The White House nominated a new head to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that secures US borders and handles natural disasters, with unusual fanfare. “It’s hard to imagine a more qualified candidate for this critical position,” Donald Trump said about Kirstjen Nielsen during a glitzy ceremony in the East room the afternoon of Oct. 12.
The room was packed, video of the event shows—members of Trump’s cabinet, high-ranking officials from the DHS, and lobbyists filled rows of chairs and lined the walls. After a brief speech by Trump and Nielsen, the crowd gave her a standing ovation, than gathered for cocktails as a band played under the room’s ornate chandeliers.
Attendees included commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, economic advisor Gary Cohn, presidential advisors Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner, and big names from K Street, Washington’s lobbying corridor, like Stewart Verdery, whose Monument Policy represents Fortune 500 clients like Amazon, Toyota, and Northrup Grumman.
Afterward, the White House billed the DHS $8,000 for the party, a White House advisor told Quartz. The White House typically charges catering and event costs to a department’s budget if the event is seen as “furthering the mission” of the agency, he said.
Nielsen’s nomination surprised top officials at the DHS, because she doesn’t have a loyal following within the over 200,000 strong organization, and no experience managing a large agency. The lobbyist-studded party, and the related bill, were seen as a further affront.
“You don’t have a presidential rollout loaded with people from K Street,” said one former DHS official, who worked in the George W. Bush administration and said he had spoken to several people at the agency troubled by the party. The DHS has a $41 billion annual budget, and works with a wide range of industries, from construction to internet security, so the White House shouldn’t be welcoming in corporate lobbyists, he said.
DHS officials were also upset at being pulled from doing vital work in departments like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is handling post-hurricane recovery in Texas and Puerto Rico, the former DHS official said. “Who wants to have a cocktail at three in the afternoon?” he added.
Inviting corporate lobbyists to the East room, where presidents traditionally hold press conferences with world leaders, is unusual, ethics experts said, but in character for the Trump presidency.
“This administration has been very clear about their relationships with lobbyists or industry,” whether they were hiring them for jobs in the White House or consulting them on policy, said Meredith McGehee, a strategic advisor with the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit that advocates for more ethical behavior in the federal government. “They have no qualms,” about looking like they have a cozy relationship with lobbyists, she said.
Because news of Nielsen’s nomination had leaked the night before, the White House decided the president’s pre-planned announcement “was an opportunity to build support around her confirmation,” said the White House advisor. The reception was “an opportunity to celebrate her nomination,” he said, and for the homeland security community to come together.