In August 2016, a day after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump announced some of his economic plans, he called in to Fox Business Network to discuss those plans with host Maria Bartiromo. In their conversation, Trump insisted his assault on government programs would not have any negative ramifications. “We’re going to be doing smart budget cuts, budget cuts that will make it just as good or better than it is right now but for a lot less money,” he vowed.
Congress has not yet enacted his massive budget cuts, but that has not stopped the administration from dispatching a team of domestic policy aides to push for cuts, unilateral executive actions, and conservative actions across the federal government.
Because Trump has appointed very few officials, the small group of conservative activists who are attempting to implement his agenda could hold outsized influence. A leaked document from Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, reportedly leaked from the Office of Management and Budget and published in October by Crooked Media, identified eight Domestic Policy Council members who are apparently quietly leading that charge as points of contact.
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the document.
A ThinkProgress examination of these mostly young and deeply conservative staffers found that each is uniquely suited to dismantle or outsource a key part of the federal government.
Handling education policy for the Domestic Policy Council is Robert T. “Rob” Goad II. The leaked document suggests his work has focused on two key priorities: expanding school choice and making colleges and universities share some of the responsibility for student loans. Both efforts would divert federal funding for public schools toward private and even religious schools.
The school choice proposals include a $1 billion education savings account plan for some military families — a concept the conservative Heritage Foundation is pushing — and allowing states to use federal funds to pay for school voucher programs. The student loan idea would make institutions share some of the financial risk — a concept with some bipartisan support.
Goad began his career in politics after a 2011 wedding where he met Luke Messer, then president of School Choice Indiana. Weeks later, Goad became a staffer on Messer’s campaign for then-Rep. Mike Pence’s open House seat. When Messer was elected to Congress, he brought Goad to Washington to be on his House staff. In 2014, the two launched a Congressional School Choice Caucus to push for public funding of private and parochial education — Messer became chairman, and Goad served as director. In that role, Goad organized a forum for top Congressional leaders during National School Choice Week.
In the summer of 2016, Goad went on leave and became a Trump campaign education adviser, helping the candidate craft a school choice policy. After the election, he became education lead for the transition.
In his Trump administration capacity, has he has made news twice. First, he was the administration staffer tasked with defending then-Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos against plagiarism charges. Then, he hosted a media conference call to announce a Trump executive order on “education federalism” — an order that, Goad admitted to reporters last April, does virtually nothing.
Laura Cunliffe is the point-person for changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Farm Bill, according to the leaked document.
The changes would apparently eliminate exemptions to SNAP’s work requirements for “able-bodied adults without dependents” — an exemption only available to at most 15 percent of that group. It would also eliminate an employment and training program the administration calls “duplicative;” zero out grants the administration believes prioritize the purchase of some legumes for school lunches and research; and remove the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive, which encourages SNAP beneficiaries to eat more fruits and vegetables. Much of this agenda was included in the proposed 2018 Trump budget, though Congress has not yet enacted it or any other budget.
Cunliffe, nee Guarino, is a 2007 graduate of Wheaton College — an evangelical Christian school in Illinois known for its strict code of conduct that prohibits alcohol, tobacco, pornography, premarital heterosexual relations, and all homosexual behavior. In 2012, she received a J.D. from Samford University, a Southern Baptist-affiliated law school in Birmingham, Alabama. She serves on the advisory board for the law school’s Center for Children, Law, and Ethics, a policy center led by David Smolin, a socially conservative marriage and adoption law scholar.
She spent most of the past five years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administering child nutrition programs under President Barack Obama. As a USDA program analyst, she joined with nutritional advocates in 2013 to make the rounds explaining the department’s new healthy school snack requirements. Two years later, she gave a keynote speech on the importance of child nutrition programs at a foster-parent conference.
In her new role, she appears to be now working to eliminate much of what she worked to implement in the past administration.
The point person on labor issues is James Sherk. According to the document, his priorities are to reduce benefits to federal employees and labor unions. This apparently would include cutting benefits and freezing salaries “to bring Federal pay in line with the private sector”, reducing paid leave for government employees, and massively increasing funding for a little-known office at the Department of Labor that is tasked with “robustly investigating union corruption.”
Some of these benefit cuts were included in Trump’s 2018 budget proposals and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, recently demanded that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta do more to investigate alleged union wrongdoing.
Sherk has been a conservative activist for a long time. He is a 2003 alumnus of Hillsdale College, a Michigan school known as a “citadel of American conservatism” with a stated mission of not “succumbing to the dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity.’” As an undergrad, he penned an article for the college paper denouncing all government stimulus programs.
After grad school (he received a Masters in economics), Sherk spent more than a decade at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, working for the think-tank on macroeconomic and labor policy. He consistently took far-right positions: He opposed public sector employees’ right to bargain collectively, embraced so-called “right to work” laws, and fiercely opposed a $15 minimum wage. He worked to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to unionize. He warned that high government salaries were hurting the economy and pushed to take away any time for government employees to handle union business. Sherk called for repeal of Davis-Bacon, the law that ensures federal construction contractors get at least as much as the local prevailing wage. In 2012, briefed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — the conservative, corporate-backed legislative group that provides model legislation — on “how to limit union influence.” He even pushed the idea that unionized workplaces should have to re-vote to stand in their union every few years and urged local governments to pass local anti-labor legislation, likely in violation of federal law.
