Speaking from the White House this week amid stoked tensions with Iran, President Trump was flanked by nearly a dozen men involved in our nation’s defense — a move meant to convey U.S. military might.
No administration in recent memory has had this many vacancies this far into a term, and there is likewise no precedent in modern times for widespread defense openings in “a crisis moment like this,” said Sam Brannen, who leads the Risk and Foresight Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.
Not all of those open jobs are directly relevant to Iran-related national security issues, but a handful of the vacant positions would be considered crucial to any traditional administration’s ability to make strategic decisions in the region, according to three experts who spoke with The Washington Post.
There is no permanent director or deputy director of national intelligence, or secretary of the Navy, or deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, or assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, or assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, all positions with responsibilities that relate to national security and political, diplomatic or security risk assessment in the region where the Soleimani strike took place. The top three jobs in the Department of Homeland Security — the secretary, deputy secretary and undersecretary for management — are filled with acting personnel who have not faced the scrutiny of the confirmation process.
“There is a reason why these jobs exist,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. “They really matter. ”
Filling these vacancies has been an ongoing challenge for Trump throughout his time in office. The Senate confirmation process for political appointees has been lethargic, a swath of #NeverTrump defense officials removed themselves from the eligibility pool long ago, and it’s difficult to convince anyone to take on a new administration job in the final year of a presidential term.
Even in peacetime, it would be unwise to have this many key jobs vacant or filled with temporary people, said Brannen, who is a senior fellow in the CSIS International Security Program. The discussion is more robust and sophisticated when more minds are generating a buffet of ideas, he said, but just having bodies in the positions isn’t always enough either. The power of acting personnel is undermined by the very idea that they are only temporary, and consistent turnover within the Trump administration has made it difficult for those working on defense and national security to find a cohesive rhythm.
“In a crisis environment, all of these things compound,” Brannen said.
Trump has shown little interest in seeking the kind of advice that comes from a deep defense bench common for most traditional administrations, said Loren Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security who previously held senior staff roles at the Defense Department and National Security Council. Instead, Trump has relied on a tight circle that keeps getting smaller.
“If the president is not willing to take advantage of what they and their staffs bring to the table, they might as well not be there at all,” Schulman said of some of the adviser jobs that remain vacant.
As of Jan. 6, there were 26 positions within the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security that either had no nominee from the White House, an unofficial nominee, or an official nominee who is awaiting Senate approval, according to Stier’s database, which tracks the roughly 700 most influential administration jobs requiring congressional confirmation.
In a statement to The Post, Defense Department spokesman Chuck Prichard said all positions there are covered by a continuity plan that “keeps the office running should the position be vacated. ”
“All of DOD’s leaders — regardless of position — remain focused on ensuring we are best able to fulfill our missions to ensure our nation’s security and deter war,” Prichard said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Department of Homeland Security.
These are the unfilled jobs most concerning to some national security experts regarding Iran policy:
At least 79 percent of the most influential jobs in the Defense Department that require Senate confirmation were filled as of Jan. 6, according to the tracker database. Of the 17 relevant positions that remain unfilled, Schulman said she is most concerned about the following vacancies: deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict.
The role of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East is to flag security sensitivities and political and diplomatic implications of an action in that particular region, serving as a liaison between low-level policy experts and the White House, Schulman said. “That is a critical position that would be advising all the way up to the president, certainly the secretary of defense,” Brannen said. The person who formally held the role as top Pentagon police official for the Middle East, Mick Mulroy, left in late 2019 and the position has not been permanently filled. Part of the uncertainty playing out in the Middle East is the U.S. relationship with Iraq, and the deputy assistant secretary of defense for that region would also be responsible for advising the secretary of defense on how to manage it in terms of security issues, Schulman said.
The assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs is a job that Schulman said should be an important part of what comes next because that person serves as a top adviser on security and policy strategy related to Europe — including NATO — and Russia, the Middle East, Africa and the Western Hemisphere, according to the Partnership for Public Service. In his address this week, Trump asked NATO to get more involved in the region at a time when our allies are nervously waiting for more information about U.S. strategy, Schulman said. The last person to hold the job resigned in 2018. As of Jan. 6, there was nobody nominated to fill it.
A third position that has had an acting official since November, and one that Brannen said is one administrations traditionally “don’t gap,” is the assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The job is crucial to missions such as the strike carried out against Soleimani because it “combines expertise in operational oversight with foreign policy judgment to ensure that our operations are conducted as prudently as possible,” Luke Hartig, a fellow at New America and a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, wrote in Just Security. “This is essential because special operations almost always have strategic and political ramifications that go beyond the military’s execution of them. ”
Department of Homeland Security
The Department of Homeland Security has filled 47 percent of its most influential positions that require Senate confirmation, a statistic that Stier said is potentially concerning because that agency is responsible for national security on the home front. Iran launched retaliation missiles at an Iraqi base co-occupied by U.S. troops, and it is unclear if further revenge could follow from proxies in the region. The agency has also been plagued by significant turnover, which Stier said affects cohesion. “If the top turns, it has a cascade effect on the rest of the organization,” he said.
Since the Trump administration began, there have been two people confirmed to the job of secretary of homeland security who have ultimately resigned. Kirstjen Nielsen left in the fall of last year, and the White House has yet to nominate anyone to replace her. Chad Wolf was sworn in as acting secretary two months ago.
At the same time Wolf was named acting secretary, Ken Cuccinelli was named acting deputy secretary of homeland security. There is no permanent nominee for that job either, according to Stier’s database.
There has also been no permanent undersecretary for management since April, the third-in-command gig at the department. The deputy undersecretary for management, Randolph D. “Tex” Alles, is performing the job’s duties, which include oversight of support functions for homeland security staff, such as information technology, budget and security.
Above all, the result of the vacancies across the administration — and most critically in the defense realm — is a culture that does not reward dissenting or conflicting thoughts and, Brannen said, “makes for less deliberative processes, for less advice and probably for worse outcomes.”
“That is not how we work traditionally in national security decision-making,” Brannen said.