Supporting Donald Trump hasn't always paid off.
In Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country, Jim Tracy, the president’s choice for state director for an Agriculture Department office that pumps money into rural areas served as a national co-chairman for state legislators for his main rival in the Republican primary, Ted Cruz.
In swing state Virginia, one of Trump’s nominees for U.S. attorney, Thomas Cullen, the son of a former state attorney general who long led the state’s biggest law firm, endorsed another Republican candidate, Marco Rubio.
And in Pennsylvania, a battleground state that helped Trump win, Daniel DiLella, his pick to head the commission that will throw the United States a 250th birthday party wrote a $1,000 check to Republican John Kasich, a critic considering challenging the president in 2020.
All across the country, the White House has passed over diehard Trump supporters for state-based federal appointments, instead handing those jobs to people who didn’t back Trump, didn’t help Trump, didn’t even agree with Trump.
“My big joke is if I wanted a job in the administration I should have supported Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush,” said Scottie Nell Hughes, an outspoken supporter of Trump from Hendersonville, Tenn.
In more than two dozen interviews with Trump supporters in 13 states stretching from Florida to California, McClatchy found the Trump base seething over a White House that has sidelined people who worked to get this unconventional candidate elected in favor of establishment Republicans and veteran operatives — the wealthy and elitist “swamp-dwelling” insiders this president swore to rid from government.
Worse, according to Trump’s backers, is that his team is appointing not only establishment Republicans, but Republicans who supported Cruz, Rubio and Kasich or worked for the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
“There is a general overall disgust,” said Mark Anthony Jones, a Trump supporter in the Kansas City area and chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party in Missouri. “The people are aware he isn’t getting the appointments. There is frustration. The swamp has way more control than the president does.”
Frankie Lax, of Jackson, Tenn. said he supported Trump from the day the New Yorker jumped into the race because of his background as a businessman and political outsider. Lax — who says he was known as the “Sean Hannity of west Tennessee” —- talked Trump up daily on his top-rated radio show through the primary and general election, distributed thousands of yard signs and donated $400. He was recently notified that he lost out on a U.S. marshal job to a former state legislator who praised Jeb Bush in what appears to be a now deleted tweet.
“The swamp is not getting drained fast enough,” Lax said. “I can’t think of one appointment in Tennessee who supported Donald Trump.”
Trump supporters largely don’t blame the president. Indeed, his base has remained loyal for 15 months even as he broke campaign promises by failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and bringing troops home from Afghanistan and began feuds within his own party. But now, that base is showing signs of cracking.
His supporters warn that Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign could suffer if he doesn’t pay back activists who turned out in droves to propel the unlikely candidate — a businessman and reality TV star — into the Oval Office.
“Hopefully the president isn’t depending on these same people who were loyal when no one else was because he’s going to be disappointed,” said Ben Marchi, a home health care business owner and Trump delegate to the convention from Maryland who signed on as a supporter in the campaign’s earliest days and advised on operations in mid-Atlantic states. “He has abdicated this responsibility to people who have no loyalty to him or his agenda. He doesn’t even know this is what he should be focused on.”
“It’s clear that the West Wing has abdicated these responsibilities to institutionalized members of the swamp when the decisions really should be made by Trump acolytes who wants to shake up Washington,” Marchi said.
A White House official said the administration is looking to hire the best people for the job. “The president and his administration strive to hire the individuals of the highest caliber to serve our country and execute the president’s agenda,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said.
Trump’s selections for Cabinet secretaries and top White House advisers have been well-documented over the last 15 months but little attention has been paid to the important but often overlooked jobs and appointments scattered across the nation. It was those initial top hires – many of whom didn’t support him during the campaign either — who ultimately were responsible for the appointments in the states. They, too, were new to the ways of government and political payback and didn’t select Trump supporters.
Of the nearly 4,000 political appointees a president makes, hundreds, perhaps 1,000 or more, are based in states, according to documents and government observers. The Office of Personnel Management declined to say how many there are, but a spokesperson who insisted on speaking on background urged a reporter to file dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests to find the one number. Some need to be confirmed by the Senate, but many do not.
They help America’s farmers, boost small businesses and monitor air and water pollution. They serve as judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. And they come from all over to serve on boards and commissions, from the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad to the National Endowment for the Arts.
