WASHINGTON — President Trump once promised to hire “the best people,” even as he also promised to drastically reduce the size of the federal government, perhaps by eliminating some agencies altogether. But more than a year into his first foray into the astonishingly complex realm of public service (who could have known?), Trump is discovering that even limited government needs plenty of workers to carry out its functions. And so, with many federal agencies severely understaffed, the White House turned to a job fair.
The announcement of the fair, which was hosted on Friday by the Conservative Partnership Institute, was met with amusement by the press when it was reported earlier in the week. “The White House is two staff defections away from advertising jobs on Craigslist,” said a Vanity Fair headline. This may have been a haughty response, but there was substance to the criticism. A functional White House shouldn’t need a job fair, especially not this late into a presidential term. For critics of the administration, this was further proof that Trump was nothing like the capable chief executive portrayed on “The Apprentice.”
For job-seekers, however, Friday represented an opportunity for advancement, perhaps a significant one given how many positions within the executive branch remain unfilled. The people who packed the Dirksen Senate Office Building on a hot Friday afternoon represented the cross-section of what U.S. government service looks like: an elderly gentleman in an African-style kente hat, a young Caucasian man in a white Make America Great Again hat. Waiting for them behind rows of tables were mostly young employees of a number of government agencies, from the Office of Presidential Personnel to the Peace Corps. They took résumés and chatted briefly with the applicants.
Given the rushed, largely unfiltered nature of the interactions, things could turn awkward, as when a woman at the Small Business Administration desk asked an applicant about his “background.”
“You mean racial?” he wondered. The woman hastened to explain that she only wanted to know where he had worked.
Some tables offered swag: pencils from the Interior Department being perhaps the most notable. At an Environmental Protection Agency desk, you could pick up a pamphlet titled “500 Days of American Greatness,” a possible attempt by embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to ingratiate himself with Trump, who has recently shown signs of becoming tired of Pruitt’s scandal-prone tenure.
A woman at the White House Internship Program explained how “extraordinarily” competitive the application process was. Well, unless the EPA’s Pruitt happens to be your father: earlier that day, the New York Times reported that Pruitt had leveraged the power of his office to seek a White House internship for his daughter, McKenna.
Speaking from a podium, a staffer for Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, praised the throng of job-seekers before him. “Most people in this town care only about their careers,” he said. “I’m really encouraged to look around the room and see people who care about America, freedom, and” — here his voice took on an oddly interrogative tone, as if he wasn’t entirely sure himself and needed his audience’s affirmation — “making America great again?”
Next up was Sean Doocey, deputy assistant to the president for White House personnel. A recent investigation of the Office of Presidential Personnel by the Washington Post depicted the crucial agency — tasked with vetting political appointments — as little more than a fraternity house on the federal payroll, with Doocey described as inexperienced and not equipped to handle the burdens of his job.
Doocey was in a good mood on Friday. “We’re looking to staff the president for the next six-and-a-half years,” he told the job-seekers. The notion of a second Trump term garnered limited applause.
An hour into the three-hour event, the job fair became insufferably crowded, the Senate briefing room seemingly filled well beyond capacity. Lines grew long and melded into each other, so that an applicant to the Department of Commerce might suddenly find herself in line to join the ranks of the Treasury.
“I’ve only managed to get to one table so far,” a young man complained. He eyed the equally young man who stood behind the Department of Labor table, surmising that he was an intern: “Is he gonna give me a job?”
Asked later if she was surprised by the turnout, a White House official laughed off that suggestion: More than a thousand people had responded affirmatively to an online invitation. That makes one wonder why the organizers didn’t do a better job of organizing, perhaps by first screening applications online or just finding a bigger room. But that’s not how the Trump administration rolls. A little crazy, a little hot is just how they like it.
“This is a little bit of …” one attendee began, as he pushed through the increasingly thick crowd. He stopped himself. “I can’t say the word.”
Someone nearby offered to help: “Cluster?” There were four more letters, but there was no need to say them.
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