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WASHINGTON — On April 10, 2017, Daniel Jorjani, a top Interior Department political appointee, sent an email to Brian Hooks, president of the conservative Charles Koch Foundation, soliciting individuals to join the board of a charitable arm of the National Park Service.
“Would any of the stakeholders’ families or key network participants be interested in joining the board of the National Park Foundation?” Jorjani wrote. “It is one of our top-tier boards.” He added that the board “has a few openings.”
There are many such boards affiliated with government agencies and government-funded institutions, from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is a federal corporation, to the not-for-profit Kennedy Center for the Arts. Though the boards have different functions, in one way or another they exert influence on some aspect of the federal bureaucracy, whether by providing oversight or — in a case like the National Park Foundation — raising money.
While board appointees have long been selected because of their political affiliation, wealth or stature, the president’s opponents charge he has appointed individuals who are more ideologically motivated than their predecessors. In some cases, he is appointing board members who have opposed the institutions they are supposed to now monitor or guide.
“Someone who is going to thwart the mission of an organization — any organization, be it a government, for-profit or charitable entity — should not be on the governing board, the group tasked with ensuring the fiduciary and strategic success that furthers that mission,” said Doug White, a leading expert on the frequently contentious workings of corporate and philanthropic boards. “That’s like ‘Board Governance 101.’”
For the Trump administration, appointing board members may be an effective and little-noticed means of weakening a federal apparatus it fundamentally distrusts. Not only did Donald Trump come into office with “a disruptor mindset,” said governance expert Scott R. Anderson of the center-left-leaning Brookings Institution, but he has delegated that disruption to “further-out-there wings of the Republican Party,” beyond the bounds of ordinary conservatism.
Attaching boards to government agencies is an effect of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, Baruch College government professor Jerry Mitchell wrote in a 1997 scholarly article on board governance. “Boards and commissions were viewed as an intelligent way to make the public sector more democratic and competent,” he wrote, because these entities would include neither elected officials nor career public servants.
As the federal government grew throughout the 20th century, the number of boards and councils proliferated accordingly. According to a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, there are more than 900 advisory boards, which have varying degrees of influence. President Bill Clinton, for example, created an advisory board on race in 1997. The council produced a report, whose recommendations appear to have been largely ignored, and it was subsequently disbanded.
Some boards are permanent, while others are not. The National Space Council, which was created by George H.W. Bush, was disbanded by Bill Clinton, only to return more than two decades later under Trump.
Each board has its own rules: Some require Senate confirmation for nominees, and others do not. The length of service also varies, with some board appointments lasting several years and others over a decade. Some are appointed directly by the president, while some are picked by others in his administration.
So while Trump has often railed against a bureaucratic “deep state” working against his agenda, his board appointments, many of which may outlast his presidency, could serve an internal Republican resistance to a future Democratic administration.
These oversight or advisory bodies, which have varying degrees of power and efficacy, cut across a vast terrain of the federal bureaucracy. Trump’s most notorious nominations in this category were to the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, which is among the most significant in the entire government. Other boards, like the National Organic Standards Board or the White House evangelical council, are only advisory in nature. Still others are attached to tax-exempt organizations like the Kennedy Center and function almost like any other philanthropic board.
In the case of the Federal Reserve board of governors — which performs “monetary policy responsibilities,” alongside the Fed’s regional bank presidents — Trump attempted to fill vacant seats on that board with two of the most controversial nominations. One of those was Herman Cain, the pizza magnate and onetime Republican presidential candidate. Long-standing accusations of sexual misconduct against Cain did not appear to deter Trump. The other nominee floated was Steven Moore, whose thinking on monetary policy was held in low regard, with Washington Post economics columnist Catherine Rampell calling Moore “easily confused.”
Both of those appointments would have required Senate confirmation, and Trump scuttled the plan after it became clear that congressional Republicans had little will to fight on behalf of either Cain or Moore.
At the National Park Foundation, political appointee Daniel Jorjani’s efforts also came to naught. Koch Foundation president Brian Hooks responded politely but unenthusiastically to the outreach by Jorjani. “I’ll have a look and let you know if there’s an opportunity to learn more,” he wrote to Jorjani, who several years before had himself worked for the Koch Foundation. Before that, Jorjani had been an Interior Department official in the George W. Bush administration, where he described his duties as “limiting damage from climate change alarmists,” according to the résumé he submitted to Congress.
Neither Hooks nor Jorjani responded to emails, and neither was made available for comment by his respective organization. An official with the Koch philanthropic network Stand Together told Yahoo News that there were no further communications between Jorjani and the Koch Foundation on the issue of National Park Foundation board appointments.
That hardly soothes critics. Jayson O’Neill of the Western Values Project, which uncovered the Jorjani-Hooks emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, told Yahoo News the emails were proof that “the Trump administration is dead set on politicizing a board that should be solely focused on supporting America’s national parks.”
Even without Koch influence, the board of the National Park Foundation was already becoming more controversial under Trump, as were many other boards across the executive branch.
