Trump-appointed Social Security Administration officials test Biden's ability to forge new agenda

Brittany Shepherd
·National Politics Reporter
·8 min read
Donald Trump and Joe Biden. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)

President Biden is facing increasing pressure to remove two Social Security Administration officials appointed by his Republican predecessor, a standoff that could test the limits of his ability to undo Donald Trump’s legacy.

The brewing controversy surrounds Andrew Saul and David Black, the agency's commissioner and deputy commissioner, whom Trump appointed to fixed-term positions that don’t end until 2025. As term appointees, they can't be removed by Biden except for cause, but unions and Capitol Hill alike are demanding that Biden find a way to remove them, accusing them of creating a toxic work environment, contributing to low morale due to staff cuts, and sidelining the agency’s administrative law judges.

The continued presence of the Trump appointees underscores the difficulties the Biden administration faces when trying to roll back some of the previous administration’s efforts to reshape the federal government. While traditional political appointees must resign or face being fired when a new administration comes in, presidents are also able to install fixed-term employees to boards and other government positions that can outlast their administration.

Saul, a New York businessman and Republican donor, and Black, a former Bush administration staffer, have been in their positions since 2019. According to critics, the two officials have engaged in “no-holds-barred union busting” and eliminated the agency’s pre-pandemic telework program, forcing over 10,000 employees to commute to work — a rule change that continues despite the onset of COVID-19. (That did not apply to Saul, who reportedly continued to work from home as thousands of his employees commuted during the onset of the pandemic.)

Andrew Saul and David Black. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP, SSA.gov)
Andrew Saul and David Black. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP, SSA.gov)

In December 2020, two major unions representing thousands of Social Security Administration employees called for Biden to take decisive action to remove the pair after he took office, believing that Saul and Black actively worked to “undermine the agency’s mission” through intentionally hamstringing internal operations and allegedly violating major ethics rules.

The officials also face more serious accusations beyond cultivating a troublesome work environment. According to two inspector general complaints filed in January of this year and reviewed by Yahoo News, an administrative law judge claimed that Saul, Black and their deputies put “illegitimate political pressure on Administrative Law Judges to reduce the rate of Social Security disability case approval.”

The whistleblower said the complaints were initially acknowledged by the inspector general, but they have yet to receive any further communication.

The SSA Office of the Inspector General did not immediately return a request for comment.

Both officials were given a vote of no confidence by the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council 220, a group representing 26,000 SSA employees. The Association of Administrative Law Judges, a group representing over 1,000 judges responsible for making decisions on disability claims, likewise found that 88 percent of its membership had “no confidence” in Saul or Black.

“They want to actually damage the agency, to dismantle the system, because it's an ideological drive,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, an advocacy group representing Social Security beneficiaries and agency employees.

Lawson’s group has been one of the organizations publicly sounding the alarm against Saul and Black. They began to put public pressure on the incoming Biden administration in December, alongside the unions.

Then New York businessman Andrew Saul testifies before the Senate Finance Committee during his confirmation hearing to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill October 02, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Andrew Saul on Oct. 2, 2018, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

According to Lawson and other sources familiar with conversations within the SSA, Biden’s four-person transition advisory committee attempted to put backstops within the agency to limit Saul and Black by installing union-friendly Democratic staffers. Scott Frey of the AFL-CIO joined as Saul’s chief of staff, and Kilolo Kijakazi of the Urban Institute replaced Trump administration-era deputy Mark Warshawsky as the deputy commissioner of the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy.

Yet those leading the effort to oust the two Trump-appointed officials believe the current White House’s actions fall short.

The complaints give as an alleged example of White House political pressure that "rumor has circulated around the agency" of a meeting in February 2019. Brian Blase, then special assistant for health to the Trump White House’s National Economic Council, met with management in the SSA’s Office of Hearings Operations to demand that the agency fire administrative law judges with high rates of disability claim approval.

“Agency staff purportedly pointed out that they could not legally do this, but were nonetheless directed to take steps to reduce payment rates,” one of the complaints read.