Sherk also engaged in employment data “trutherism,” like President Trump has done, suggesting that the Obama administration’s labor numbers were not accurate. In a 2007 Heritage Foundation video, Sherk complained that the Family and Medical Leave Act made it too easy for people to pretend to be sick to take long weekends.
Kara McKee’s portfolio includes policies on career training and is working on efforts both to loosen restrictions on how those programs work and to save money by combining efforts. The memo identifies her as point person for proposals to allow Pell Grants to be used for job training, to cut or “repurpose” some job training programs at the Department of Labor, and to repurpose Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds to increase private-sector partnerships and apprenticeships.
A similar bipartisan effort for Pell Grant flexibility, proposed by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH), has gone nowhere so far. Trump’s May budget cut proposals included a reduction to Labor Department job training programs, but Congress has not enacted it.
As an undergrad at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, TX, she spoke out against the growing national debt. While at Princeton, she challenged former Obama budget director Peter Orszag on economic policy, and joined the campus chapter of Christian Union — a group that opposes homosexuality, fornication, and pornography.
McKee began her career as a credit analyst at an investment firm in New York City, but moved to Washington, D.C. in 2013 to work a budget analyst for the Republican majority on the House Committee on the Budget — first under Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and then under then-Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). Over the next two years, she worked on the team creating the House GOP budgets, and was thanked by name by then-budget chairman Ryan in the Congressional record.
When that campaign collapsed, she joined the presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a similar capacity. When his campaign also failed, she took a position as a senior policy editor for a now-defunct conservative online site called Opportunity Lives. There, she authored opinion pieces, including one arguing that federal anti-poverty programs should be replaced by ones that “transition over time from reliance on government aid to self-sufficiency.”
In November 2016, she was a guest on Fox News talking up then-President-elect Trump’s appointments and on a local Washington, D.C. news program defending Trump’s economic plans. Over the next couple of months, she made other media appearances defending Trump’s response to Russia hacking and praising Price and Ryan as the ideal pair to pass comprehensive health care reform.
Since joining the administration, McKee has occasionally had public visibility. In February, Trump highlighted her as one of the administration’s African-American staffers. In March, she was involved in a White House meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about workforce and vocational training. In October, she was identified as part of the team pushing Ivanka Trump’s child tax credit plan. She has also represented the administration at meetings with construction and plumbing and HVAC contractors and small-business advocates about training and apprenticeship.
The efforts in particular to cut federal programs is very much in line with her long history of pushing to decimate government.
Peter J. White is the point of contact for issues related to aeronautics and space, according to the document. The two major pushes on his docket appear to be a joint NASA partnership with Russia to build a new space station called Deep Space Gateway and an expansion of the Federal Aviation Administration’s office that oversees commercial space transportation. Neither has happened yet, but the increased spending on overseeing private aeronautics is a priority for the space business community and was to some extent included in the recent House budget proposal.
A native of Huntsville, Alabama, White got his J.D. at American University’s Washington College of Law. His career has mostly been in the federal government, working at the Federal Trade Commission on international trade, for Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, and serving for nearly three years as a legislative counsel for Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL).
In a statement congratulating White on his position in the Trump administration, Brooks opined that “Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District’s loss is President Donald Trump’s gain” and noted that White had crafted bills for him on “immigration, space, and cybersecurity” while serving as his main judiciary and transportation adviser.
White’s former boss Brooks boasts that he “consistently receives the highest rating in Congress from NumbersUSA,” a notorious anti-immigration group known for racist attempts to convince black people that immigration takes away their jobs. Brooks’ views on immigration and other judicial issues are far-right — he once complained that the Democratic Party had launched a “war on whites. White also served as his old boss’ conduit to the Trump administration when Brooks was upset in January that the new administration did not immediately rescind protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as kids.”
In his Trump administration role, White authored a presidential executive order reinstating the National Space Council, which President Bill Clinton disbanded in 1993 as part of a larger effort to reduce White House staff.
White is a member of the conservative Federalist Society. While space policy may be one area where White and the Trump administration are not pushing for massive cuts, it remains to be seen whether they will push for a massive privatization of the space space.
Darin Selnick has been tasked with fixing the Veterans’ Affairs department, according to the document. And that apparently means privatizing it.
So far the VA is in the process of outsourcing its electronic records system, replacing its in-house Vista system with an estimated $10 billion to $18 billion system through the company Cerner. A recent push in Congress on a bill to overhaul the Veterans Choice Program, which proponents say would give veterans more flexibility in receiving care from private doctors (but opponents warn could effectively dismantle the VA), also aligns with the leaked list of Trump administration priorities — though it’s unclear if Selnick has been involved with the legislation.
