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August 11, 2020

Demystifying the presidential appointee vetting process

By Heather Samuelson

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

The vetting process for senior presidential appointees can be opaque even for long-serving government officials. What an administration is looking for in a candidate is not always clear, and there’s always the fear of something disqualifying coming up during the process.

While the vetting process varies based on the administration and the position an individual is seeking, there are three key components for almost every political appointee. 

The security clearance process. All Senate confirmed roles, and a large number of non-Senate confirmed ones, require a security clearance.

The ethics clearance process. Jobseekers must complete a financial disclosure form that is reviewed by ethics officials to determine if their financial holdings conflict with the position they are seeking. In some cases, nominees may need to divest or place assets in a blind trust in order to assume the position.

Public records review and vetting interviews.  Administration officials, including the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, the White House Counsel’s Office and White House liaisons all have a role in the review process. 

During my time in the Obama administration, I oversaw the vetting of hundreds of appointees. Here is the advice I gave candidates before starting the process:

  1. Do your homework. The security clearance form (SF 86) and financial disclosure form (OGE 278e) can be found online. Review these forms early while you are still interviewing for the position. See if there are questions you are concerned about or if there is information that will be difficult to compile. If so, seek advice from PPO or the White House liaison.
  2. Disclose information early and truthfully. The vetting process is a two-way street. You have been selected for this role by the president, and the administration wants to see you succeed.  You should disclose anything you are concerned about early in the process, from that quirk in your taxes to any issues that may have landed you in court. Worse than failing to disclose, do not lie or gloss over difficult facts during the vetting process. The administration cannot help you if you don’t provide a full and accurate picture. Once you are nominated, the Senate, the press and the public will all do their jobs of reviewing your personal and professional record. At this point even seemingly small issues could become very public concerns for you and the administration.
  3. Be ready to answer questions about your personal and professional life. You will get asked detailed questions about your professional and personal life. Your finances will also be scrutinized. Some questions are designed to ensure you are not susceptible to blackmail. Others are to determine whether anything in your background could be disconcerting or embarrassing to you or to the administration.

Sometimes people who would be extraordinary public servants do not get through the vetting process.   It does not mean they are horrible people. It may be that their financial holdings caused too many conflicts for them to fully serve in the role, or that they had elements in their private life (or a close family member’s private life) they wanted to stay private.

The spotlight can be harsh for nominees and their loved ones. Making sure you and the administration can identify potential vulnerabilities before you are nominated is key—and why the vetting process exists.

Heather Samuelson serves as general counsel for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She previously served as chief counsel for the Clinton-Kaine Transition Team, as an assistant counsel in President Obama’s White House and as White House liaison for the Department of State.