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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | December 13, 2021

The Trump Officials Still Running Biden’s Justice Department

Department of Justice
The Trump Officials Still Running Biden’s Justice Department

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We are rapidly approaching the one-year anniversary of January 6, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has yet to give any sign that his Justice Department is independently investigating former President Trump and his fellow instigators. This is, by far, Garland’s most high-profile failure when it comes to accountability for the prior administration, one that more observers have begun to notice. But it is not the only one.

The Revolving Door Project has identified two Trump political officials who remain in senior career roles at the Department of Justice, in the Federal Programs Branch and the solicitor general’s office, after being hired under suspicious circumstances. From their perches, both have played a part maintaining Trump’s legacy in the courts. Their presence and power point to the danger of Garland’s refusal to “look backward.”

The first official is Alexander Haas, the current director of the DOJ Civil Division’s Federal Programs Branch. Haas joined the department in January 2017, the first month of the Trump administration. He nominally left his job at law firm King & Spalding for a career position as an assistant U.S. attorney in the DOJ. Just one month later, however, he already had a new gig as chief of staff and special counsel to Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Chad Readler.

It’s not just the timing that’s unusual here. Almost without exception, chiefs of staff to assistant attorney generals are political appointees. On paper, however, Haas appears to have remained an assistant U.S. attorney, with his stint in the Civil Division front office a temporary detail. If he was going to be transferred into a political role so quickly, why was he not hired into that position to begin with? Was there some reason it was preferable that he be hired as a career official?

Whatever the category listed on his HR paperwork, Haas was indistinguishable from any other political appointee. At the Trump DOJ, he worked closely with Readler—a man whom the Alliance for Justice described as exhibiting a “diehard advocacy for right-wing causes” when he was subsequently nominated and confirmed to a seat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals—on some of the Trump administration’s most horrendous cases. For example, in Garza v. Hargan, Haas defended the Trump administration in a case challenging the federal government’s refusal to allow a 17-year-old ICE detainee access to an abortion.

In 2019, Haas became the director of the Federal Programs Branch, a career position. But while his political title was gone, his actions did not follow. In 2020, Haas defended the Trump administration’s efforts to truncate the 2020 census, a move that civil rights groups labeled a backdoor effort at disenfranchisement. Haas also put his name to a Justice Department complaint against Melania Trump’s former adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff for publishing her tell-all memoir. Legal experts decried the filing as “legally unenforceable” and “a complete abuse of the Justice Department’s finite resources.”

Now that the administration has changed, Haas has not shaken his habit of defending Trump-era legal positions. Notably, his Federal Programs Branch was involved in the outrageous effort, covered by my colleague Hannah Story Brown late last month, to stop the reinstatement of Obama-era Gainful Employment rules designed to protect student borrowers.

The second official we’ve identified paints an even more straightforwardly political picture. Curtis Gannon, who currently occupies the career position of deputy solicitor general, was a member of the Trump DOJ’s political team from the very start. From January to November 2017, Gannon led the Office of Legal Counsel, a role which notably saw him green-light Trump’s refugee ban, as well as other horrific ideas. He appears to have remained in that office through August 2020, at which point he moved to the solicitor general’s office. From there, he has argued before the Supreme Court that Nestlé cannot be held liable for its reliance on child slavery and, most recently, that Puerto Ricans can be denied Social Security benefits (a position that Biden himself opposes).

Gannon’s transformation from political to career official actually has a name—burrowing—and it is supposed to be the subject of careful scrutiny. Agencies that want to hire political officials into career roles must first receive approval from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Sadly, OPM faced its own struggles with politicization during the Trump administration, casting serious doubt on the integrity of its approval process. Prior reporting on other burrowers at the DOJ and elsewhere only adds to these concerns. OPM didn’t object, for example, when Tracy Short, a longtime immigration prosecutor and legal adviser to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was hired as the chief judge in the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Officials who were paying attention should have seen this coming. Trump and his associates had no qualms breaking the rules to maintain power. Is it a stretch to think that they might have done the same for hiring? They had a ready-made template to follow, in fact. Under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department famously and illegally screened new hires according to their political beliefs. Applicants with liberal affiliations were rejected. Those who got interviews were asked to answer questions like “What kind of conservative are you?

Garland, for one, has been clear that he has no intention of finding out if something similar happened again. On this and other questions, he is not “looking backward” for fear that investigations will only “further politicize” the department. But refusing to acknowledge a problem will not make it go away. On the contrary, it is among the most surefire ways for it to become entrenched.

Can we say beyond a shadow of a doubt that these officials were hired improperly? Of course not. But it’s clear that each case warrants thorough investigation. What’s more, Garland must take these examples to their logical end. If these hiring processes were politicized, what others may have been? Leaving the public to wonder about critical questions like these is a grave threat to Garland’s stated mission to restore trust in his department. It’s time that Garland decides whether he cares more about that or being labeled a partisan by congressional Republicans.

Header image courtesy of the Senate Democrats (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

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