The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to know what ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’ looks like? Look at Trump’s staffing.

White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Feb. 23. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

President Trump is failing to fully staff the federal government, subverting its ability to carry out its daily functions. While most Americans probably aren’t paying attention to the fact that the president has yet to nominate a undersecretary for food safety or a deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, his ongoing failure to fill vacancies will become increasingly visible as federal agencies are unable to carry out their missions or even perform basic daily tasks to serve the public.

Adding to the alarm over unfilled high-level posts are new reports about Trump’s refusal to approve Cabinet secretaries’ staffing requests and his quiet installation of a motley array of his allies in supposedly temporary positions that do not require Senate approval.

The upshot of what is happening right now is this: Trump is putting the entire government — and the American people’s trust in it — at risk, by appointing cronies and conspiracy theorists to vaguely defined positions, and leaving hundreds of crucial posts vacant.

Indeed, what we really may be seeing here is a version of chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s pledge to wage a battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

For example: A crisis is unfolding at the State Department, where dysfunction is so severe that three Democratic senators have warned Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson that his agency “appears unable to respond to the myriad of foreign policy challenges facing our nation.”

Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post tracker, which keeps tabs on the vacancies in positions that do require Senate confirmation, there are 512 posts for which Trump has failed to put forth a nominee, including 111 positions at the State Department and 50 at the Defense Department.

What’s more, as Jonathan Swan reports, the president is denying political appointees’ requests to hire their own staff, paralyzing the ability of multiple agencies to function, and leaving them “operating in a climate of distrust.” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for example, was reportedly told by the president that he could hire staff “as long as they’re our people.”

Then there’s the startling new report from ProPublica that shows what happens when team Trump hires “our people.” According to the report, Trump has been quietly staffing up agencies with mysterious “beachhead teams” of supposedly temporary appointees that “have operated largely in the shadows, with the White House declining to publicly reveal their identities.”

The list of about 400 employees includes three that ProPublica has dubbed “The Breitbart Wing.” One of them is Curtis Ellis, a columnist for the far-right site WorldNetDaily, and now a special assistant to the secretary at the Labor Department. In response to an inquiry by ProPublica about what his position entailed, Ellis refused to say.

WND has long been a hotbed for anti-Barack Obama and anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories, including birtherism — things that have a funny tendency to get rewarded in the Trump orbit. One incendiary column, entitled “The Radical Left’s Ethnic Cleansing of America,” made the ethno-nationalistic claim that “the radical left planned the liquidation of white, blue-collar working families in order to ‘fundamentally transform’ America.”

Republicans, too, should be disturbed by this appointment. An archive of Ellis’s columns at WND reveals he routinely bashed both political parties for their support of free trade, and has even argued that legal immigration “threaten[s] our bedrock values.” Last year, he boosted Trump as “a threat to the globalist cartel that has captured both parties in Washington” and thus “the most dangerous man in America.”

ProPublica’s list of beachhead staffers also contains quite a number of lobbyists. They include health-care lobbyists hired to work at the Department of Health and Human Services, a lobbyist for a technology firm at the Defense Department, a lobbyist who represented defense and homeland security contractors at the Department of Homeland Security, and corporate lobbyists at the Labor Department.

That Trump is deliberately leaving high-level positions empty and refusing his own Cabinet secretaries’ staffing requests is alarming enough. But the “beachhead teams” make clear this is far worse than leaving federal agencies understaffed and ineffective. The administration has been clear about its overarching aim, which it seems determined to carry out: transforming, and in some cases perhaps even deliberately hamstringing, the work of the federal government.

Trump is not draining the swamp. He’s creating his own.