Prior to being named veterans affairs advisor on the Domestic Policy Council, Selnick served in the U.S. Air Force as a captain, as well as California state commander and a member of the National Executive Committee for the Jewish War Veterans.
He was also special assistant to the VA’s Learning University and later director of the Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives at the VA.
Selnick then spent several years in the private sector as a director for a social media site for Veterans called ArmedZilla.com and as president of his own company, the Selnick Group, which provided an array of services in government, community relations, business development, training, and management to various organizations.
From 2013 to 2017, he served as senior veterans affairs advisor for Charles and David Koch’s libertarian dark money group Concerned Veterans for America, which is trying to push veteran healthcare into the private sector and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on electing Republican U.S. Senate candidates.
Selnick’s never been quiet about his conservative ideology. In 2002, he campaigned in California for conservative agricultural businessman Dick Monteith, who ran for a seat in the U.S. House. He also wrote a letter to the Washington Post in 2009 arguing the Obama administration should have maintained Bush-era regulations allowing faith-based groups to receive government funds despite discriminating against people who don’t share their beliefs.
In 2012, Selnick campaigned for Mitt Romney with the group Vets for Romney. And over the years he has made a number of appearances on the TV news networks, conservative talk shows and bus tours, and in front the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to rail against the state of the VA, Obama’s handling in reducing VA claims backlogs, scandals involving the agency, and the need to allow vets to seek privatized healthcare.
In May 2015, Selnick testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee about the need to reform the very same Veterans Choice Program that is currently before Congress.
“Healthcare organizations provide quality and convenient care because they know if they don’t, they will lose their patients to somebody else.” Selnick said. “In order to fix the VA healthcare system, both choice and competition must be injected into the system.”
His role in the Trump administration would seem to be chiefly a continuation of his longstanding pro-VA privatization activism.
Two women are listed on the document as overseeing the health policy area: Katy Talento and Alexandra “Alex” Campau.
In that capacity, the duo would be trying to dismantle a long list of USAID and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health programs aimed at curbing sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, chronic diseases, teen pregnancy, and infant mortality, and improving environmental health and workers’ safety.
Now, the administration’s fiscal year 2018 State Department and USAID and CDC budgets propose drastic cuts to global AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria programs, global health initiatives, and a range of chronic disease prevention and health promotion programs and grants.
Many of the affected programs and grants focus on preventing a number of diseases at home and abroad — including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Others attempt to curb climate change, childhood obesity, drug overdoses, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Before moving to politics, Talento worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that provides services for HIV/AIDS patients and LGBTQ people.
Talento — who gave $1,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign and whose husband kicked in another $250 — has written columns for the right-wing news site The Federalist arguing birth control causes miscarriages and abortions and is a form of medical malpractice. She opposed funding for HIV/ AIDS research while working as a U.S. Senate staffer in 2003 because she claimed it supported Russian prostitution. And she gave incorrect advice to women to avoid Zika: “Sleep with your husband, with you snug under the covers and him on top of the covers, offering himself as human sacrifice to the mosquitos, who will pick the easier target,” Talento wrote in the Federalist. Zika can be transmitted through sex.
On the Facebook page of the anti-LGBTQ Ruth Institute, Talento disparaged families headed by same sex couples, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
The Harvard University School of Public Health graduate has a lot of experience in the public health field and on the Hill. She started her career as a research instructor at Georgetown University Medical Center in 1998, became the associate director of contracts and grants at Whitman-Walker, and served in several positions with the U.S. Senate, as legislative director for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), and as a speechwriter for the Republican National Committee.
More recently, from 2013 to 2015, Talento was vice president for corporate affairs at MosquitoZone International, which helps major oil and mining companies mitigate the risks from malaria, dengue, and other infectious diseases at their overseas sites.
The New York Times, in a July profile, called Talento one of the “architects” of Trump’s reversal of the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control and noted that she has “the experience and know-how that others in the administration lack.”
Alex Campau (nee Pryor) has also immersed herself in conservative politics. Campau graduated from Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute and Law Center in 2012. In 2006, she interned for Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts governor’s office before interning for his losing presidential campaign in 2007-2008. She later interned for the Senate Republican Policy Committee and, in 2015, the House Budget committee, where she was credited for helping House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) write that year’s budget resolution.
Later, in 2013-2014, she began influencing lawmakers on various healthcare-related issues while working as a lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based firm Cozon O’Connor PC. There, she represented several healthcare companies and organizations on issues related to Medicaid expansion or reform, and implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
She also lobbied for Beachbody LLC on government initiatives promoting healthy living, childhood hunger, and the Congressional Fitness Caucus; the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation on funding for National Highway Transportation Safety Administration alcohol and drug abuse surveys and studies; and for Elwyn on healthcare related issues for individuals with disabilities.
Her work shilling for the healthcare industry make her a prime fit to dismantle important initiatives and programs intended to improve global health.
Yvette Cabrera, Joshua Eaton, and Kira Lerner contributed reporting to this story.