The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s administration is way behind in appointments

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting in the Russian Foreign Ministry guest house in Moscow on April 12. (SERGEI CHIRIKOV/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY)

Partnership for Public Service, which in conjunction with The Post has been tracking the pace of executive branch nominations, came out with a report in anticipation of the first 200 days of the Trump administration. It creates an embarrassing portrait of sloth and ineptitude: “During this time, Trump has prioritized government reorganization, laid out a management framework and promised to bring private sector technology advances to federal agencies. But the president has struggled to build cohesive leadership teams across government or work closely with the career workforce to accomplish his goal of improving agency effectiveness.”

On the positive side, the report notes, “Since Trump’s 100th day in office, the administration established the American Technology Council, issued an executive order to strengthen federal networks’ cybersecurity and worked with Congress to introduce legislation that will modernize federal information technology and reduce wasteful spending on maintenance of legacy technologies.” That’s about it for the good news.

The report documents what many have observed anecdotally:

As of July 31, Trump has nominated 255 people out of the more than 1,100 positions requiring Senate confirmation, and the Senate has confirmed just 51 of those nominees. Today, the average time for the Senate to confirm an appointee is 46 days, a timeframe that also lags behind historic norms. The unfilled jobs range across major departments, including the deputy director of management at OMB, to the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs and assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Furthermore, a large percentage of the top national security jobs remain vacant, with only 12 percent of the positions currently filled.

As a matter of comparison both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama by this point had nominated over 400 people, both had over 390 confirmed (as compared to 51 for Trump). The missing appointees are in senior slots throughout the government. (“At the 15 Cabinet-level departments, less than 20 percent of the key Senate-confirmed positions are filled, with the departments of Energy and Commerce only having five percent of critical leaders in place.”) The State Department, which has come under severe criticism for lack of staffing and futilely attempting to run the entire foreign policy establishment with the secretary and a few non-confirmable staffers, has filled only 8 percent of its political slots.

Unsurprisingly, the result is low morale, lack of progress on significant issues and a brain drain as experts become frustrated and decide to leave government. Foreign Policy magazine presents a stunning account of the Trump team’s mismanagement — really, non-management — of the State Department. The idea is in essence to ignore the hundreds of experienced people in the building and run things from the small management cadre not subject to confirmation and in many cases without requisite experience:

Veterans of the U.S. diplomatic corps say the expanding front office is part of an unprecedented assault on the State Department: A hostile White House is slashing its budget, the rank and file are cut off from a detached leader, and morale has plunged to historic lows. They say President Donald Trump and his administration dismiss, undermine, or don’t bother to understand the work they perform and that the legacy of decades of American diplomacy is at risk.
By failing to fill numerous senior positions across the State Department, promulgating often incoherent policies, and systematically shutting out career foreign service officers from decision-making, the Trump administration is undercutting U.S. diplomacy and jeopardizing America’s leadership role in the world, according to more than three dozen current and former diplomats.

The hubris of the inexperienced secretary and his insular team is stunning. Not only can they not possibly develop and implement dozens of initiatives around the globe, but they are asking for turf wars, backbiting and rear-guard actions by those whose expertise they should be enlisting. “This is an administration rich in self-inflicted wounds, but those at State are some of the worst,” says Trump critic and former State Department official Eliot Cohen. “Without regional and functional bureaus led by competent assistant secretaries we are going to have zombie diplomacy. And the notion that it can be run from Policy Planning — which seems to be the operating mode — is fantasy.”

Part of this plainly is a culture clash between corporate America and government service: “In early spring, as the Trump administration readied to gut the State Department of funding, Tillerson recruited a small private consulting company, Insigniam, which markets itself as a ‘breakthrough management consulting firm,’ to conduct a department-wide employee survey.” This turned out to be a semi-disaster, showing “they just didn’t understand the fundamental reasons of why the State Department exists.… It’s just so amateurish.” The exercise was, in the eyes of career State Department people, “a bad joke, a microcosm of how the Trump administration is attempting to force-feed corporate jargon with no clear understanding of its mission or the foundations of American diplomacy.”

The Tillerson fiasco should dispel the notion that success in business makes one capable in government. “It’s maddening and baffling,” says frequent Trump critic Max Boot. “Why would Rex Tillerson consent to cripple the department he is charged with overseeing? This isn’t the corporate world where you can sell divisions or simply stop making products.” He adds, “I’m sure the State Department, like every other bureaucracy, can do its work more efficiently. But Tillerson isn’t maximizing effectiveness. He is presiding over a demoralized and dysfunctional mess.”

At times it is hard to tell whether Tillerson is trying to dismantle the State Department in keeping with Trump’s militarization of foreign policy. Whether deliberate or not, “it amounts to the unilateral disarmament of America’s diplomatic power,” says Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. And it will take years to undo the damage.