Sheriff David A. Clarke just lost out on yet another Trump administration job—and he has the president’s chief of staff to thank.
Officials in the West Wing tell The Daily Beast that Clarke had been in consideration for a White House post over the past seven weeks. But on Tuesday, the controversial former Milwaukee County lawman signed on with an outside group instead. He will serve as a spokesman and “senior adviser” for the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action.
Four sources working in and close to the Trump White House said his failure to land a gig in the West Wing or at the Department of Homeland Security, where Clarke unsuccessfully sought a job earlier this year, was in large part the result of opposition from White House chief of staff John Kelly. Kelly led DHS until late July.
Though Clarke had been discussed for a possible White House communications or outreach role, Kelly’s position as chief of staff made the arrangement a “non-starter,” as one senior White House official put it. Earlier this year, while serving as DHS Secretary, Kelly had informed Clarke that an appointment to that department would not happen in part due to scandal surrounding the treatment of inmates in Clarke’s jail, and the ensuing negative media attention. According to two sources familiar with the discussions, this led to Clarke formally “rescinding” his intention to join the Trump administration in mid-June.
Clarke’s continued absence from the Trump administration is a further indication of Kelly’s attempts to limit the impact of fringe elements in the upper echelons of President Trump’s staff. At DHS, Kelly had personally shot down an idea, supported by some officials in the Trump White House, to have immigration ultra-hardliner Kris Kobach as deputy secretary of homeland security. As chief of staff, Kelly had ousted the former comms director Anthony Scaramucci, and curtailed access for close Trump advisers such as Omarosa Manigault.
Clarke was a lightning rod of controversy during his tenure atop the Milwaukee sheriff’s department, where he oversaw abhorrent conditions in the county’s jail that have led to lawsuits against the former sheriff.
As Clarke sought a White House job last month, he was sued by the family of a man who died of dehydration in his jail after being deprived of water for seven days—allegedly with Clarke’s full knowledge and approval. He is also facing a lawsuit from a woman whose unborn baby died while she was in Clarke’s custody allegedly due to negligent medical practices. She was eight months and three weeks pregnant at the time.
Clarke, a Fox News fixture, is also prone to making extreme comments such as his assertion that Black Lives Matter will one day team up with ISIS to destroy the United States.
Those controversies did not dissuade President Trump from endorsing Clarke and his work. In late August, the president promoted Clarke’s new book on his Twitter feed.
Trump routinely praises Clarke in private conversation as a “good man” and very “tough,” according to one Trump confidant, and had personally discussed potential job opportunities with Clarke himself. The former sheriff is also close to others in Trump’s inner circle, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., and the president’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Clarke, who has repeatedly endorsed mob vigilante justice, is part of a group of law enforcement officers that dub themselves the “constitutional sheriffs movement.” That group also includes former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned last week after he was convicted of criminal contempt for knowingly violating a judicial order.
Clarke and his political adviser did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss Clarke and internal deliberations.
As late as last week, there were still murmurs that Clarke might land an official post in Trump’s administration. But Kelly’s opposition alone was too much to overcome, and Clarke was relegated to an outside group that has also brought on former Trump aides that failed to land a job in the White House or a federal agency.
America First and its “dark money” non-profit arm also employ former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and spokeswoman Katrina Pierson. The campaign’s former digital director, Brad Parscale, acts as its chief consultant through his firm, Parscale Strategies.
America First Action has reported just one donation so far this year, according to Federal Election Commission records: a $200,000 contribution from Ronald Weiser, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and former vice-chairman of Trump’s 2016 joint fundraising committee.
In August, the super PAC made its first major expenditure on a federal election, putting up to $200,000 behind a get-out-the-vote campaign boosting Alabama Republican Sen. Luther Strange’s reelection effort, which Trump himself has tepidly supported.
For years, Clarke has been a darling of right-wing hardliners and the conservative speaking circuit, and his national profile has only risen along with the ascendancy of Trumpism. In February, Clarke spoke at and charmed the crowds at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. One of the events that The Daily Beast attended at the conference was a Friday-night party thrown by a super PAC attempting to draft the sheriff to mount a Republican run for Senate in 2018 against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). The party was emceed by Duane "Dog" Chapman of Dog the Bounty Hunter reality-TV fame.
A political group seeking to draft Clarke into that Senate race has raised nearly $2 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. But Clarke says he has no plans to challenge Baldwin, and has disavowed the group. “It’s a scam PAC, really,” he told a Milwaukee news station in July.
His disinclination to doing so was on full display at the well-attended, cash-bar CPAC party hosted by the aforementioned draft-Clarke PAC. As the event got underway, The Daily Beast saw multiple organizers scrambling to figure out why Clarke was late to arrive. Eventually, the sheriff showed up and muttered a few words before leaving.
The Daily Beast was later told by two people who had run into him earlier that evening that shortly before his brief speech, Clarke had been spotted down at the hotel bar, in full Sheriff gear, holding court with two tall, attractive women.