Trump Hires Campaign Workers Instead of Farm Experts at USDA
President Donald Trump’s appointees to jobs at Agriculture Department headquarters include a long-haul truck driver, a country club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company.
A POLITICO review of dozens of résumés from political appointees to USDA shows the agency has been stocked with Trump campaign staff and volunteers who in many cases demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture. But of the 42 résumés POLITICO reviewed, 22 cited Trump campaign experience. And based on their résumés, some of those appointees appear to lack credentials, such as a college degree, required to qualify for higher government salaries.
It’s typical for presidents to reward loyalists with jobs once a campaign is over. But what’s different under Trump, sources familiar with the department’s inner workings say, is the number of campaign staffers who have gotten positions and the jobs and salaries they have been hired for, despite not having solid agricultural credentials in certain cases. An inexperienced staff can lead to mistakes and sidetrack a president’s agenda, the sources say.
“There is a clear prioritization of one attribute, and that is loyalty,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director, who provided the documents after his organization received them in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. He said the group sought résumés for Trump administration political appointees from across the federal government and found an abundance of former campaign workers in positions that did not appear to match their qualifications. “The theme that emerges is pretty clear: What do you have to do to get an administration job? Work on the campaign,” he added.
USDA in a statement defended the hires: “All of the appointees have skills that are applicable to the roles they fill at USDA.”
The truck driver, Nick Brusky, was hired this year at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service — an agency tasked with developing overseas markets for U.S. agricultural trade goods — at one of the highest levels on the federal government’s pay scale, a GS-12, earning $79,720 annually. Though that pay grade requires a master’s degree or equivalent experience, it’s not clear from Brusky’s résumé whether he’s a college graduate. The document lists coursework in business management and political science at three universities from 2000 to 2013, but does not specify a graduation date.
Brusky served as a field representative for Trump’s campaign in the battleground state of Ohio, beginning in November 2016, while driving for a trucking company in Hilliard, where he also was a county commissioner. Brusky’s résumé shows he has no experience in cultivating international markets for trade goods, though he notes he has experience “hauling and shipping agricultural commodities.” It says he was twice elected to local office and was a legislative aide to an Ohio state representative from January 2009 until June 2012.
Another example: Christopher O’Hagan, an appointee as a confidential assistant at the Agricultural Marketing Service, which helps producers of food, fiber and specialty crop growers market their goods. O’Hagan graduated in 2016 from the University of Scranton with a major in history and a minor in economics. But his résumé lists only one example of work experience prior to joining the Trump campaign in January 2016 — employment as a cabana attendant at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, while in school.
Similarly, Trump campaign alum Tim Page, a 2016 graduate of Appalachian State University, is now at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency that helps farmers, ranchers and forest managers employ conservation practices. Page’s résumé indicates that he owns Cutting Edge LLC, a landscaping service in Connelly Springs, North Carolina.
“Much in the same way previous administrations have done, the USDA worked with the Presidential Personnel Office to place Schedule C appointees where they could be most helpful to the mission of the department,” the department said in an email to POLITICO. “All of the appointees have skills that are applicable to the roles they fill at USDA.“
O’Hagan, Page and Brusky did not respond to emails requesting comment and the USDA declined to make them available for this story.
Brusky, O’Hagan and Page are three of 10 confidential assistants whose résumés were among those obtained by American Oversight, along with the résumés of some career staff who are acting in leadership roles. All but one of the 10 touted their work to get the president elected, and most do not have agricultural experience. All of the appointees with this title are ranked as GS-11, GS-12 or GS-13, positions with annual salaries ranging from $60,210 to $85,816 at Step 1 of each grade. Two of the 10 didn’t list college degrees on their résumés, despite guidelines that call for anyone at GS-7 or higher to have completed a four-year degree.
Further, none of the confidential assistants indicated they had earned a master’s. Employees at the GS-9 level or higher are required by Office of Personnel Management guidelines to have obtained that level of education or equivalent experience.
The USDA said duties of a confidential assistant include “conducting research; preparing documents for special projects; overseeing correspondence control … receiving a wide variety of telephone inquiries from executives within and outside the USDA and from other agencies.”
O’Hagan and Page were hired at the GS-12 level and assigned to the secretary’s office, with a salary of $79,720. They were then transferred to their current roles, both of which are at the GS- 11 level and come with an annual salary of $66,510. Four other political appointees had their salaries reduced after they started.
“By the time these people are serving in confidential assistant roles, they are sitting on a very thin layer in government bureaucracy,” a former USDA official who arrived at the department at the beginning of the Obama administration, noting that the confidential assistant positions can be involved with technical decisions on policy matters. “If you just have someone with no higher education and no experience and no background in policymaking as the arbiter on these questions, that’s pretty unusual.”
Also in the ranks of USDA political appointees are the scented-candle company owner; a clerk at AT&T; a Republican National Committee intern; a part-time executive assistant and rental property manager; and a former Washington state senator who mentioned on his résumé that he was the first elected official in his state to back Trump’s candidacy.
The list of 42 appointees also includes seven special assistants, who command higher salaries than confidential assistants and generally have experience in policy and government. All of the special assistants are either GS-14 or GS-15, which start at $101,402 and 119,285, respectively. Three of the seven special assistants mentioned work on the campaign on their résumés.
In the early days of the Obama USDA, more experienced people coming off the campaign were given posts as confidential assistants, the former USDA official explained. They were tasked with assisting Senate-confirmed officials, taking notes during meetings and coordinating efforts with career staff.
Special assistants, by contrast, performed jobs for officials who did not require Senate confirmation, such as chiefs of staff, administrators and other leadership posts. There were some young staffers with ties to the campaign trail, sources conceded. The Obama team also pulled heavily from Capitol Hill staff to fill key roles, but only a handful of the appointees at USDA as of late last month have made a similar jump.
For the most part, the administration’s selections for leadership positions at USDA have been well received by industry and Capitol Hill. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a two-term governor of Georgia who also is a veterinarian and ran a host of agriculture-related businesses, got the endorsement of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the only Trump Cabinet official to be backed by his predecessor.
Perdue also has brought on board about a half-dozen policy advisers and high-level political staff who have backgrounds at influential agricultural policy groups or as staffers on relevant congressional committees or who served under Perdue during his time as Georgia governor. None of these hires listed campaign experience among their qualifications.
Meanwhile, even with the campaign loyalists who are now on the USDA staff, the administration is still behind schedule in hiring for the agency’s more than 200 political positions that span from Washington, D.C., to rural communities across all 50 states.
The combination of a thin political staff and a lack of appropriate expertise among the appointees could spell trouble for Perdue as he pushes forward with his reorganization plan and other policy objectives, said a former USDA official who arrived at the department at the beginning of the Obama administration.
“If you don’t have talented people, experienced people, people who know how policymaking works, there are a number of ways you can get your agenda sidetracked,” said the former staffer, who was granted anonymity to discuss staffing freely. Policymaking is filled with landmines — from congressional oversight to complicated rules related to acceptance of gifts, the source noted, adding: “What you can get is both the failure to take advantage of opportunities … and mistakes that will eat up time and energy.”