They’re not truly looking out for the president. They are looking out for themselves. There is a feeling by activists and supporters of the president that people who have been appointed are not necessarily loyal to him. He needs to get people in there committed to the issues and policies he ran on
Scott Hagerstrom, Trump’s Michigan state director who is part of a Michigan Trump Republicans group that has organized 40 events in the last six months.
Every president has used appointments to pay back campaign workers and supporters. And certainly, Trump is no exception; He appointed aide Alan Cobb of Kansas to a board that oversees Washington’s airports and Lynn Westmoreland, a former Georgia congressman who stood up to Trump’s Republican critics, to Amtrak’s board.
But Trump, a political outsider who had never served in office, is faulted for not doing it nearly enough.
It doesn’t get more establishment Republican than Fred Malek, the former president of Marriott Hotels and major Republican donor who worked for presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. The president named Malek chairman of the board of trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars even after he called on Trump to apologize for disparaging Muslims and Hispanics and questioning if former President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Malek did not return a message.
And there are more: Thomas Hicks Sr. of Texas, who backed Cruz, and John P. McGoff of Indiana, who supported Rubio, were named members of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Dennis Dean Kirk of Virginia, who donated to Bush, was named chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency to deal with federal employees disputes. James Morris, who also wrote a check to Bush, was named U.S. representative on the executive board of the United Nations Children's Fund or UNICEF. And Glen Smith of Indiana, who backed Bush, was selected for Farm Credit Administration Board. Some later donated to Trump but only after he became the presumptive Republican nominee. Hicks, McGoff and Kirk declined to comment. The others did not return messages.
Most supporters contacted by McClatchy say they still support Trump, praising his accomplishments, particularly for pushing a fractured Congress to pass tax cuts and reducing the number of bureaucratic regulations. They don’t blame him for the appointments, saying he can’t possibly keep track of the thousands of political appointments the administration makes because he’s saddled with a long to-do list that includes a nuclear threat by North Korea and an influx in illegal immigration.
Instead they primarily blame Republican senators, many of whom have openly criticized Trump before and after his inauguration and who are regularly called upon by the administration to recommend candidates for appointments. A single senator of either party could hold up one of the president’s nominations if Senate confirmation is required.
Lax said he was told recently that Tennessee’s Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, did not recommend him to serve as U.S. marshal for the western district even after he formally submit an application to the administration and received 40 letters of recommendation. Barrett Rich, a former legislator who now sits on the parole board and who Trump supporters say did not help him, is expected to be the president’s pick.
Reached by phone, Rich said he had no comment on any possible nomination. But he said he supported Trump in the primary — though he doesn’t appear to have donated money, according to federal records — and received a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
Lax owns a family business providing security guards, private investigators and court processors in the western part of the state and has been an elected constable — a type of police officer — for 16 years. He has had an eye on the U.S. marshal appointment since after the election when he resigned from his talk radio show to apply.
“I never had a chance. It was a lost cause from the beginning,” he said. “I think the establishment career politicians and these senators in Tennessee – as well as rest of the country — are still following protocol, how it was done before. He’s surrounded by the Republican establishment.”
Tim Hutchison, a former sheriff who ran Trump’s east Tennessee campaign based in Knoxville, had been considered for U.S. marshal in the eastern district but lost the nomination to David Jolley, who had served as a marshal in the Bush administration and whose wife runs Corker’s Knoxville office.
“It’s still the D.C. insiders handling all of it,” Hutchison said. “It’s still the same people working up there.”
Through a spokesman, Jolley declined to comment.
In addition to Tracy, selected to be state director of Agriculture’s rural development office, Trump supporters criticize at least three other appointments of moderates in Tennessee who they say didn’t help Trump and who support the governor, Bill Haslam, a moderate and critic of the president: Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney for the western district who was recommended by Alexander and Corker; Doug Overbey, a former state senator and current U.S. attorney for the eastern district; and Mark Norris, Senate majority leader nominated for U.S. District Court judge for the western district. Dunavant and Norris declined to comment. Tracy, who donated to a committee that backed Trump after he became the Republican nominee, and Overbey didn’t return messages.
