee's tenure was cut short in 2018, however, when then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly fired McEntee -- by some accounts because the young man was facing an investigation over unspecified "serious financial crimes."

The Wall Street Journal reported soon after on McEntee's alleged gambling issues, complicated by the apparent fact that he couldn't pass a background check. He ended up with a job on Trump's re-election campaign.

Nevertheless, as regular readers may recall, McEntee is now back at the White House, serving as the director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, making him responsible for hiring and vetting applicants for thousands of executive-branch positions. McEntee also reportedly is playing a central role in a White House loyalty "purge," in which officials are subjected to political scrutiny and those deemed insufficiently pro-Trump face transfers or dismissals.

Of course, this news first reached the public in February, when the president was still determined to retaliate against his perceived enemies in the wake of his impeachment -- and before the country faced a coronavirus crisis. Surely, Team Trump has moved past presidential loyalty tests for officials within the president's own administration, right? Wrong.

In the middle of a devastating pandemic and a searing economic crisis, the White House has an urgent question for its colleagues across the administration: Are you loyal enough to President Donald Trump? The White House’s presidential personnel office is conducting one-on-one interviews with health officials and hundreds of other political appointees across federal agencies, an exercise some of the subjects have called “loyalty tests” to root out threats of leaks and other potentially subversive acts just months before the presidential election, according to interviews with 15 current and former senior administration officials.

According to Politico's reporting, Senate-confirmed officials from a variety of cabinet agencies -- Health and Human Services, Defense, Treasury, Labor, and Commerce -- are being interviewed by the White House personnel office.

One source briefed on the interviews described them as "an exercise in ferreting out people who are perceived as not Trump enough."

The use of the word "enough" stood out as particularly interesting. It suggests that for the White House, it's not enough for Trump administration officials to support the president and his priorities; officials will be tested to see if their support is effusive enough to meet the White House's arbitrary standards.

“It just seems like you could be a rocket scientist, but all they care about is whether you are MAGA,” one senior administration official familiar with the process said. “It is fair to do something to prepare to fill jobs in a second term, but right now, it is hard to know what the metrics are with this personnel office for being successful. There is no set criteria for what makes a good political appointee.”

Aside from the obvious concerns -- these “loyalty tests” are creepy, unnecessary, and wholly at odds with how previous administrations have operated -- it's worth emphasizing that many of the officials asked to take the "tests" have actual work to do.

Politico's report added, "[O]fficials summoned for the interviews say the exercise is distracting from numerous policy priorities, like working to fight the pandemic, revitalizing the economy or overhauling regulation, and instead reflect the White House’s conviction that a 'deep state' is working to undermine the president."

The broader context helps drive home just how ridiculous this dynamic is. The White House is confronting multiple crises simultaneously, none of which the president and his team have a plan to address. Indeed, even now, there's still no cohesive national coronavirus plan or any meaningful interest in governing.

We're left with a situation in which the president criticizes coronavirus tests, while his team reportedly imposes loyalty tests. That's the opposite of what White House priorities ought to look like.