A few months after President Donald Trump appointed him director of the Selective Service System in 2017, Don Benton decreed a new dress code for the often-overlooked federal agency.
The “headquarters order” required women who met with the public or other agencies to wear pantyhose, along with closed-toe shoes, knee-length skirts or pantsuits and “a conservative top.” Men were to wear sport coats or suits and ties with dress shoes.
The episode is one small example of how Benton, a former Republican state senator who landed the job after running Trump’s campaign in Washington state, has sought to shake up the agency charged with registering young men for the long-dormant military draft. An unabashed admirer of the president he says nicknamed him “Big Don,” Benton has sought to catch Trump’s eye and climb from his minor perch — even making an explicit pitch to become White House chief of staff.
During his two years in the job, Benton has worked to install fellow Trump loyalists, including hiring an inexperienced campaign staffer from Washington state as an adviser and then promoting him to chief of staff, according to records obtained under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and interviews with current and former agency employees.
Benton and top aides also have spent much of the past year quietly pushing to relocate the agency headquarters from the Washington, D.C., area, to federally owned buildings in downtown Spokane. That project has been shelved for now.
Some of Benton’s actions have alarmed current and former employees, who have distributed anonymous complaints about his hiring decisions and travel. They describe an atmosphere of distrust between career employees and Benton’s new crop of aides. “They are Trumpsters. They are so vicious. People are scared over there,” said one ex-employee.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation of allegations of “waste, fraud and abuse” raised by Selective Service insiders. The Iraq War veteran had previously criticized Benton’s appointment as an “insulting” patronage hire.
Benton is proud of his record, saying he’s modernized and revitalized an agency that had been weakened by flat budgets for decades. He secured a $3.5 million budget increase that he’s devoting to an overhaul of computer and data systems, and he ordered the first agencywide drill in years to ensure it can implement a draft in case it is ever revived.
He attributes criticisms of his management to a whisper campaign by entrenched bureaucrats who don’t like change — and despise Trump.
“You’re under constant attack. Why? Because of who appointed you,” Benton said. “The president didn’t ask me to come to Washington, D.C., and be a pretty face. … He asked me to come there and fix a broken agency.”
Bonding over McDonald’s
All presidents fill out their administrations with political appointees, but Benton’s lack of military experience made him an unusual pick to head the Selective Service, which is a civilian agency but has been led by men with lengthy military careers.
Benton briefly joined the Army in the 1970s and completed basic training in California, but quit after he says he was not put into a training program he’d been promised. He went to community college instead, and started his political career as a student trustee.
First elected to the state Legislature in 1994, Benton, 62, served for two decades as a Republican representing Vancouver, developing a reputation as a fiscal conservative and partisan brawler who once called politics “the business of confrontation.”
Elected state Republican Party chairman in 2000, Benton was ousted eight months later after angering some party leaders by firing staff, changing the locks on the offices and unilaterally trying to move the party headquarters. In 2013, he compared a fellow GOP state senator, Ann Rivers, to a “trashy, trampy-mouthed little girl” after she swore at him during an argument in a caucus meeting.
Trump’s rise came at an opportune time for Benton. He’d faced increasingly difficult reelection campaigns, winning in 2012 by just 76 votes. Benton decided not to seek reelection to the state Senate in 2016.
That May, he also lost a controversial six-figure job heading a Clark County environmental department, to which he’d been appointed by political allies. Benton is suing the county over the decision to eliminate his position in a reorganization, seeking $2 million for emotional distress and other harms.
Benton ingratiated himself with Trump by leading his 2016 campaign in Washington state at a time when many elected Republicans were shunning the New York developer and reality TV star. The two chatted on a cross-state flight between rallies, sharing a lunch from McDonald’s. “I had Filet-O-Fish and he had a Big Mac,” Benton recalled.
After the election, Benton was tapped as a senior White House adviser and led a “beachhead” transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency. He exited that role amid media reports he’d annoyed then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides by piping up too often with odd comments. The Washington Post reported Pruitt and his aides started freezing Benton out of meetings.
Benton, who denies those reports, was appointed Selective Service director in April 2017, placed in charge of an agency with a $25 million budget and 125 full-time employees. His salary is $162,000 — a reduction from the nearly $180,000 he was paid at EPA. The agency maintains registration for men between the ages of 18 and 25, even though the draft has been suspended since 1973.
“Your friend, Big Don”
Among Benton’s first formal actions was ordering up the new dress code in July 2017.
Its pantyhose requirement was not well-received by some women, according to current and former Selective Service employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern over retaliation. “They got really upset,” one former employee said of her colleagues’ reaction.
Benton says he didn’t remember any complaints and claimed the “hose” mandate had been in a previous dress code. A copy of that code released after a FOIA request shows it was not.
Benton said he was motivated to issue a new policy after generals visited a Selective Service office where employees were dressed casually. “Some of the guys in the office didn’t have ties on,” he said.