Blase disputes that account, saying that he received briefings from a number of agencies, including the SSA. "At no point was there any direction given to fire [administrative law judges] that had high allowance rates," Blase told Yahoo News. "We were interested in policy compliant decisions."

The whistleblower nonetheless asserted that this demand to fire judges based on positive disability check rulings came from agency leadership, namely Saul and Black.

“I am concerned about the apparent acquiescence of the Office of Hearings Operations leadership to Trump Administration demands to bring norm-shattering illegal pressure on ALJs to reduce the ratio of disability grants to rejections,” wrote the whistleblower in one of their complaints.

The Social Security Administration's main campus is seen in Woodlawn, Md. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
The Social Security Administration's main campus in Woodlawn, Md. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

This isn’t the first time this type of complaint about political pressure has come up. In 1984, a union representing administrative law judges sued Margaret Heckler, then secretary of health and human services, over a practice known as the Bellmon Review, which allowed members of the SSA to place judges who doled out high percentages of positive disability rulings “under review.”

The union felt this review process put political and, in turn, unethical pressure on judges to rule before fairly hearing each case. The U.S. District Court agreed, finding that the agency retained “an unjustifiable preoccupation with allowance rates to the extent that [administrative law judges] could reasonably feel pressure to issue fewer allowance decisions in the name of accuracy.”

In turn, the agency scrapped the program. But fears remain that a similar system will return under Saul and Black’s leadership.

The whistleblower, in an interview with Yahoo News, said they spoke to Jack Smalligan, a former longtime Office of Management and Budget employee who sat on Biden’s SSA advisory board; he acknowledged the complaints but did not follow up. The White House declined to comment on the record.

When reached for comment, the SSA did not directly acknowledge the allegations, instead referring to a recent statement made by Saul detailing the agency’s efforts. “The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner have taken unprecedented steps to keep employees safe during the pandemic while also continuing their focus on improving service to the public,” read an emailed statement from the agency.

Lawson explained that his group will soon begin to turn the heat up on the Biden administration. “It's generally a known thing that Social Security can fall pretty far down the ‘pay no mind’ list without a dedicated grassroots, which is what we are, to making sure it doesn't,” said Lawson, who added that what is needed is a “new confirmed commissioner to implement the Biden vision.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2020. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

There’s support for this among Democrats on Capitol Hill as well. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's subcommittee on Social Security, is also calling for the removal of the two officials.

“Saul and Black are incapable of carrying out Democrats’ vision of protecting and expanding Social Security,” Brown said in a statement in mid-February. He is accusing them of being “agents of the Trump Social Security agenda,” intent on cutting benefits, attacking employees and denying legitimate applicants due process.

“No one has been safe from their path of destruction,” he said.

Brown told Yahoo News in an interview that he sees a functional SSA as the “underpinning of our democratic system.”

He said he has not yet personally asked Biden to fire Saul and Black, but his subcommittee staff is in regular communication with White House staff on the situation. Brown suggested that both he and Biden would prefer it if the two officials stepped down rather than having to be fired. He noted the lengthy legal fight either could take against the White House.

“One of my jobs is to make them not want to stay, because they are pursuing an agenda counter to what this president wants,” said Brown. “It’s pretty lonely in that job, and we want to make them feel lonelier.”

It is possible that Saul and Black will try to see out their full terms, and Biden can’t fire them without a clear cause. But Brown sees that fight as still winnable — “it will just take longer,” he said.

“We’ll wear them down. And if they want to live their lives that way, I guess it's their choice. Eventually they’ll get fired. Eventually Biden will remove them,” he said. “I’m not saying that because Biden’s promised that — just because I think that’s the way things are going to work.”

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect date of an alleged meeting between White House official Brian Blase and the Social Security Administration. The date listed in the complaint was February 2019. The story has also been updated with a comment from Blase disputing how the complaint characterized White House guidance provided to the Social Security Administration.

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