Acting USAID Deputy Administrator John Barsa views damage from the 2020 Beirut explosion. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

For the first three years of President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development mostly avoided the spotlight.

While the foreign aid agency fended off repeated attempts by the White House to slash its budget and got pulled into a handful of pet projects and funding priorities demanded by Trump’s inner circle, USAID, under the leadership of former Administrator Mark Green, attracted little public attention. For nearly three years, it focused on a bureaucratic reorganization, technical policy reforms, and carrying out programs that held little political interest for the administration, officials told Devex.

“We had an administration that really didn't understand foreign policy, really didn't understand foreign aid. So there was a lot of explanation that had to be done, but at the same time, you had a lot of leeway,” a former senior USAID official told Devex, on condition of anonymity.

That was in contrast to President Barack Obama’s administration, during which the White House took a strong interest in development and, as a result, sought to dictate policy from the National Security Council, the former senior official said.

“We knew that there were a few things that the [Trump] White House cared about. … If you really didn't fall within that list, the agency really was able to maneuver. You had a lot of flexibility, which was great,” they added.

In early 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was emerging as an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, that changed. In March, Green announced he was stepping down.

“Mark protected the agency. There was a big shield on the agency because of Mark. But it was one of those things that you never knew the shield was there until you lost it,” the former senior official said.

In the months that followed, USAID experienced one of the most tumultuous periods in its 60-year history. An agency that rarely makes headlines found itself doing so for the wrong reasons — an ugly leadership battle, controversial appointments, management problems — at a time when USAID’s profile as global COVID-19 response leader could have been on the rise.

“We knew it wasn't going to be great. Mark left some big shoes to fill. But there didn't have to be a dumpster fire, and that's what it ended up being,” the former senior official said.

Watch: Devex Senior Reporter Michael Igoe explains what happened to USAID and its leadership in 2020. Via Twitter.

Devex spoke to a dozen current and former officials, including several senior officials, to understand how a year that was so bad for so many people wreaked particular havoc for USAID. Most of the people interviewed requested anonymity to share sensitive information. They also described the current state of the agency and what will need to happen to repair the damage as President-elect Joe Biden’s team moves forward with the transition.

Blindsided

When Green announced his plans to step down from USAID, nearly everyone — inside and outside the agency — assumed that his deputy, Bonnie Glick, would naturally take over as acting administrator.

While some staff members quibbled with elements of Green’s “transformation” agenda, few doubted his unique ability to protect USAID’s basic interests, programs, and funding from a White House that seemed disinterested and occasionally outright opposed to foreign aid.

Green’s resignation was a “morale hit,” but staffers were generally confident in Glick. She was considered by some to be further to the right on the political spectrum than Green, but she was also known as the leadership figure who would meet with employee affinity groups or deliver more sensitive messaging on issues such as LGBTQ rights, a former official said.

Green’s departure coincided with another shake-up at the White House Presidential Personnel Office, which handed power over political appointments to Trump’s former personal aide John McEntee, who vowed to ensure the administration was filled with people who would demonstrate their loyalty to the president.

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None of the current or former officials who spoke to Devex knew exactly how the decision was made, but instead of approving Glick’s promotion to acting administrator, the White House chose to elevate a lower-level official — John Barsa, former assistant administrator for the agency’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean — to serve as acting administrator.

“For the agency, it was a big blow because everybody was concerned [that] this person doesn't have the experience for the job. He's in way over his head,” the first former senior official said.

Some officials saw a benefit to elevating Barsa.

“You can argue Glick has a bit more of a development background, but Glick also clearly didn’t enjoy any standing at the White House,” said a current official.

“Is it better to have someone who has standing at the White House representing the agency, or someone who clearly doesn’t but might have more of a development background? I almost would rather go with Barsa in that case,” they said.

Both Green and Glick were “blindsided” by the decision, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Barsa, a former Department of Homeland Security official who had been part of the Trump team since the 2016 presidential campaign, had only been at USAID for nine months. He was known to have connections with Trump’s political inner circle but claimed no prior development experience.

The combination of losing Green and then not seeing his role filled by Glick was a “big morale hit,” the first former official said, adding that Barsa’s appointment created speculative fears that he had been tapped to execute a “sharp policy break” from the White House.

At the same time, staff members were willing to give Barsa a chance. He “said all the right things” in a video message to employees, the former official said, including that his No. 1 priority was USAID’s staff.