Trump tapped John Ryder, a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee, to serve on the powerful Tennessee Valley Authority board. But when he was named a delegate to the national Republican convention in 2016, Trump’s state director Darren Morris objected, calling him a “a nice guy, but he's a counsel for the RNC and they're the ones out to get Donald Trump now, so I'm not supercrazy about the possibility.” Ryder did not respond to a message.
Terry Roland, a longtime Republican activist who served as co-chairman of Trump’s west Tennessee campaign, said he wrote letters to Trump aides complaining about the appointments and wishes he could have five minutes to talk to Trump about the problem.
“I blame the senators for being RINOs (Republicans in Name Only),” Roland said. “What galls me is Alexander and Corker never supported our president. They are not picking Trump people.”
Both senators have been critical of Trump, though Corker much more so. He said Trump lacks the stability and competence to be successful and described the White House as an adult day care center. Alexander called Trump’s tariffs on steel “the worst idea coming out of Washington” and has opposed his talk of renegotiating a trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. Alexander’s and Corker’s offices did not respond to requests for comment. Morris did not return a call.
The White House acknowledged the key role senators play in the process. “Positions that are regionally based, such as U.S. attorneys and marshals, are selected with strong input from the state’s senators and congressional delegations,” Walters said. “This is a standard practice that has been implemented by previous administrations and is anticipated by the Senate.”
But the reason for these appointments goes well beyond the senators.
UNPREPARED TO STAFF UP
Trump didn’t come into office knowing as many people who could serve as his predecessors did. There’s no one in the White House keeping track of who worked on the campaign. Trump supporters may not have qualified for jobs because of a lack of experience in government or trouble with background checks.
The Presidential Personnel Office, charged with recruiting and vetting thousands of political appointees, remains short staffed and filled with young inexperienced aides who one former Trump adviser called an “unmitigated band of misfits.” Until recently it was run by Johnny DeStefano, who himself never supported Trump during the campaign and had worked for politicians who are synonymous with Republican establishment.
It didn’t help that his team disregarded the hundreds of potential appointees compiled by transition leader, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, when Trump fired him in November 2016.
“The problem is he’s in a bubble,” said Rion Choate, a longtime Trump supporter and investment banker from North Carolina who volunteered on the campaign for 18 months. Choate recommended one person for U.S. attorney in his home state who did not get the job and now is trying to secure a nomination as an ambassador to a Middle Eastern country for himself. “I’m not frustrated with Donald Trump. I’m frustrated with the system.”
The administration often consults with agencies — which each have a White House liaison to help with appointments — and GOP members of Congress for suggestions or refers back to the same people who have served in government, according to people close to the White House and government observers. In some states, nominating commissions comprised of influential leaders make recommendations.
“Some of the people picked he didn’t know or vet them deep enough. Many are good people but they’re not his people,” said Mel Grossman, a Trump supporter and president of the Palm Beach County Tea Party in Florida. “To change the system, it’s really impossible. It’s not going to be the first day or first year. In four years, hopefully he can clean house.”
Trump supporters say the administration should have opted for loyalty over experience. “I value loyalty and honesty above someone who is smart any day of the week,” said James Coyne, a Trump supporter in Columbia, Mo.
Certainly, some Trump supporters say the White House is doing the right thing.
Elaine Ervin, a Shelby County, Tenn. resident who coordinated volunteer efforts for the campaign in three counties, said she has opposed some appointments but that Trump should be able to appoint who he wants as he weighs several factors. “Just because you support a candidate and give to it your all doesn’t mean you are getting a job,” she said. “They have to grow up. If that’s why you worked in the campaign then we don’t need you up there.”
And while Ralph King, a Trump supporter in Bedford, Ohio who co-founded the conservative group, Main Street Patriots, said he couldn’t believe it when he heard Trump nominated Justin Herdman in June to be U.S. attorney for the northern district of the state, he doesn’t blame the president.
Herdman, King said, never did anything to help Trump. He did, however, receive an endorsement from both Ohio senators, even the Democratic one — Sherrod Brown. Through a spokesman, Herdman declined to comment.
“That’s part of the swamp,” King said. “That’s the whole swamp mentality...Donald Trump shook a lot up but it’s so polluted that he’s not going to do this in four years. Nobody is going to be able to come in and clean it.”
Ben Wieder and Tom Hart in Washington contributed.