Al Shaw and Claire Perlman
We started with a simple question: Who is being appointed by the Trump administration to run federal agencies, on so-called \"beachhead teams\"? The White House had said publicly they were deploying 520 political appointees on these teams across the government but they would not release details about who they are or what offices they were working in.
As soon as President Trump took office, ProPublica began filing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act and Form 201 ethics requests to every federal agency to find the names, titles, roles and offices of hundreds of political appointees that acted as the eyes and ears of the Trump administration within the federal government but were not subject to Senate confirmation or review. In March, we published our first dataset and accompanying story of more than 400 political staffers—the most exhaustive listing of Trump appointees to date—and followed it up with a second story and release in August, with more than 1,000 names.
When we couldn\'t get the names of White House staffers in April, we partnered with the Associated Press and New York Times to make a publicly-accessible Google Drive file and crowd-sourced the missing names. Subsequently, we created another matching story and dataset with Trump staffers\' federally-required financial disclosures and ethics waivers, including those in the White House, the only publication to create a central repository for such information.
We wanted to provide a resource for journalists and the public to find out who was being appointed by the Trump administration to run the federal government and work in the White House and what conflicts of interest they might have.
What we found: dozens of obscure Trump campaign staffers, contributors to Breitbart and others who have embraced conspiracy theories had populated the government through hiring mechanisms meant for short-term political appointees, as well as dozens of Washington insiders who could be reasonably characterized as part of the “swamp” Trump pledged to drain.
The lists are striking for how many former lobbyists they contain: In our first release in March, we found at least 36, spanning industries from health insurance and pharmaceuticals to construction, energy and finance. Many of them lobbied in the same areas that are regulated by the agencies they have now joined.
A year later, in March 2018, we released the Trump Town API and downloadable dataset. We found at least 187 former registered lobbyists in the Trump administration. It’s the first authoritative searchable database of 2,475 political appointees, including Trump’s Cabinet, staffers in the White House and senior officials within the government, along with their federal lobbying and financial records.
What makes this project innovative?
For the first time, political appointee and federal financial disclosure information is publicly searchable. To put some of our work into numbers:
* We filed more than 200 requests, through FOIA and a federal request process using a Form 201 mandated under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
* We requested staffing lists, federally-required financial disclosures and ethics waivers and recusals filed with Designated Agency Ethics Officers at each federal agency through Freedom of Information Acts and cross-referenced agency lists with officially-kept records with the Office of Personnel Management and the White House General Counsel\'s office.
* We negotiated with FOIA officers and ethics attorneys for information and fought for access from others. Four federal agencies have either not responded to our requests or denied them outright and we have continued to administratively appeal and seek records through litigation. We have collaborated with pro bono FOIA attorneys provided to us by the American Constitution Society and worked with outside programs to compel the release of relevant documents, including visitor logs and calendars of political appointees.
* We sought context and guidance from dozens of outside groups, chiefly the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which focuses on lobbying and ethics conflicts in the federal workforce, and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works with incoming presidential administrations during early-stage transitions.
* We also interviewed and worked with dozens of FOIA officers and ethics attorneys in nearly every federal agency.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
Dozens of news organizations, think tanks, congressional committees, nonprofits and the public use our datasets and searchable interactives every day to find out who works in the Trump administration, what they do, what financial conflicts of interest might exist and if they\'re abiding by federal ethics laws. We\'ve uncovered dozens of former and recent lobbyists populating the Trump administration, working in areas they had previously sought to influence, and several others whose qualifications and backgrounds were suspect. Several resigned and, after pressure by seven Democratic senators demanding more transparency, the White House began releasing ethics waivers of its appointees in June.