Red flags

In May, just a month after he took over as head of the agency, Barsa sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres — which was also published on USAID’s website — complaining that the U.N.’s global humanitarian response for the COVID-19 pandemic was being used to advance a pro-abortion agenda around the world.

“Nobody knew where that came from. It didn't go through any upper vetting ... the proper clearances that usually those things go through, none of that,” the first former senior official said.

A second former senior official confirmed that the letter was “unsolicited” and “uncleared” by the Department of State or the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

The letter also drew a Twitter rebuke from Barsa’s own daughter.

The first former official noted that Green and the political appointees close to him were all on board with the administration’s policies restricting access to abortion in global health programs, and that while Barsa’s words might have been “coarse,” they appeared to be more about posturing than any substantive change in policy.

“For Barsa, it's about furthering an agenda and getting his name out there,” they said.

“Mark [Green] left some big shoes to fill. But there didn't have to be a dumpster fire, and that's what it ended up being.”

— A former senior USAID official

USAID declined to respond to a list of emailed questions prior to publication.

Multiple people who spoke to Devex pointed to Barsa’s failure to reach out to staffers after the death of George Floyd in police custody and the subsequent racial reckoning that rippled across the world as an early turning point in how he was perceived inside the agency.

In June, nearly 2,400 USAID employees signed on to a letter addressed to Barsa, which outlined steps that could be taken to address issues of racial equality and discrimination.

For an agency that works on issues related to democracy, police accountability, and corruption — and which, according to one former official, traditionally has a more “open culture of talking about those things” as they pertain to its own culture — there was an expectation that USAID’s new leader would express some form of solidarity or recognition of unresolved challenges related to racism in America and beyond.

“His reluctance to really do anything along those lines eroded a lot of people’s confidence in his leadership and their willingness to give him a chance,” the first former official said.

Barsa’s arrival also coincided with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization, a choice the acting administrator appeared to endorse by suggesting USAID would be able to redistribute funding to new partners to carry out its global health goals.

The first former official told Devex many at USAID believed that had Green still been in charge, he would not have “rubber-stamped” that decision or “become the face of it in any way.”

“There were constant moments, especially in those early few months, where it was like, ‘Mark Green would not have stood for this,’ or ‘Mark Green would have handled this more tactfully,’” they said.

In an interview in July after his departure, Green told Devex that “WHO needs to be strengthened” and said questions about reform “are better dealt with in calmer times.”

Making headlines

The rising sense of alarm within USAID broke through to a bigger audience when reports began to surface about a growing list of controversial political appointees placed within the agency by McEntee’s personnel office and with Barsa’s approval.

In June, Barsa released a statement defending the appointees who had received negative press coverage. He voiced his support for Bethany Kozma, a deputy chief of staff who sources described to Devex as the conduit between USAID and more extreme members of the administration; Merritt Corrigan, a deputy White House liaison with a history of making anti-LGBTQ comments and arguing that women should remain at home; and Mark Kevin Lloyd, a religious freedom adviser who described Islam as a “barbaric cult.”

Barsa expressed his full confidence in each of them and condemned “unwarranted and malicious attacks” in the press.

While Corrigan occupied a relatively lower-level position at the agency, Barsa’s full confidence in her would soon prove misplaced. In August, Corrigan appeared to send a slew of anti-gay tweets claiming anti-Christian bias at USAID, announced plans to hold a press conference, and was fired. The so-called press conference was subsequently revealed to be a publicity stunt carried out by Jacob Wohl, the far-right conspiracy theorist.

For most USAID staff members, the episode had little real impact on the agency’s work and was largely just an embarrassment.

“When you’re talking to friends who aren’t really following these issues, it’s sort of what they asked about. It became the topic of the conversation, versus ‘Hey, what are you doing to fix the issues in Afghanistan?’” the first current official said.

The first former official said it was “jarring” and “demoralizing” to go from the “steady hand of Mark Green” to a “steady drip of minor scandals.”

“Everyone’s looking at the news. At times it’s just utter whiplash about what’s going to come next,” said a second current official.

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In July, reports surfaced that USAID had hired Peter Marocco to run its new Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, a key piece of the ongoing transformation, marginalizing a longtime career official assumed to be in line for the job. Marocco, who had been fired from multiple previous government roles, then set about blocking and redirecting funds based on his own preferences, prompting a 13-page dissent memo from staffers. Marocco has since taken two extended periods of leave from the agency but is still employed.

“He wasted all this time — as the CPS Bureau was getting stood up — undermining the bureau, which undermined AID in the interagency, because they wasted all their time dealing with him as opposed to setting up the Global Fragility Act and AID’s role in that,” the first current official said, referring to a bipartisan piece of legislation whose implementation was delayed by three months.