Perhaps the most contentious appointment to the National Park Foundation board has been that of Susan LaPierre, the spouse of National Rifle Association executive director Wayne LaPierre.
A former Interior official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition that his identity remain confidential, said that Ryan Zinke, who was the interior secretary until being forced to resign over charges of unethical behavior, bypassed the ordinary advisory process by which board members are selected in picking LaPierre. The former official said that as far as he was aware, that appointment was an anomaly and the board does not yet appear to be compromised, as a whole, by Trump’s appointments.
He did worry, however, that if Trump were to win a second term, the National Park Foundation board could potentially succumb wholesale to politics.
In other areas, some of Trump’s appointments have been in line with those of previous presidents. For example, he was generally praised for reconstituting the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and while some noted that the council was heavy on private industry, those executives were both credentialed and accomplished.
Such praise, however, has been rare.
In May 2018 the president named Stephen Feinberg, a reliable Republican donor who had contributed to Trump’s 2016 campaign, to lead the president's Intelligence Advisory Board, which has been in place since 1956. Feinberg had been considered for another intelligence post, but even some Republicans took note of his lack of qualifications. “As far as I can tell, this individual does not have national security experience,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of Feinberg, “nor does he appear to have experience in intelligence.”
White, the board governance expert, was even tougher in his assessment. “These are terrible appointments,” he said, speaking of Feinberg specifically.
Appointment to the intelligence board does not require Senate confirmation, meaning that Feinberg’s critics could do little to stop it.
Trump isn’t the first president to award donors with board membership, and James Pfiffner, a scholar of the presidency at George Mason University, explained that “board seats are often used to reward political allies, regardless of qualifications.”
President Barack Obama also faced charges of politicizing the intelligence board. A few months after Chuck Hagel, the respected Republican senator from Nebraska who had served in Vietnam, left the board to take charge of the Pentagon in early 2013, 10 of the panel’s members were dismissed without any warning or explanation. Among them was former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who had been one of the authors of the much-lauded report on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I didn’t want to stay anyway,” Hamilton recalls, adding that there were “plenty of reasons to kick me off.”
Still, those reasons were never given to Hamilton. The intelligence board eventually added new members, among them a Chicago investor to Obama’s political campaign and the chairman of UPS.
Without discussing any specific names, Hamilton says that heading the intelligence panel is not “the business for an amateur” lacking significant experience. “I don’t want any president to play around with the intelligence community,” he adds.
Even if Obama and other presidents engaged in politics when making board appointments, critics charge that Trump has nominated people who are actively opposed to the missions of the agencies and organizations they are supposed to be supporting.
For example, to the board of Amtrak, Trump appointed Todd Rokita, a former Republican congressman from Indiana. Critics quickly noted that Rokita had voted several times to strip Amtrak of its federal funding. When he was first nominated, progressive detractors branded him “unfit for public office.” Despite that, Rokita appears to be inching toward confirmation by the Senate.
Even if some board memberships are purely symbolic, they can be significant, especially when it comes to any organization under the aegis of the White House.
Obama had chosen an environmental policy expert from California to head the Council on Environmental Quality. She was eventually succeeded by an expert on public lands.
Trump went in a markedly different direction, nominating Kathleen Hartnett White, a political operative from Texas who has expressed strong, harshly worded doubt about whether human activity causes global warming. Even for a Republican-controlled Senate, White proved too much at a time of growing concern about the climate; her nomination was eventually dropped.
Citing the cases of Amtrak and the Council on Environmental Quality, Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a left-leaning government watchdog group, accused Trump of using the boards to advance a harmful agenda. “If personnel is policy, the staffing choices made by the administration are indicative of a lack of concern for the health and well-being of the nation,” she said.
Congress also recognizes the power of board seats. Under Obama, a Republican-controlled Senate refused to confirm the president’s appointees and kept three seats open on the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal energy infrastructure corporation that works in the upper South.
Trump eventually filled one of those with William B. Kilbride, a coal executive whose nomination was ardently opposed by Democrats. That, however, didn’t stop the Tennessee Valley Authority from voting to close two coal plants earlier this year.
Appointments to boards dealing with arts and culture can also be a useful means of sending signals to political supporters, especially in a political environment in which symbolic victories are as sought after as serious policy accomplishments.
In that vein, Trump announced new members to the board of the Kennedy Center earlier this year. Among these were Jon Voight, one of the few vociferous conservatives in Hollywood, and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, father of former White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Fox News mainstay (Huckabee has actually pleaded with Trump to not cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts).
Trump also established the White House evangelical advisory board, which consists mostly of right-leaning religious and political figures, including former Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr., the Liberty University leader who has been implicated in a number of personal and financial scandals. The evangelical board is being sued for conducting its work in secret.
One of the members of that board is Paula White, a Pentecostal televangelist who preaches the prosperity gospel and has been hounded by controversy. The board proved a perfect springboard for White. In November, Trump announced that she would formally join his administration to head its office of faith.
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