Here are some of the highlights from other news organizations and elected officials:
* The Washington Post (https://wapo.st/2mYiKRI) took our data and found at least 16 appointees were White House liaisons—acting as President Trump\'s eyes and ears. Bloomberg (https://bloom.bg/2mKB1Et) took our beachhead data and used it to find that nearly 75% of Trump appointees were men. The New York Times (https://nyti.ms/2ud98J6) and our reporter, Robert Faturechi, used our data to uncover who was rolling back Obama-era regulations. The Times (https://nyti.ms/2oi5iH9) also used it to show how lobbyists—and their potential conflicts of interest—were populating the Trump administration.
* The Huffington Post (https://bit.ly/2J4yihu) dug into one appointee, Frank Wuco, a Homeland Security adviser. It found he had a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Bloomberg (https://bit.ly/2pNRAgK) found Craig Ellis, a former Breitbart writer and labor lobbyist appointed at Labor. After that reporting came out, Ellis resigned (https://bit.ly/2uwKc0e) to be a policy adviser at a Trump-backed nonprofit.
*In April, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse used these data sets to compile their “Drain the Swamp” report card (https://bit.ly/2ufkDi1). Then, seven Democratic senators used the data to demand more public accountability of ethics waivers and White House visitor records (https://bit.ly/2GjF1SS). The White House responded (https://cbsn.ws/2GfLUbL) to one of those requests and started releasing ethics waivers in June.
Source and methodology
First, we requested staffing lists of Trump administration political appointees from federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s human resources department, through the Freedom of Information Act.
We obtained additional employee information, including job start and end dates, via several rounds of public-records requests to the 24 federal agencies that hired the appointees. So far, 20 agencies have provided this information, while two other agencies said they had no employees to report.
We also requested information on the identities and job details of special-government employees, or SGEs, who are paid consultants or experts for federal agencies while keeping their day jobs in the private sector. We have received lists of these employees from seven agencies and are awaiting responses from more than a dozen others.
Assembling a list of staffers who work directly in and for the White House has been more difficult, as the White House is exempt from FOIA. We compiled lists of these staffers by partnering with other news organizations and asking the public to help.
Once we found the names of White House staffers, we requested their financial disclosures from the White House counsel’s office. Some White House disclosure forms have yet to be processed by government attorneys and others have yet to be filed by the new employees. Vice President Mike Pence’s office has refused our requests for copies of the financial disclosures its staffers are required to file.
We collected other financial disclosures from Senate-confirmed officials through the U.S. Office of Government Ethics website.
We also cross-referenced the data on the OGE’s website with the political appointee tracker maintained by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit group that advises on presidential transitions.
For non-Senate-confirmed political appointees at federal agencies, we requested financial disclosures using government forms and ethics offices staffed by attorneys.
ProPublica made individual requests to agency ethics offices through an administrative process required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
More in our full methodology here: https://www.propublica.org/article/how-we-compiled-trump-town
Much of this data was provided as PDFs or in another difficult-to-use format. In order to analyze it and make it searchable, we used open source software, we developed our own software and we relied on traditional data entry. We used Chris Zubak-Skees’ pfd-parser to scrape information from thousands of federal financial disclosure forms. The ones that were not parseable, we transcribed by hand.
We identified political appointees’ former employers through their federal financial disclosure forms, and reconciled variations of company and nonprofit names for our analysis. In associating appointees with employers, we used the “Filer\'s Positions Held Outside the United States Government” and “Filer’s Sources of Compensation Exceeding $5,000 in a Year” sections of the financial disclosure form. We then manually merged those non-governmental organization entities in our database.
So, for example, if one appointee listed an outside government position with “Donald J. Trump for President,” and another appointee listed “Trump for President,” we combined those into a single organization record in our database. In cases where employers or organizations are unique to the individual filer (for example, “confidential client”), we did not create grouped pages in the database. In cases where appointees added endnotes to their financial disclosures (for example, to note that an asset has been divested), we moved those references so they appear in the tables they reference. They appear in parentheses in a smaller font next to the asset description.
On organization pages, we list self-reported descriptions of appointees’ compensation and positions at those organizations, and which agencies they joined. These descriptions also appear next to organization names in the lists of positions outside government and former compensation sources on appointee pages.