Strict rules shape the hiring process for most jobs in the federal government. But the executive branch has leeway in bringing on political appointees, and the Trump administration is giving drastically fewer of those positions to minorities than the Obama administration did. The Department of Agriculture’s staffing provides a stark example.
Last September, at the tail of former President Obama’s second term, roughly one-quarter of political appointees at the Department of Agriculture identified as a racial or ethnic minority, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s official data.
Fast-forward one year: As of September 2017, the White House had hired more than 50 political appointees to work at the agency. They range from Secretary Sonny Perdue all the way down to policy advisers and confidential assistants most Americans have never heard of. They do, however, share one thing in common: They all identify as white.
On official paperwork, each of the appointees said they were a non-minority, which the Office of Personnel Management defines as someone who is white and non-Hispanic.
There are two minority political appointees working at the Department of Agriculture, according to personnel data, but these exceptions are telling: Neither was appointed by the Trump administration. (Sonny Ramaswamy, the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, was appointed to a six-year term by Obama, and inspector general Phyllis K. Fong was appointed in 2002 by George W. Bush.)
The Department of Agriculture, while an extreme, represents a broader shift. Among mid-level political appointees under President Trump — those easiest to quantify in the personnel data, and whom account for the vast majority of appointees — only 11% identify as minorities.
That makes Trump’s appointees roughly one-third as diverse as the government’s “permanent” staff (37% minority) and less than half as diverse as the political staff at the end of Barack Obama’s second term (nearly 33%). It is, however, about the same rate toward the end of Bush’s presidency — the furthest back the government’s diversity data goes.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pressed on minority staff in the Justice Department during his testimony Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Asked by Rep. Cedric Richmond, the Democratic chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, how many African-Americans Sessions has on his senior staff, the attorney general replied, "I do not have a senior staff member at this time that's an African-American.” He went on to say that he has previously recommended African-American judges in Alabama.
The Department of Agriculture did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its appointee demographics, so it’s not entirely clear what led to the extreme lack of diversity at the agency. But history offers some suggestions.
“We know from past research that agencies that are not central to the president's agenda are often places where presidents try to find homes for campaign supporters and people that they owe a debt to,” says David E. Lewis, chair of Vanderbilt University’s political science department. "And I think it's fair to say that the Agriculture Department is not central to the president's agenda.”
Potential case-in-point: Trump’s initial nominee to be the department’s chief scientist, Sam Clovis, had no scientific qualifications but had served as a national co-chair on Trump’s presidential campaign. Earlier this month Clovis withdrew from consideration due to Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
In the private sector or other parts of government, such a vanishing lack of diversity might prompt discrimination allegations. When it comes to hiring political appointees, however, there are virtually no rules.
"There are no requirements that direct a president to look at diversity for political appointments," according to Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for more effective government.
Political appointees "serve at the pleasure of the president, and the president can choose whomever he wants,” Stier says. (Certain appointments require Senate confirmation, but most do not.) “There aren't even clear job descriptions."
And it’s not just racial diversity. The proportion of political appointees who are female has also dropped off a statistical cliff under Trump.
(You can find the data behind these line charts here.)
The data on employee gender goes back a bit further, to 1998, when Bill Clinton was still in office. During Clinton’s final years and Obama’s presidency, women and men were hired as mid-level political appointees in roughly equal proportions. Now women account for less than 40%, a number more in line with hiring during the Bush presidency.
These trends among mid-level appointees mirror those of Trump’s first cabinet, which, according to the New York Times, is more white and more male than any since Ronald Reagan’s. Similarly, the Associated Press recently calculated, Trump is “nominating white men to America’s federal courts at a rate not seen in nearly 30 years.” And of the 53 people Trump has so far nominated to serve as US attorneys, as of Nov. 1, only three are women.
Lewis, the Vanderbilt political scientist, suggests that some of the disparities may stem from broader problems in the Trump administration. "This president had a slow start and they're understaffed in the personnel department," Lewis says. In alienating many mainstream Republicans during the campaign, Trump also may have narrowed his pool of potential hires.
Stier, from the Partnership for Public Service, makes a similar point, though he thinks the anything-goes nature of political appointments is also to blame. “I think it clearly starts with whether you make it a priority at the top,” he says. “I don't think that the Trump administration is handling the system well, but it's also true the system itself is broken.”