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Commotion: Politicization of Biden Firing Political Appointees

Matthew Koehler Matthew Koehler
13th September 2021
Commotion: Politicization of Biden Firing Political Appointees
Many have fired former presidents' appointees (Getty Images).

The Claim

President Joe Biden can't fire several political appointees under former President Donald Trump from their positions on military academy advisory boards.

Emerging story

On Wednesday, September 8, the Biden administration announced it was terminating 18 Trump appointees from various military academy advisory boards. There was immediate pushback from board members, including Trump's well-known former chief counsel and press secretary Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer (respectively). The former Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director, Russ Vought, also appointed under President Trump, said in a tweet, "No. It’s a three year term," suggesting that he couldn't be fired before the end of his term. 

This recent round of political pruning comes just several months after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stripped hundreds of Trump appointees of their posts at the Pentagon. 

While the story quickly picked up steam, Conway tweeted out a letter to Biden that detailed her opinions on getting fired. In her letter she accused the Biden administration of being "petty and political," saying, "President Biden, I'm not resigning, but you should."

As the story continued to trend, the internet debated whether presidents could, or should, fire a former president's political appointees, and whether or not the move was political. 

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Misbar’s Analysis

Misbar took a deep dive into the past and discovered that you don't actually have to dive that deep to find examples of presidents firing, dismissing, or asking to resign the political appointees of former presidents, or even their own appointees. There is a consistent history of presidents flexing this power and then being reigned in by Congress. The ebb and flow of this executive power and privilege, however, has typically been based on the political power and style of individual  administrations, the politics of the day, social movements, etc. 

The powers of the president to appoint and dismiss appointees specifically falls under Article 2, section 2 of the Constitution, which states: “[They] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate...and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”

Plainly put, the president has to run appointees by the Senate, and then the Senate has to approve them, but the president cannot summarily dismiss these appointees without consent of the Senate (i.e. Supreme Court justices). 

According to Encyclopedia.com, throughout America's existence it has been "Congress and the courts" that "define the president's legal authority to remove officials." During the 21st century, though, presidential discretion over their appointees, both theirs and those of previous presidents, has grown, and they have "enjoy[ed] broad discretion to fire cabinet secretaries and political appointees within the executive office." 

Former President Barack Obama fired many of former President George W. Bush's politically appointed ambassadors but kept those who were career ambassadors. That said, he didn't fire all of Bush's politically appointed ambassadors and kept a dozen or so for weeks or longer. He also kept Rod Rosentein, a Bush appointee. 

When Trump came into office, he made headlines by axing 46 of DOJ prosecutors appointed under Obama, including Preet Bharara, who was asked to stay on. Throughout Trump's tenure in office he fired hundreds more of Obama's appointees, opting for loyalists, and even fired or dismissed many of his own people who he felt weren't loyal enough. One of the most high profile firings of an appointee by Trump was Marie Yavanovitch (an Obama appointee but a career diplomat), who was ousted before the end of her three year tenure. 

Both former presidents Bill Clinton and Bush fired politically appointed prosecutors as well. There is a long tradition of presidents using their power to appoint and dismiss people, as well as how the Congress and the courts pushed back. 

With this recent round of dismissals of Trump holdovers, Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the Biden White House's position, saying, "The President's objective is what any president's objective is -- to ensure you have nominees and people serving on these boards who are qualified to serve on them and who are aligned with your values." She later added that it was up to the media and public to decide if Conway, Spicer, et al "were qualified, or not political, to serve on these boards, but the President's qualification requirements are not your party registration."

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While it's true that these sorts of stories make big headlines and are often used as political ammo for the aggrieved party, they are often just noise. The reality is that many presidents have used their powers of appointment to put in loyalists, whether qualified or not, and get rid of those who they feel don't align with the goals of their administration. 

The recent firings, as sensational as the media and pundits try to make them, are more noise than scandal. 

Misbar’s Classification


Misbar’s Sources

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