The growing scandal is giving some candidates cold feet - and distracting aides from finding new recruits.
President Donald Trump’s effort to fill hundreds of vacant jobs across the federal government has hit a new snag: Russia.
Potential hires are paying close attention to the expanding investigations, which have now begun to touch senior Trump aides, with some questioning whether they want to join the administration.
Four people who work closely with prospective nominees told POLITICO that some potential hires are having second thoughts about trying to land executive branch appointments as federal and congressional investigations threaten to pose a serious distraction to Trump’s agenda.
“It’s an additional factor that makes what was an already complicated process of staffing the government even harder,” said Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, which has advised the Trump transition on hiring.
According to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, the White House has announced nominees for just 117 of the 559 most important Senate-confirmed positions.
That trails the records of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who had each nominated about twice as many people by this point in the first year of their first terms.
Trump has not yet nominated a No. 2 at the Agriculture Department, Education Department, Department of Veterans Affairs or Environmental Protection Agency, and dozens of top positions at every federal agency remain vacant. Trump’s nominees for deputy secretary of Commerce and Treasury both withdrew.
One lawyer who represents prospective political appointees told POLITICO that three clients said over the past two weeks that they are no longer interested in working for the Trump administration following the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into Trump associates’ contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that people are being very cautious, to put it mildly,” this lawyer said, adding that there is growing concern in Republican circles that the caliber of hires could deteriorate if the administration’s top picks drop out.
“You’re going to have a situation where they’re going to have trouble getting A-list or even B-list people to sign up,” the lawyer added.
Others agreed. “With all that is going on now, there is certainly a greater amount of hesitation,” said a former government official who regularly speaks with one of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. “They have a real talent problem that continues to grow.”
A White House spokeswoman said the Russia investigation and the series of news stories that have pummeled the administration in recent weeks have had no impact on hiring. She said the president is recruiting individuals “of the highest quality.”
But the steady stream of palace intrigue stories about internal tensions and plans for a staff shakeup — after months of rumors about various senior officials getting pushed out — are making it harder to persuade people to join the administration, another White House official said.
White House communications director Michael Dubke said Tuesday he will leave his role, while Trump is weighing the possibility of bringing former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie into the White House.
“It’s not the best place to work right now, but you’re still working at the White House, so there are far worse jobs,” the official said.
Former Bush and Obama administration officials who worked on personnel issues told POLITICO they never struggled to find qualified candidates for top jobs.
“I can’t speak to Republicans not wanting to join this administration but, as a general matter, we didn’t have trouble recruiting people — quite the opposite,” said Lisa Brown, who served as White House staff secretary under Obama for two years.
Along with distracting from lower-level hires, the Russia probe has slowed and complicated the process of filling the administration’s highest-profile vacancy — director of the FBI.
Trump administration officials have been frustrated by the difficulties they’ve faced in finding a new FBI director. Top White House officials, including chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, hoped to have made a decision made by now.
Instead, leading candidates Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman have all withdrawn from consideration. The White House is now looking at a new field of candidates, and Trump met with two possibilities — John Pistole and Chris Wray — on Tuesday.
“It’s not so easy to find an FBI director in the Trump administration,” the White House official said.
The official added that Trump and his senior team are aware that hiring is not moving fast enough at agencies but said that, right now, “It’s just not priority No. 1.”
A second White House official said he was not aware of any potential nominees dropping out because of the recent news but echoed concerns that the Russia probe would inevitably add to further delays filling empty jobs.
“The problem we are likely to have is it may be difficult to get people to focus on hiring with all of this going on,” the official said.