Last week, President Joe Biden fired the architect of the Capitol (AOC), J. Brett Blanton, following bipartisan condemnation for his absence from the Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and a report exposing his mismanagement of taxpayer funds and security lapses during the pandemic.
Appointed to a 10-year term by former President Donald Trump in 2019, Blanton’s unceremonious ouster cements his status as the shortest-tenured architect of the Capitol in the 230-year history of the position. The AOC is an important but little-known position that is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of buildings throughout the 450-acre land that makes up Capitol Hill. The AOC also serves on the Capitol Police Board.
It’s normally a large position with little fanfare, unless, of course, a corrupt president appoints someone equally unscrupulous to hold office. While every president is limited in ability and reach, having only four years in office until reelection, some of Donald Trump’s people have remained in positions of power long after his tenure has ended. Sadly, the AOC is not the only one.
In December 2019, Trump nominated Blanton to serve as Architect of the Capitol. He was quickly confirmed by the Republican-led Senate despite lacking a background in architecture like many of his predecessors.
Blanton’s noticeable corruption in office quickly drew public scrutiny after. In October 2021, an inspector general report revealed that Blanton misused thousands in government funds, impersonated law enforcement, and allowed his family personal use of government vehicles. In the fall of 2020, his wife gave Capitol tours to “patriots” while building access was restricted due to pandemic protocols. Following a disastrous hearing where Blanton blamed his daughter for his misconduct, he was accused of being untruthful, and admitted his absence on the Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 attack.
President Biden was truly left with no choice but to fire the beleaguered Trump appointee. Although Blanton’s firing is a win for accountability, now leadership at an agency integral to the security of Congress will remain in limbo. It is important that the selection process of the next architect is transparent; the last time around, neither political party pressed for transparency, an obvious mistake given the Blanton debacle.
During his one term in office, Trump and his appointees, like Blanton, were often embroiled in ethics scandals. Trump was famously impeached twice, including by a bipartisan majority for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Economic adviser Peter Navarro was recommended for discipline following repeated violations of the Hatch Act for politicking on the government dime. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson faced multiple investigations for misuse of government funds and conflicts of interest.
Although problematic officials like Navarro and Carson followed Trump out of office, Blanton is just one of several ethically challenged Trump appointees or loyalists who outlasted him in Washington. Some, like former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, were elected to Congress, despite being the subject of multiple investigations by the time he left the administration. Perhaps even more disturbing is that several now sit in key roles that impact the function and security of our democracy.
In 2019, Trump nominated and the Senate later confirmed Joseph Cuffari to be Department of Homeland Security inspector general. As IG, Cuffari was appointed to serve as an internal watchdog of an agency with both significant management challenges and a central role in immigration policy and election security. IGs serve no set term and are expected to act independent of partisanship.
Despite that mandate, Cuffari’s tenure has been plagued by political and ethical scandals. In 2022, Democratic committee chairs criticized Cuffari for refusing to testify or share documents related to his office’s handling and delayed reporting of missing Secret Service texts on or around the Jan. 6 attack. Cuffari is also under investigation for alleged retaliation against whistleblowers, a cardinal sin for any official tasked with pursuing whistleblower claims. Numerous DHS IG employees have called on Biden to fire Cuffari. Although Trump came under appropriate criticism for firing IGs who were investigating his administration, Biden can and should remove Cuffari for cause.
While Trump’s DHS IG found controversy only after his appointment, Ginni Thomas, Trump’s appointee to the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, has never shied away from it. Thomas is the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and has been implicated in numerous misconduct allegations related to the Justice’s refusal to recuse himself from cases where she had professional or financial interests. More recently, Justice Thomas refused to recuse himself from a case regarding the Jan. 6 Committee’s access to documents despite evidence that Ginni Thomas repeatedly lobbied Trump aides to overturn the 2020 election.
The Trust Fund Board oversees gifts to the Library and determines investment policy for the fund valued at more than $200 million. Ginni Thomas’s efforts to undermine democracy makes her unfit for any government role, especially one with a role overseeing “the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution” and research arm of Congress. And, despite all the controversy surrounding the Supreme Court judge’s wife, she still sits on the prestigious board, having faced no real consequences for her actions.
Perhaps the most frustrating Trump holdover in government is Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General of the United States. DeJoy was a Trump megadonor, technically hired by the USPS Board of Governors as a result of an unusual pressure campaign by Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Once installed, DeJoy immediately took actions that undermined the efficacy of mail delivery and Trump’s favorite target: voting by mail. Not only has DeJoy maintained significant financial conflicts of interests with a USPS contractor, but under his leadership, USPS defied a court order to ensure mail-in ballots were found, and a federal judge ruled that DeJoy’s changes harmed mail delivery ahead of the 2020 election. Despite this litany of ethical lapses and service failures, the new Board of Governors majority inexplicably continues to keep DeJoy in his post.
It’s been two years since Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and incited an insurrection to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Although Trump’s dangerous attempt to stay in office failed, Trump loyalists remain in positions with great influence over the functioning of our democracy. The AOC is an office the public has little reason to interact with and rarely makes national news.
But the Blanton saga is a reminder that a corrupt president can poison government institutions long after they are gone, whether the public knows those institutions exist or not. Blanton was thankfully fired for his misconduct and failures on and around the Jan. 6 attack, but more of Trump’s ethically challenged rogue’s gallery should be removed to protect our democracy.