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Why we're stuck with so many Trump acolytes in government posts

When taking stock of Trump's "legacy," don't forget the number of political appointees who've since burrowed into the federal bureaucracy.
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The White House on Dec. 11, 2020.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Across the executive branch, employees can generally be divided into two groups. The first contingent is known as "political appointees": a White House will tap a variety of officials, some of whom are confirmed by the Senate, to work in federal agencies to help advance a sitting president's policy agenda.

The other group is known as "career officials": these are rank-and-file civil servants serving throughout the executive branch, but whose work is unrelated to political agendas. Political appointees tend to leave federal agencies once their president is no longer in office, while career officials remain in their posts for years, no matter who's in the White House.

But in some cases, there's a catch. As a presidential administration nears its end, some political appointees decide they want to stick around for a while -- and become career officials. It's a process known as "burrowing," because it involves personnel burrowing into federal bureaucracy, where they'll enjoy civil service protections, and where they can try to keep the former administration's efforts going.

Keep this in mind when reading NBC News' report from the weekend on former Donald Trump political appointees who've burrowed into the Biden administration.

The number of political appointees who sought permanent positions in the final year of former President Donald Trump's term outpaced the number who did so under his predecessor during the same time frame, according to documents obtained by NBC News.

According to Office of Personnel Management materials, in the final year of the Trump era, 58 appointees tried to make the jump to becoming career staff, and 31 such conversions were approved.

It's important to emphasize, in case this isn't obvious, that numbers like these are not especially unusual. Toward the end of Bill Clinton's second term, for example, 47 officials burrowed into executive-branch agencies. Dozens of George W. Bush appointees did the same thing in 2008, as did dozens of Barack Obama appointees eight years later.

In other words, the fact that a group of political appointees, chosen by the Trump White House, took steps to become career officials is not, in and of itself, scandalous.

But in the case of Team Trump, it's worth looking just below the surface. NBC News' report pointed to several dubious examples of Trump-era burrowing, each of which sparked criticisms from independent experts.

What's more, let's not forget that we were all able to get a good look at the kind of folks who became Trump appointees, and now dozens of them are sticking around in influential government posts.

When taking stock of Trump's "legacy," we tend to think of the former president's many far-right judicial nominees, and the lasting harm the Republican did the United States' international reputation. But as these burrowing statistics remind us, there are a variety of ways in which we'll be dealing with the effects of Trump's failed term.

Way back in November 2008, Michelle Cottle joked, in reference to Bush/Cheney political appointees transitioning to civil-service roles, "Jeez. Looks like it's going to take a Brill-O pad and a round of antibiotics to rid ourselves of the Bushies."

More than 12 years later, it appears the same can be said about Trumpers, too.