- Youngkin plans to fill key Virginia posts with former Trump aides.
- Tapping into Trumpworld is inevitable in modern Republican politics.
- Democrats across the state are railing against one nominee in particular.
Glenn Youngkin kept former President Donald Trump at arm’s length last fall as he campaigned across Virginia and, in a comeback victory, became the first Republican elected governor in the commonwealth in more than a decade.
But as he prepares to take office, Youngkin is inviting Trumpworld to his inner circle. An Insider analysis of Youngkin’s recently-announced appointments shows that one-third of his new hires worked for the Trump presidential administration in some capacity.
In the run-up to his inauguration on January 15, Youngkin has recruited from the ranks of Trump administration veterans, many of whom have faced a difficult job market in the year since the twice-impeached former president left Washington, DC, nearly a year ago
Among Youngkin’s day-one picks for key roles in the Old Dominion: Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, whose nomination to serve as Virginia’s natural resources secretary has prompted outcry from Democrats, who consider him beholden to fossil fuel and energy company interests.
Youngkin’s incoming chief of staff, Jeff Goettman, worked in the Treasury Department during the Trump administration before becoming chief operating officer of Youngkin’s gubernatorial bid.
And Youngkin’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, Rebecca Glover, served as director of public affairs at the Commerce Department during the Trump administration.
Youngkin also picked Richard Cullen, a personal lawyer for former Vice President Mike Pence, to serve as his chief lawyer in Virginia’s capital city, Richmond. Cullen has most recently represented Pence in connection with the special US House of Representatives inquiry into the deadly January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
In Cullen, Youngkin turned to a longtime Richmond insider who previously served as a US attorney in the George H.W. Bush administration, and later, as attorney general of Virginia. Cullen’s son, Thomas Cullen, served as a US attorney in the Trump administration before becoming a federal judge in western Virginia.
‘Trying to balance’
Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who was part of Youngkin’s transition team, described any overlap between former Trump aides and Youngkin’s evolving network as “de minimis.” He urged critics to give the new recruits a shot at proving themselves.
“The fact that it’s only a third means you’re trying to balance a party that has been heavily loyal to Donald Trump,” the seven-term Virginia congressman said of Youngkin’s hiring process.
It was a balance Youngkin negotiated carefully on the campaign trail as he battled against former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who through much of the race led in statewide polls.
Youngkin’s campaign reportedly panicked when Trump announced before the November election that he was planning a trip to Virginia.
Youngkin’s team preferred to keep the polarizing former president on the sidelines and out of the state, which President Joe Biden comfortably won — by 10 percentage points — just a year earlier. Trump ultimately didn’t physically show up in Virginia to campaign for Youngkin and instead held a virtual “tele-rally” that Youngkin himself skipped.
Republican political consultant Jeff Roe, the architect of Youngkin’s delicate dance with Trump, traveled to Trump’s Florida redoubt at Mar-a-Lago after the Virginia election to mend the relationship with the former president, who felt he hadn’t received sufficient credit for the Republican win, The Washington Post reported.
A political novice, Youngkin rose to the governorship without an existing network of his own — and with veterans of Virginia’s last Republican administration, under scandal-plagued Gov. Bob McDonnell, long removed from government. McDonnell was convicted on multiple counts of corruption, fraud, and bribery in 2014, only to have the US Supreme Court overturn the ruling two years later.
But the flow of officials from Trump’s presidency into Youngkin’s administration was not simply an inevitable career step for displaced Republican politicos looking to remain in government.
Youngkin’s transition team, with the assistance of a search firm, looked for younger Republicans outside the Richmond establishment who had recently served in government, a person familiar with the recruitment process told Insider.
Choosing the right Republicans
Indeed, hiring some Trump alums is inevitable in modern politics, Davis said. Recruiting policy professionals with relevant government experience who didn’t work for Trump, he said, would require sifting through resumes of George W. Bush alumni from over a decade ago.
“If you want anybody with expertise in government, you necessarily have to look at people who served in the administration,” Davis said. “Because there isn’t any other farm team in Virginia.”
But selectively choosing Trump alumni — as opposed to blanket welcoming Trump-endorsed, election fraud conspiracy theorists — shows discipline on Youngkin’s part, Davis said.
Likewise, refusing to blackball those who previously worked for Trump, but didn’t necessarily agree with everything the former president did while in office, shows compassion, Davis said.
“Just because somebody served in the Trump administration, doesn’t mean they’re a Trumper,” Davis added.
Insider asked all of Youngkin’s Trump-affiliated nominees about their history with Trump and their plans for the future. Several said they were unable to respond without explicit clearance from Youngkin’s press office, which they did not receive.
Youngkin’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to drawing from the Trump well, Youngkin also selected nominees for his gubernatorial administration from three of the four prior administrations. His picks include alumni from Team Obama (one), Team George W. Bush (four), and Team George H.W. Bush (two).
Wheeler has drawn the most political heat of Youngkin’s picks to date, with Democrats in the Virginia Senate criticizing him as a “ham-handed appointment” whom they’ll work to block in the state legislature. Virginia Republicans control the House side of the state legislature, but Democrats hold a two-seat advantage in the Senate, which, if they stick together, could jam things up in the Committee on Privileges and Elections.
—Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) January 11, 2022
Youngkin’s selection of Wheeler could backfire, Davis said, given that his proximity to Trump makes him “kind of the lightning rod.” Davis predicted that a contentious confirmation process could be Youngkin’s first real test of power.
“That may be one Democrats want to hit him on,” Davis said, billing a noisy nomination battle as “low-hanging fruit for them.”
Youngkin called Wheeler “incredibly qualified” earlier this week, and vowed to bring him aboard no matter what.
“My election in November represented Virginians standing up and saying we’re tired of people trying to cast aspersions on folks because of who they worked for, or what team they’re on,” he told local outlet VPM News. “Andrew is going to be on the Glenn Youngkin team.”
Overall, Davis said he’s pleased with Youngkin’s recruiting effort to date.
“He’s got a lot of very competent people,” Davis said, adding that the rub is “that doesn’t necessarily breed success.”
“Just look at the Biden administration,” Davis said.