What the White House wants

Every administration experiences tension between career staffers and political appointees — or between political appointees from different factions. The difference this time, according to a former senior official, was that USAID’s leadership was choosing to defer its decision-making authority to more extreme elements of the White House who worked outside the realm of foreign policy.

“That, to me, was the beginning of the end,” the first former senior official said. “The system is not built for the domestic policy people to get involved in foreign aid. The system is … not built for the White House PPO [Presidential Personnel Office] people to get involved in how we operate.”

USAID officials eligible for certain positions found themselves subject to questions about whether they would toe the line on administration policies around abortion, climate change, and other highly political issues before getting approval from the agency’s political leadership, according to the first current official.

“I think a number of people decided not to take those positions because they didn’t want to be committed to that,” the official added.

Multiple sources said they lacked confidence that USAID’s leadership would consistently represent the agency’s interests or long-held positions within interagency discussions. Some pointed to a proposal from the State Department to take charge of pandemic response and global health programs as an example of USAID’s vulnerability.

The first former senior official described an environment where the agency’s political leaders would attribute decisions to vague directions from “the White House,” without any clear explanation of who exactly was issuing them or why.

Multiple people told Devex that Barsa’s desire to signal his alignment with Trump administration loyalists to move up the ranks is what led to the influx of controversial hires and attempts to position the agency’s leadership as a more visibly political force.

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“[Barsa] believed Trump was going to win [the 2020 election], and his whole goal was to go back to [the Department of Homeland Security]. … He wanted to be deputy secretary of homeland security,” said the first former senior official, who claimed direct knowledge of the situation.

“So the whole eight months, what you've seen is him appeasing everybody and anybody who has any influence, so he would be able to cash in the chips in a Trump second term and go back to DHS,” they added.

Seeking the limelight

Some officials who spoke to Devex described some upside to Barsa’s desire to show how USAID was actively pursuing Trump administration goals and priorities.

The second current official said that Barsa has been “good about trying to hit the gas pedal of getting the word of USAID out there,” including by issuing frequent press releases and statements about funding commitments — particularly those that relate to high-priority issues or countries, even if they are programs USAID would be running anyway.

“He wants us to plug in to all the major issues of the day,” the same official said. “He knows the [way to go] straight to the heart of the administration is to talk about Cuba and Nicaragua and Venezuela, and he will just keep pushing on that button as much as he can.”

At the same time, those efforts to shine a light on the agency contrasted sharply with Green’s approach.

“Mark's position was — and this frustrated many of us — the work will speak for itself. It wasn't about going to get in the limelight,” the first former senior official said.

Many of the people who spoke to Devex agreed that for the most part, the bad press has focused on interpersonal and political issues that are largely confined to a small group of people at USAID’s headquarters.

“A lot of it is the politicals eating each other,” said the second current official.

The most dramatic example occurred in November, as Barsa was approaching a statutory limit on his appointment. The White House arranged for Glick to be fired so that Barsa could be demoted to her position, while still retaining control of the agency through a legal loophole.

“He created a fight, and he won it, and he won it because he proved that he was more Trump than Glick did,” the second current official said.

“This whole administration is all about narcissistic politics, so there you go. It epitomized the whole thing,” the same official said.

Still standing

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Most of the people who spoke to Devex said that USAID’s rank-and-file staff members have mostly managed to keep their heads down and carry on with their missions despite intrigue and infighting at the top of the agency.

Every bureau and mission is dealing with its own challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many staffers deployed around the world do not have the “brain space” for political drama in Washington, a current foreign service officer said.

When Biden’s team takes over, USAID will likely experience a predictable change in political priorities.

“Early on in the ideology wars, the first thing that will happen is the U.N. Population Fund will be funded. And the next thing that happens is we'll reenter [the Paris climate agreement]. But at the end of the day, all of that is predictable. So we don't worry about it. And these are the pingpong balls that go across administrations,” the second former senior official said.

“I think fundamentally AID is still standing,” they added.

For many, the experience has reaffirmed that USAID’s strength is its mission-driven career staff — a lesson they hope the incoming Biden team will take to heart after the Trump administration showed a lack of trust in allowing career officials to hold leadership positions.

“There's simply a great team there. I have a very high regard for so many of the career staff, who obviously will continue into the next administration,” a third former senior official said.

Update, January 7, 2021: This story has been updated to correct the number of signatories to a letter circulated among USAID staff.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.