Less than 40 percent of 633 key positions had a nominee as of Jan. 13, according to the tracker maintained by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post, which released new agency numbers on Tuesday. The Trump White House has named the full slate of nominees only for the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Office of Management and Budget. Last week, leaders left positions at the National Transportation Safety Board; the Surface Transportation Safety Board; the U.S. Election Assistance Commission; and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general office, from which John Roth departed.
Some departments are worse than others. The Commerce, Education and Labor departments do not have deputy secretaries. In addition, “no names have been offered for permanent appointments for Internal Revenue commissioner, Census Bureau director, ambassador to the Republic of Korea, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Energy Department and director of the National Counterterrorism Center. … Trump has yet to fill key diplomatic posts such as ambassadors to Germany and the European Union. Trump has begun to address the vacancies related to the tension with North and South Korea by naming, in December, Susan Thornton, a career senior Foreign Service officer in the class of minister-counselor, to be an assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.”
Trump cannot blame the Senate entirely. The White House Transition Project reports, “The Trump administration continues to have the fewest nominations in 40 years.” Trump has made approximately 350 nominations; the average at this point in a presidency is nearly 500. When it comes to the most vital positions — “213 leadership positions critical to the functions of government” — Trump is especially delinquent. “The most distressing delays with respect to the Trump administration come when analyzing positions critical to standing up the American government and carrying out its constitutional responsibilities, e.g., national defense, global commerce, diplomatic leadership,” The White House Transition Project reports. “These positions involve three types: national security, management, and economic policy-making. … The average administration has stood up twice as many critical positions as the Trump team.” Trump has filled 35.3 percent of these spots, compared with the average of 65.5 percent.
Part of this seems to be a deliberate attempt to decapitate and shrink the government. The president says many positions do not need to be filled. He is the “only one that matters” in foreign policy, he declared. Whether a result of hostility to government or of pure ignorance as to what government does (or both), Trump is cheating the taxpayers. They’ve paid for certain services, and Congress has funded them. However, the government will not be able to deliver well-designed, competent government without people in key jobs. (Imagine that a chief executive a year into their tenure had not hired the head of sales or the head of cybersecurity.) Even as the new tax law is implemented, there is no permanent IRS commissioner. In managing the North Korea crisis, we have no ambassador in Seoul. Attempts to maintain the National Park Service (and perhaps deal with the shutdown) will be done without a permanent head of the NPS. Trump hasn’t bothered to nominate anyone.
This is also counterproductive insofar as presidential appointees are needed to implement the policies Trump wants. Leaving these spots vacant (akin to funding by continuing resolutions) means the status quo prevails.
A good deal of the problem no doubt stems from complete White House dysfunction and incompetence. The president cannot decide what he wants on a variety of subjects, spends endless “executive time,” goes to campaign-style rallies and lounges around at his properties (about a third of his time in office so far). His own staff turnover is the highest of modern presidents, and those who remain spend their days putting out fires the president has set. Given all that, it is little wonder key government spots remain empty.
The irony is that management was, Trump told us, his strong suit. He’d hired only the “best” people. Already one national security adviser (along with the deputy to the first adviser’s replacement) and the secretary of health and human services were forced to resign; Trump fired the FBI director and chief of staff (necessitating a new homeland security secretary to backfill John Kelly’s spot at the department). If one is too busy filling and refilling top slots, the vacancies in the important tier of positions just below go unaddressed.
In truth, Trump has never been a successful manager. Whether one looks at his multiple bankruptcies or a slew of failed ventures (from football to vodka to steaks), he’s never been known for effectively implementing his sales pitches. (Now as predominantly a licensing venture that makes money off his name, Trump’s business can sign a deal and let others run the show. In 2015 Forbes reported, “Trump doesn’t own a large number of his properties. He licenses his name to developers and offers property management services. For instance, his name is on 17 properties in Manhattan, but he only owns five of them outright.” He may be a “genius” at self-promotion, but when it comes to running the executive branch, he’s been a dunce.
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