When the White House published its report of White House staff salaries last month, there was one senior staffer on the list who hasn't actually worked at the White House in almost two years -- Mark Lippert.
Lippert was listed as receiving $147,500 in 2010 under the title of "deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff for national security operations," according to the disclosure. Lippert was chief of staff at the National Security Council until he left in October 2009 to serve a deployment as a reserve Naval intelligence officer. The chief of staff position was filled in December 2010 by Brooke Anderson.
The widespread speculation at the time was that Lippert, who has been an extremely close advisor to President Barack Obama since his time as a foreign policy aide in Obama's Senate office, left because of a falling out with then National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones. Lippert was widely suspected of leaking salacious and damaging stories about Jones, and Jones was reported to have forced Lippert out before eventually stepping down himself for leaking information about the White House to Bob Woodward.
"In July , Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert," Woodward wrote in his book Obama's Wars. "On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert's choice. ‘I was not surprised,' Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.'"
So what is Lippert doing now, and why is he still listed on the White House payroll? A White House official told The Cable that Lippert never officially "detached" from the White House and that's why he was never taken out of the human resource system or removed from the payroll.
Three former NSC staffers said that it was commonplace for staffers to keep their White House billets when they deployed overseas with the military and that all federal employees have the option of keeping their federal salaries when deployed, rather than taking what is often a lower military salary.
But Lippert didn't get any pay or benefits from the White House in 2010, the White House official said. So what happened to that money? It remains in White House coffers and was used for various other salaries, events, and travel expenses, according to the official.
Lippert has always enjoyed a special status in the Obama administration. In fact, the entire position of NSC chief of staff was created for him. Before that, the NSC chief of staff was actually the National Security Advisor. But Obama wanted Lippert close by in a powerful position, so the job was invented.
Now that Lippert has finished his deployment to an undisclosed location, the White House is looking for another job for him. For months, he has been expected to replace Gen. Chip Gregson, who left in April, as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. But he hasn't been nominated, partially due to private objections from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both of whom had issues with Lippert's skepticism regarding Obama's Afghanistan surge.
We're also told that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was opposed to Lippert's appointment at the Pentagon and the White House was waiting until Gates was gone. Gates was a staunch defender of Jones and might have held a grudge against Lippert. Also, Gates might have been wary of having someone who is so close to the White House embedded in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, especially one with a history of leaking and insubordination. Republican critics also say he lacks the qualifications for the job of being the Pentagon's top Asia policy official.
"Lippert is a guy who has no experience working in the Pentagon, no qualifications for leading defense policy on East Asia, and who is super close to the White House," said one Bush administration Asia official. "Other than that, he's perfect for the job."
GOP Senate staffers also see a Lippert nomination as a great chance to take the administration to task for what they see as a China policy that has been too conciliatory to Beijing.
"Mark Lippert's nomination to be assistant secretary of defense for Asia would be tremendous hold bait and an opportunity for the Senate to get a hearing on all of the president's China and Taiwan's policies," one senior GOP senate aide said.