“Maybe I moved too quickly … but all that stuff about pantyhose, I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Late last year, Benton made a pitch to move up in the Trump administration — way up.
In a Dec. 12 letter, he provided what he called a report on his “enormous work” at Selective Service, boasting the agency was now “fully capable of executing its mission if called upon by you to do so.” The two-page letter emphasized: “I want you to know that I can always do more to help you… I am available for any special project that you need, including the opportunity to be your Chief of Staff. I believe my qualifications, competence, and loyalty far outweigh anyone you are currently considering.”
Benton signed off, “Sincerely your friend, Big Don from Washington State.”
The offer came amid news reports that Trump’s then-White House chief of staff, John Kelly, was set to resign after a turbulent 16 months.
Benton pressed Trump’s personal secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, to call the president’s attention to the letter. “The Boss knows me as Big Don from Washington state. Please put this note in his folder,” he wrote. He promised to send further “pertinent data via private email.”
In an email to a White House personnel official Benton wrote: “…not that I want more work, but if the boss needs a trusted soul to hold things together or to clean house somewhere, I am happy to do it. I don’t really care what the press writes about me!”
For good measure, Benton also emailed Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, asking for help with legislation to require federal inmates to register with Selective Service, while also hinting that he was ready for other duties. “As true rock solid loyalists are rare, I am happy to step up wherever Boss may need a strong leader that’s got his back!” Benton wrote.
The records don’t show whether Trump ever saw Benton’s letter. That same month, the president chose Mick Mulvaney, the former South Carolina congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget, as acting White House chief of staff — a title he still holds.
Just as he highlighted his loyalty in his appeal to Trump, Benton is proud that he’s found jobs for fellow loyalists at Selective Service. “I am very proud of the fact we have been able to secure positions for all of our paid [campaign] staff,” he said.
“I think people who want to be appointed by the president of the United States should be loyal to the president of the United States. I don’t care if we’re talking about President Bush or President Obama, or any president,” Benton said.
The agency’s chief of staff, Wadi Yakhour, landed his presidential appointment after working with Benton on the Trump campaign for a few months in 2016, according to personnel records.
A former Navy crewman who was studying at Washington State University, Vancouver, but had not completed his degree, Yakhour came into the Trump administration as an assistant to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He was then hired by Benton as a special adviser, with a $68,000 salary, according to personnel records. He was promoted last March to chief of staff, nearly doubling his salary to $135,000.
Benton defends the hiring, saying Yakhour helped manage volunteers on the campaign, demonstrating organizational skills and an ability to type nearly 100 words a minute.
Another campaign operative, Jacob Daniels, was hired as a congressional liaison for the agency after running the Trump campaign in Oregon and later helping to run the campaign in Michigan — a key state in Trump’s eventual Electoral College victory.
Benton also hired, for $152,000 a year, Brian Zimmer, an ex-congressional senior policy adviser and procurement director who for the past decade has run a nonprofit focused on tightening standards for driver’s licenses so they don’t wind up in the hands of terrorists.
Move to Spokane?
Some of those same top aides have spent considerable time over the past year and a half working to move Selective Service headquarters out of Arlington, Virginia, to Spokane.
They argued the move would mean long-term rent savings, and that a shift out of Washington, D.C., would arguably preserve the agency’s ability to spring into action in the event of a devastating attack on the capital area.
The project was described in internal memos as having the blessing of the White House and the budget office, but came as a surprise to staff with the House Armed Services Committee, who said they’d never been briefed.
The effort advanced throughout 2018, with Selective Service officials negotiating with the General Services Administration over space requirements and floor plans and carefully plotting a schedule.
As late as November, Selective Service Deputy Director John Prigmore emailed a White House aide, saying the move was happening, “albeit slowly.” He wrote that the agency would be creating a new regional office first “out of pocket” in 2019 while seeking additional money to complete a move. “Think of it as an ‘HQ Lite’,” he wrote.
Benton now says the headquarters move is off, in part because he couldn’t secure the $7 million to $10 million needed, but that the agency likely will take some space in Spokane to build out a backup computer server. He remains convinced the Selective Service could save money by moving in the future.
While the prospects of ever reinstating a draft seem dim and some military leaders have even discussed discontinuing registration, Benton said he continues to assess how Selective Service might leap into action if called on.
This month, he spent four days in Israel, where military service is mandatory. Benton says he was there at the invitation of the Israel Defense Forces to study how the country is able to swiftly deploy young men and women to their military assignments.
With the 2020 race for the White House already beginning, Benton said he’ll do anything he can to help Trump win reelection. But he so far has not been asked to reprise his role on the campaign.
“There are key folks that the president wants to keep in position. … Basically the president wants Mulvaney, myself and others to stay where we’re at running the government while he has a different team running the reelection.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Brian Zimmer’s former job title and misstated a policy position of the nonprofit driver’s license security group he has led.