Meanwhile, there's still no director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Under federal law, Trump has some flexibility in how he structures his own White House. He can decide, for example, to shed key positions in science, medicine and energy under OSTP's umbrella, as his priorities evolve. Many of the White House sources who spoke with me on the condition of background for this story said they believed he would do just that — quietly kill many science jobs within his own administration. That has left its veterans unsettled. Cristin Dorgelo, the former chief of staff there under Obama, stressed in an interview this month she wishes "the current administration keeps the same science" focus as her former boss.
By the time Trump took the oath of office, roughly 50 staffers — less than half of what it was under Obama — remained at the White House's technical nerve center. In the early days of the administration, some aides to the outgoing Obama White House's chief technology officer, Smith, even offered to stick around until March. But the few who stayed quickly opted to leave, feeling flustered and distrusted by Trump's inner circle, which had spent months casting public doubt on the integrity of any government employees who served during the Obama administration.
The only remaining employee is one of Thiel's deputies — Kratsios, a former chief of staff at Thiel Capital.
A finance type by background, Kratsios had been toiling silently to aid Trump, who hadn't yet taken office, from the new president's unofficial New York City hub at Trump Tower. He first surfaced at the White House in January without a formal title in hand, sources said, before becoming deputy chief technology officer.
Except, Kratsios has little or no direct knowledge of key issues like net neutrality, cyber security and artificial intelligence, multiple current and former aides said in interviews.
A politics graduate from Princeton, Kratsios appears to have at least some access to the decision makers in Trump's inner circle. (He knew and supported, for example, the effort to show Trump evidence that his immigration order had riled the tech set, sources say.) Sources described Kratsios positively as affable and helpful and motivated, and many believe his ambition and connections through Thiel in Silicon Valley will eventually serve Trump greatly.
But many former White House aides and observers insisted they remain leaderless, with almost no connection to Trump — a distance they felt most acutely as the president prepared his first budget.
After taking office, the president and his team raced to produce their plan for funding the government in 2018, a document that hoped to give life to the president's campaign promises, including Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In planning it, White House officials borrowed heavily from the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. For months, experts at the organization had quietly served on the teams advising Trump on how to staff his future government, and the president's budget ultimately included many of the spending cuts that Heritage historically has championed. Among them: Almost $6 billion in cuts at the National Institutes of Health.
Previously, the Heritage Foundation's political arm, Heritage Action, had railed against a bipartisan bill in Congress to grow NIH. (It became law anyway.) The 2018 budget also sought to eliminate research dollars at the Energy Department, a longtime target of conservative critics, on top of programs at NASA and the country's weather hub, NOAA.
In doing so, however, Trump did not consult even a slimmed-down OSTP at all, multiple sources said. In other words, the cuts to NIH and the Energy Department's version of DARPA — that Pentagon money hub that has spawned so many startups, like the Thiel-backed data-giant, Palantir — came about largely without the input of anyone familiar with those fields. Some policy aides only got to see the budget after it had been published online, multiple sources said.
Few science experts like it. "I'm very disappointed in the president's first budget so far," said Kei Koizumi, who served as the Obama administration's research-and-development budget guru. He departed OSTP on Jan. 31.
"Although I understand where it's coming from, an overall desire to shrink domestic spending, it's going to have devastating effects on the U.S science and engineering enterprise, which is such a source of economic competitiveness, and our ability to make progress on solving health care, security and natural resource challenges," he said.
Some have tried to find solace in the president's other recent moves — like the newly announced Office of American Innovation, led by Jared Kushner, and the appointment of Matt Lira, an innovation policy expert who's helped senior Republicans in the U.S. Congress on digital issues.
Lira has his knocks, but Democrats laud his expertise. "The appointment of Matt Lira on the innovation side is an extremely positive sign that the president will build on the progress the Obama administration began on harnessing the power of the potential of the internet for the American economy," said Chopra, the first CTO under Obama, during an interview.
While the White House said it plans to consult with the Valley's best minds, however, their involvement might not be as regular as administration officials first suggeste
After the initial story about their participation appeared in the Washington Post, a spokeswoman for Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, names as of Trump's tech confidantes, told Recode he "doesn't have a formal role in the Trump Administration but offers his thoughts and ideas when they are sought on topics on which he can be helpful." Apple declined to comment.
Other senior leaders in the Trump administration also lack technical or policy expertise. That includes Reed Cordish, named the assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives.
Cordish's portfolio includes a mandate to rethink the way government spends money buying tech services and systems. But Cordish has never worked in that world. In fact, he arrived from the fields of real estate and hospitality, and met Trump through his father, who had hosted a fundraiser for the soon-to-be president. His father once asked Trump's daughter, Ivanka, to help set his son up on a date.