Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is emerging from obscurity and into a glaring hot spotlight lately, raising alarms with aggressive new strategies that have upended the United States Postal Service just as it heads into possibly the most consequential moment of its history – the great vote-by-mail election of 2020.
DeJoy’s administration has slowed delivery, removed high-speed letter sorters from commission and issued a stark warning to election officials that mail-in ballots will no longer automatically be moved as priority mail. On top of that, the USPS has started reducing post office operating hours across several states, cut overtime for postal workers and removed some of their iconic blue letter collection boxes.
In the wake of what DeJoy is calling a “restructuring,” the agency’s inspector general is now reviewing these policy changes. And DeJoy will testify in both the Senate and House in coming days following demands from Democrats he appear.
On Tuesday, the embattled DeJoy suspended some of the changes until after the election. But Democrats say they want a full reversal of changes and are calling on DeJoy to prepare the USPS for the flood of mail-in ballots necessitated by the pandemic. Former President Barack Obama characterized the administration’s approach to the postal service as “a knee-capping” – sabotage by an executive who dislikes mail-in balloting and also has power over the agency that makes it possible.
Charged with securely shepherding millions of Americans’ votes, the USPS is shouldering a growing sense of mistrust from all sides. Each day a bill payment is marked overdue or a birthday card arrives later than expected is another day for voters to wonder: Will the Post Office be up to the task this election?
DeJoy appears sanguine amid the furor, acknowledging to employees this week that the slowdown is a direct result of his policies. In a memo to postal service staff and workers, he allowed there had been “unintended consequences” but promised that the changes will eventually mean “transformation into a financially stable organization” – a longtime conservative goal for the fiscally-challenged agency. Election experts may be worried about the post office role in a free and fair election, but DeJoy revealed that he, like Trump, is focused on the bottom line.
For the two months of his tenure, postal workers and election observers have been watching DeJoy closely and wondering to what extent he’ll serve Trump’s interests during the 2020 elections. The week’s events served to highlight just how in sync with his boss he may be.
“He’s a fantastic man,” Trump said when asked Saturday evening during his news conference at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, if he backs DeJoy’s changes at the agency. “He wants to make the Post Office great again.”
A new kind of postmaster
A successful businessman and Republican donor, DeJoy is known among friends for his take-no-BS attitude. His wife, the Polish-born Aldona Wos, was the US ambassador to Estonia under George W. Bush and is currently awaiting confirmation as ambassador to Canada.
Relatively unknown outside of GOP circles in North Carolina, DeJoy became a part of the President’s large circle of unofficial advisers in his role as a prolific fundraiser for Trump. DeJoy had been tapped as the finance chair for the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, a high-profile position generally reserved for confidants or financial bundlers.
DeJoy was Trump’s preferred pick when the agency’s board of governors tapped him earlier this year to run the centuries-old Postal Service like a private enterprise, and one source close to DeJoy said he was easily convinced to accept it. Unlike several recent postmasters general who came up through the agency, DeJoy is a government novice whose connection to the mail is primarily commercial.
His company, New Breed Logistics, contracted with the USPS for 25 years, providing supply chain services. Another Post Office contractor, XPO Logistics, acquired New Breed in 2014 and named DeJoy to its board. Ethics experts have raised conflict-of-interest questions about DeJoy continuing to hold a multimillion-dollar stake in XPO – questions similar to those about Trump’s unclear financial interest in his own private company.
The similarities between Trump and DeJoy don’t end there. Both are New York natives who are known to speak their minds loudly and without regard for the rules. DeJoy’s house in North Carolina, where Trump attended a fundraiser in 2017, resembles a castle – complete with a rotunda, a two-story kitchen wing, and a staircase painted with 24-carat gold leaf.
Most importantly, DeJoy shares the President’s view that government should be approached more like a business, and he seems to have little patience for bureaucratic niceties. That aspect comes through in DeJoy’s memo to Post Office employees, which is remarkably blunt in its assessment of the agency’s problems (“Over the years we have grown undisciplined in our mail and package processing schedules”) and asserts with Trumpian fanfare the changes are part of a “transformative initiative.”
That my-way-or-the-highway attitude has permeated the office of the Postmaster General. In a change from previous practice, the USPS is telling elections officials that election-related mail will not be treated as first class even when states pay for bulk rates – a costly policy change as states prepare for a bigger-than-expected number of mail-in ballots.
And in letters from DeJoy’s general counsel to elections officials in nearly every state and the District of Columbia, USPS claims those state’s deadlines for casting mail-in or absentee ballots are “incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards.” The letters state that the Post Office “strongly recommends” states send out request forms, applications and ballots on a timeline outlined in the letter.
The problem, according to the letters, lies with the states’ schedule, not with the Post Office itself.
Disrupting the mailbox
The up-front approach has already spurred action from several states, illustrating the impact DeJoy is having on officials across the country worried about conducting an election in unusual times.
In a court filing related to this warning, Pennsylvania said it is willing to extend its deadline to receive ballots to up to three days after the election, provided they are mailed by Election Day. Final details of the state’s postmark policy for November are still in flux, as the court case continues.
Other states told CNN they were already revising their practices following what were essentially test-runs of a mail-in voting system during primary elections earlier this year. Jon Keeling, spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State, said the letter “reinforces reforms we’ve been working on since the primaries,” which include the design of the mail-in ballots so they stand out among other pieces of mail.
But not every state is taking DeJoy’s actions in stride. Last week, Arizona secretary of state Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, wrote a letter to the state’s Republican attorney general encouraging an investigation into the USPS changes, noting that it’s against the law to “delay the delivery of a ballot.”
That combative tone reflects the way Democrats have zeroed in on DeJoy as a partisan stalking horse for suppressing the vote. Democrats in Congress have expressed their objections with the USPS cutbacks following what were described as “heated” discussions with DeJoy earlier this month. In that meeting Democrats demanded the cuts be reinstated, citing the need for a fully functioning Post Office ahead of the election.
“[T]he President, his cronies and Republicans in Congress continue to wage their all-out assault on the Postal Service and its role in ensuring the integrity of the 2020 election,” said House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer in a joint statement Friday.
DeJoy and the Post Office have also received criticism from the NAACP for “disrupting the machinery of democracy. A top postal-workers union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, also took a swipe at Trump’s USPS. In a Friday statement endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, NALC president Frederic Rolando said their decision was “partly informed by what we have seen from the current administration with regards to the Postal Service.”
But DeJoy still has the most important voice in his corner: the President’s. Despite Trump’s claim last week that he didn’t speak to his postmaster general, the White House confirmed the two did meet in the Oval Office early in August – two days before DeJoy’s contentious meeting with congressional Democrats.
At the August 7 meeting of the postal service’s board of governors, DeJoy dismissed the idea he was a puppet of the President.
“While I certainly have a good relationship with the President of the United States, the notion that I would ever make decisions concerning the Postal Service at the direction of the President, or anyone else in the administration, is wholly off-base,” he said.
Still, Trump appears willing to stand by his appointee and his decisions at the Post Office.
“He’s a very good businessman. He’s very successful. And I know he wants to make the Post Office at least somewhat lose a lot less money than – they’ve lost so much money over the decade. Nobody has ever – nothing loses money like the Post Office. And he wants to make it successful,” Trump told reporters at his Bedminster club last week, adding, “Let’s see what he can do.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published August 16, 2020. It has been updated to note that Louis DeJoy will testify before Congress.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this story.