Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette kept close tabs on then-National Nuclear Security Administration boss Lisa Gordon-Hagerty for months, sending chaperones to her meetings with Congress and monitoring her personal calendar before abruptly demanding her resignation last week, a source said.
It was a dramatic end to a year of strife between the two, who clashed over the size of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) budget and provided the Washington nuclear policy establishment with the latest experimental data about exactly how much autonomy the NNSA and its nuclear weapons programs have from the broader DoE’s nuclear-cleanup and energy programs.
With the administrator’s calendar in hand, Brouillette knew Gordon-Hagerty would be on leave beginning the Monday before the Nov. 3 presidential election. By the Friday after the election, with defeat looming for President Trump (R), DoE officials moved to enact Brouillette’s regime change.
According to the source, the first step for DoE was to summon Gordon-Hagerty’s deputy, William Bookless, and offer him his boss’ job — on the condition that, as administrator, he do only what Brouillette told him to do. After Bookless took the deal, DoE called up Gordon-Hagerty and told her that Brouillette required her resignation, the source said.
Gordon-Hagerty complied, but in a final act of defiance, she sent her resignation straight to the White House, bypassing the big office in the Forrestal Building at DoE headquarters.
Spokespersons for DoE and the NNSA did not reply to requests for comment. The NNSA is the organization within DoE that handles nuclear weapons maintenance and modernization. In theory, the administrator of the NNSA is the only person in the sub-agency subject to the direct authority of the Secretary of Energy.
Now that Trump and his cabinet are apparently on the way out, the spoils of Brouillette’s power stroke are limited to whatever administrative directives he can enact before inauguration day, and the opportunity to run an unobstructed point with Congress in the looming lame-duck session.
With Gordon-Hagerty out of his road, and Bookless’ cooperation assured, Brouillette’s voice will be the only one coming out of DoE when Congress sits down to negotiate another budget extension, and the final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA): a must-pass bill that sets policy and spending limits for the NNSA, the Pentagon and most of DoE’s Cold War nuclear-cleanup programs.
After Brouillette and Gordon-Hagerty feuded last winter over the size of the NNSA’s budget — a contest that broke in Gordon-Hagerty’s favor when Trump requested roughly $20 billion as she recommended, instead of the $17.5 billion Brouillette preferred — Trump’s second secretary of energy tightened his grip over the NNSA in ways that his predecessor, Rick Perry had not.
Aside from demanding that she open her daybook to the secretary’s office, Brouillette began sending his own budget and legislative staffers to the Hill with Gordon-Hagerty whenever she was called to testify before Congress, the source said. This extra oversight was not limited to the former administrator herself; even NNSA’s legislative affairs staff, who under the agency’s congressionally granted semi-autonomy are not directly subject to orders from the secretary, were shadowed on the Hill by their counterparts from the broader DoE, according to the source.
Multiple people on Monday said the breakneck pace of Gordon-Hagerty’s ouster astonished some at the NNSA, including a few who only found out about her departure during the first senior NNSA staff meeting convened by Bookless.
At the meeting, Bookless characterized Gordon-Hagerty’s abrupt resignation as the sort of people-come-people-go personnel change that often happens after a presidential election: the same message a DoE official reportedly pushed after news of Gordon-Hagerty’s unexpected exit broke last week.
But that message does not jibe with either Gordon-Hagerty’s profusely professed enthusiasm for her old job, or the history of the majority of her predecessors at the NNSA.
Three of the four Senate-confirmed NNSA chiefs who preceded Gordon-Hagerty served a president other than the one who appointed them, and the fourth — the nigh-universally-respected Linton Brooks — was forced to resign after a serious security breach at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Staying on to shepherd the NNSA’s five-year plan through a presidential transition and a new Congress would have put Gordon-Hagerty firmly in the mainstream, for an NNSA administrator.