New Zealand was subjected in recent days to a fairly sophisticated but entirely cynical public relations campaign designed to restore the besieged standing of Chris Liddell, the Kiwi-American businessman who continues to serve as deputy White House chief of staff in the outgoing (we think) Trump administration.
This last-minute attempt at reputation rehab makes sense in the context of Liddell's bid to run the OECD, among the top echelon of UN gigs. Hostility towards his nomination from Liddell's home country could doom his chances, so his appearances on TVNZ's Q&A and elsewhere are clearly designed to soften his image in New Zealand by creating some detoxifying distance between him and the president he serves. But the way he has gone about doing offers further reasons to oppose Liddell.
Allow me to explain.
In New Zealand, as with most Westminster-style democracies, elected governments are severely constrained in their ability to shape the public service in their partisan image. Apart from a handful of overtly political staffers, ministers rely almost entirely on the advice and recommendations of professional public servants whose own political allegiances go resolutely unspoken. They serve Labour and National-led governments alike, offering a reassuring - if sometimes stifling - continuity.
Our public service model was inherited, of course, from the UK, where civil service intransigence in the face of political pressure is legendary, never more deftly expressed than by Sir Humphrey Appleby on BBC's Yes Minister: "Minister, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position".
Liddell's PR moves in New Zealand rely on us thinking about his current position in this context. Yes, Trump has done many unpopular things, some of which Liddell claims to have opposed, but ultimately the role of deputy chief of staff compelled him to silent acquiescence. He is a mere public servant, just doing his job.
This entire framing is nonsense.
White House staffers like Liddell are not civil servants, but partisan actors bound inexorably to the policies and political fortunes of the principal. Despite his meek protestations otherwise, Liddell was not acting to provide some kind of administrative buffer against the excesses of Donald Trump. This is not the nature of his role. Instead, his job is to amplify the president's agenda and impose it on the federal government. Far from being a disinterested bureaucrat - he is the kind of highly political actor most despised by them. Chris Liddell is not the shield, but the spear.
Each new president installs around 4000 political appointees across the US government. More than 1200 of these - from agency heads to ambassadors - require Senate confirmation as a check against egregious levels of partisanship and patronage. But White House staff like Liddell are explicitly exempted from such a vetting process because it's considered reasonable that a president should be free to populate his immediate office with whomever he or she considers suitable. It's open season for hacks - and, under Trump, only total personal and political loyalty will suffice.
That's why, according to the Brookings Institution, 91 per cent of Trump appointees failed to make it to the end of the four-year term. Liddell enjoys the dubious distinction of being among the nine per cent who have lasted the distance. It is laughable to suggest he managed to survive, not to mention win Trump's backing for the OECD nomination, while at the same time nobly resisting the racist, anti-immigrant, pandemic-denying, nationalist agenda.
Liddell also deployed weasel words over the Trump Administration's notorious child separation policy. When Jack Tame raised the subject on Q & A, Liddell deflected. There was, he claimed, no White House meeting that authorised the policy – as if to suggest he would have advocated against it given the chance.
This is disingenuous. It has been widely reported that Cabinet members, at the instigation of White House staff, did indeed take a vote on family separation. Miles Taylor, senior Homeland Security staffer turned whistleblower, and former Mike Pence adviser Olivia Troye have both confirmed details. That it was not, as Liddell points out, strictly a White House staff meeting is a distinction without a difference. Whether or not he personally attended, there is no evidence that Liddell lifted a finger to oppose the policy.
There is, however, abundant evidence to suggest he would not be in his job today had he stood up to Trump on this or any other issue. It's perfectly clear he did not, and vaguely expressed qualms after the fact do not diminish his complicity.
We love Kiwis who make it big on the world stage, especially when they take major international jobs like Mike Moore at the WTO or Helen Clark at the UNDP. But Liddell earned his OECD nomination through loyalty to the most destructive American political leader of my lifetime. It will take years to grasp the full extent of Trump's folly but, in the meantime, we must not reward Chris Liddell for his central role in enabling it.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.