Politics & Government

Sources: Federal officials vetting Brownback for position in Trump administration


Federal officials are in the process of vetting Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for a position in President Donald Trump’s administration, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

Two close associates of Brownback confirmed to The Star that they were interviewed by federal officials about the governor’s character and qualifications last month. And a congressional source said people close to the governor and senior officials at the White House have said that it’s a matter of when, not if, he gets a post.

“It’s the worst kept secret that he’s going to be nominated for something,” said a former Trump adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the timeline for the appointment, which will most likely be with the U.S. State Department, is uncertain, the adviser said.

The speculation about Brownback’s return to Washington comes at a time when his stature in Kansas has diminished greatly. Brownback, who was first elected governor in 2010 by a more than 30-point margin, has seen his popularity and influence wane in recent years as the state has repeatedly faced budget shortfalls many blame on his tax cuts.

Republican officials in Kansas said that an announcement of Brownback’s departure could come in the near future. His exit would elevate Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon, into the state’s top office.

“I’m aware that they’ve already done background checks and all that good stuff,” said Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “But I’ve not been informed about the specific position or when an announcement will happen.”

Arnold said an announcement could happen as early as next week or could take another three months. He said officials in Topeka are already readying themselves for the transition from Brownback to Colyer.

“People are preparing for a change,” he said.

The White House and State Department declined to comment on the vetting process.

Brownback’s name has been floated for multiple jobs since Trump won the presidency in November, but speculation of Brownback’s imminent departure has intensified in recent weeks after one of the longest legislative sessions in the state’s history climaxed with the repeal of his signature policy, his 2012 tax cuts.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Brownback staked his governorship on the tax cuts, which fell far short of creating the massive job growth Brownback had promised and were blamed by many analysts for cratering the state’s budget.

“His governorship has gone into the vegetative state. When do you turn the machine off?” Miller said.

Brownback flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Trump on infrastructure projects last week after the Legislature overrode his veto and repealed the tax cuts.

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he’s “been assured” the governor is leaving by Brownback administration officials and that he expects that to happen sometime after Sine Die, the ceremonial end to the legislative session, which takes place June 26.

“Just very senior people that work in his staff have indicated to me directly that he will be leaving after the session is completely finished,” Denning said.

Brownback’s office refused to comment on the rumblings of an imminent departure.

“Governor Brownback is focused on his continued work to make Kansas the best state in America to raise a family and grow a business,” Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

Colyer’s office also would not comment on the possibility that he will be elevated to governor in the coming weeks or months.

Brownback, a friend of Vice President Mike Pence’s, had been considered for secretary of agriculture at one point but was passed over for Sonny Perdue, a former governor of Georgia.

His name has been connected in recent months to two positions in the nation’s diplomatic corps: U.S. ambassador for food and agriculture to the United Nations, a position based in Rome, and U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position that is based in Washington, D.C.

The former Trump adviser said at this point the religious freedom position appears the more likely possibility and that Brownback’s nomination should be “a no-brainer.”

Religious leaders have heaped praised on Brownback in anticipation that he’ll be tapped for the role, which was established in 1998 as the country’s main advocate for religious minorities facing oppression worldwide.

“I hope it’s true. He’d be fantastic,” said Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer who serves as director for the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Shea, who knows Brownback from his time in the U.S. Senate, pointed to his advocacy as a senator on behalf of religious minorities in the Sudan when the African nation was locked in a bloody civil war.

“He kept the issue alive,” she said, crediting Brownback for his role in the peace process that led to the creation of South Sudan. “People very much respect him up on the hill. … He brings real stature to the position.”

Tom Farr, the president of the Washington-based Religious Freedom Institute, praised Brownback’s track record on religious freedom and said that as a former senator, he would bring more attention to the often-overlooked position.

“I fear that people wrongly see this as a minor position, and here is a man who if he took this job, first of all, it would be a sign that it is not a minor position, and secondly, he could prove the case,” said Farr, who spent 21 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and served as chief of staff for two of the men to previously hold the position.

“This is not somebody who would just make speeches … but would actually move the needle on religious freedom in foreign countries,” Farr said.

Brownback’s tenure as governor saw the state gain national attentions as one of the most significant testing grounds of conservative policies.

Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Brownback was “virtually unfettered” during his first six years as governor as the GOP-dominated Legislature assisted Brownback in reshaping the state’s tax, Medicaid, welfare and education systems.

Ward said that few governors have been more successful in advancing their legislative agendas and that Brownback’s legislative victories ironically led to his diminished status as voters ousted many of his allies in the last election.

“And now he can’t go into McDonald’s without getting booed,” Ward said. “Even if he doesn’t get a gig, he’s leaving.”

Other evidence also suggests that Brownback’s time as governor is drawing to a close, according to lawmakers. On Thursday, his office announced that Kim Borchers, Brownback’s deputy chief of staff and one of his closest confidantes, will leave for a job at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-leaning think tank based in Florida.

“When Kim Borchers leaves, the moving trucks are out there,” Ward said. “She has been the palace queen, so yeah, that’s a big deal when she leaves.”

Borchers had served as Brownback’s appointments secretary and had been instrumental in selecting his Cabinet and nominees for judicial positions. Borchers, who will officially step down June 30, would not consent to an interview Friday.

Kansas House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, remarked that Borchers’ departure is “a signal that the governor probably is leaving.”

Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, called Borchers “one of the key people” in Brownback’s administration and said that “more and more people are talking about when the transition (to Colyer) occurs.”

Asked if he expected Colyer to be sworn in as governor before the end of the year, he replied, “If I had to place a bet, yes.”

Anita Kumar of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3