Trump nominates controversial new candidate to lead OPM

By on 21/07/2020 | Updated on 27/01/2022
John Gibbs is known for tweeting a series of false conspiracy theories about Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman being a satanist. (Photo courtesy: US Department of Housing and Urban Development via flickr).

The White House has put forward a controversial new candidate to run the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees HR across the federal government. On Monday Trump formally announced his intention to nominate John Gibbs, a political appointee currently serving as acting assistant secretary for community planning and development at the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD).

In his current role, held since March, Gibbs “oversees an annual budget of $8 billion for programs addressing homelessness, community development, and disaster relief,” according to the White House, and “recently led the successful deployment of more than $9 billion in CARES Act funds in response to coronavirus.”

He first joined HUD in 2017, and prior to that trained non-profits in Japan and worked in software engineering. Critics have questioned his qualifications to lead the government’s personnel agency, as he appears to have little federal HR experience.

Rapid churn

This is the fourth nomination within four years for the OPM permanent director. Previous director Dale Cabaniss resigned suddenly and with immediate effect in March 2020 in a row over interference by the White House, just six months into the role which was supposed to run for four years. Cabaniss was reportedly unhappy about her treatment by John McEntee, the recently-appointed 29-year-old head of the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO), and Paul Dans, OPM’s White House liaison.

Cabaniss was not the first to serve such a short time. Her predecessor, Jeff Pon, served only seven months as OPM chief before quitting without explanation in 2018. Trump’s first nominee, George Nesterczuk, pulled out in August 2017 after civil service unions vehemently objected to his selection.

Gibbs has been caught up in controversy in recent years. During the 2016 presidential election he repeatedly tweeted a false conspiracy theory – started by far-right bloggers – alleging that Hilary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta was involved in satanism, CNN revealed in 2018. His Twitter account has since been locked.

Gibbs, a former conservative commentator, is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, and his position as a senior director at HUD was also put under the spotlight when the Washington Post investigated how he obtained the role with no prior housing experience.

Rapid change

His nomination comes at a critical time for the department. Last year the Trump administration moved to abolish OPM and merge it with the General Services Administration (GSA), proposing to transfer key policy setting functions to the White House.

This move was fiercely opposed by unions, which said it would politicise management of the vast majority of civil servants – who are appointed on the basis of merit, rather than nominated by the president. Initial attempts to merge the two departments were thwarted by Congress. However, at the end of June the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) accused the White House of pushing ahead with the plans behind the scenes by outsourcing OPM functions to other agencies.

If confirmed Gibbs will take over from Michael Rigas, who has been temporarily covering the role since March alongside his position as acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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