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The White House Is Becoming A Ghost Town. Trump Loyalists Worry It's Going To Get Worse.

With high-profile departures and a dysfunctional hiring process, a former White House official jokes part of the building is a "barren wasteland" with rustling "tumbleweed."

Posted on June 29, 2018, at 12:02 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

The Trump White House could resemble a ghost town by the end of the summer — with an increasing number of open jobs, a still-broken process to fill them, and a lack of interest from experienced Republicans willing to join a turbulent administration.

Several top Trump aides, including chief of staff John Kelly, are reportedly expected to leave in the coming weeks, with more actively looking for other jobs. Those who are interested in working for the administration — often candidates who are not as experienced as top aides have traditionally been — tell BuzzFeed News the process is still unclear and dysfunctional. And career officials who make up the majority of the federal workforce are anxious about whether the agencies they work for are valued, or will even exist in the aftermath of a new administration reorganization proposal that includes merging certain agencies, should it be approved by Congress.

The ever-growing number of departures and existing vacancies is worrying Trump loyalists and establishment Republicans alike — many of whom have previously raged about the growing size of the federal government — as the office in charge of hiring and vetting candidates continues to struggle, several sources told BuzzFeed News.

"There are a lot of important positions that aren't filled right now.”

“There's a difference between wanting to get rid of bureaucrats who sit around and do nothing all day and not staffing up,” said a source close to the administration. “I wish this was part of a grand strategy to reduce the federal workforce, and get rid of career government employees who add nothing of value, but there are a lot of important positions that aren't filled right now.”

The Presidential Personnel Office has not improved much, those sources say, since the Washington Post revealed its problems in March and detailed the happy hours the leaders hosted at work.

“Instead of being preoccupied with drinking games, they should be concerned with the alarming number of vacancies that threaten our national security and economic stability,” said a former White House official.

The White House did not respond for comment for this story.

In the coming weeks, White House legislative director Marc Short is expected to leave; deputy chief of staff for operations Joe Hagin has already announced his retirement from government; and Trump loyalist Dan Scavino, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and deputy press secretary Raj Shah are also reportedly eyeing the exits. It's also unclear how much longer Kelly will stay at the White House, given that he’s been losing influence with the president. Politico first reported, and two sources confirmed to BuzzFeed News, that Kelly has been using the gym in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building during the day. There’s long been speculation that he will depart this summer after serving in the role for a year.

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White House chief of staff John Kelly (left) and legislative affairs director Marc Short.
Evan Vucci / AP

White House chief of staff John Kelly (left) and legislative affairs director Marc Short.

Conservative Partnership Institute, a Republican group, hosted an unusual job fair on Capitol Hill this month for those interested in executive branch jobs. Organizers say about 1,000 people attended the fair, along with about 40 government officials representing 30 different federal agencies, including Sean Doocey, deputy assistant to the president for presidential personnel.

Many of the attendees, according to two sources, were not Hill staffers or beltway political operatives, but Trump supporters with little to no government experience who traveled to DC for the occasion.

Even still, one of those sources, a House GOP aide who attended, said many Republicans on the Hill who have applied for executive branch jobs have not heard back, and it's clear that officials still care more about “keeping out a lot of the kind of anti-establishment conservatives Trump needs to do his agenda.”

"The president has a frat party in the hiring department," the aide said. "They aren't doing serious hiring work. They're pulling together dossiers on people and circulating them among press."

"The president has a frat party in the hiring department."

"Between nonprofits, the Hill, and outside groups, folks are all scratching their heads wondering what's going on."

A House GOP chief of staff, who did not attend the fair but applied to work for the administration, described the hiring process as a “shitshow.” “During the transition, I talked with them, and then they just went radio silent," the chief of staff said. "Then, when I reached back out, the person I had been talking to for a month and a half, nobody knew who she was.”

Wesley Denton, a spokesperson for the group that hosted the job fair on the Hill, denied that the high turnover at the White House was the reason for hosting the event and said that most of the registrants were from the DC area but others had traveled from all over, including from New York, California, and New Mexico. "The impetus behind it was that a number of conservatives weren't sure what the process was," Denton said, adding that the goal was to just make the connection for interested applicants and the various agencies.

Denton said he didn't know if the event helped fill any vacancies, but called it a "success" — and the group would consider holding one again.

The Trump administration has been the slowest in history to fill Senate-confirmed positions. According to the latest numbers tracked by the Partnership for Public Service, of the 673 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, 186 still have no nominee, three are awaiting a nomination, 152 have been formally nominated, and only 332 have been confirmed.

“Clearly, the government continues to function...but does it continue at the highest levels possible?” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. “The answer is it can't.”

Stier said we might not know the consequences of the shrinking government until it’s too late. “This matters,” he said. “Our government is our only collective-action tool to deal with our problems.”

Within the White House, specifically, based on the already-announced departures, 75% of Trump’s most senior aides would have left within the first 18 months of the president taking office — nearly double the 41% of senior staff that left the Obama administration in the first two years, according to a new analysis by the Brookings Institution that focused on the 12 most senior positions.

“These are some of the most influential people in the government,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of Brookings, who did the analysis. “It will be harder for President Trump to promote his agenda because he doesn’t have highly experienced people. The longer that people stay in their job, the better they get at it.”

Even when vacancies are filled, often times officials from within the administration are shuffled around, Tenpas said, which continues to exacerbate the problem.

The president and members of his family — including his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner — aren't as bothered by the high turnover, sources say. Trump, who is used to operating with a small group of loyalists, has often cited how much leaner his 2016 campaign was compared to Clinton’s.

In some cases, the administration has also openly said it’s trying to significantly reduce the size of the government.

Although it will face resistance from Congress, the Trump administration proposed a plan last week that would eliminate federal programs and merge certain agencies, including the Education and Labor departments.

Many of the departures within the communications shop, too, were planned by the White House in an effort to stymie unflattering leaks. But it’s unclear whether that has solved or compounded the problem.

“People there couldn’t handle their workload before the mass exodus that’s left the comms shop a barren wasteland occupied by frazzled junior staffers,” said a former White House official. “You can almost hear the tumbleweed in the hallways rustle in between groans as the senior staff ultimately gets what they wanted and now has to live with the increased scrutiny and pressure to make zero mistakes.”

“On top of all this, they’ve convinced themselves they’ve ridded all the leakers, but the building continues to leak like a sieve.”

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Alexis Levinson contributed reporting to this story.

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