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So far, Trump is really struggling as a chief executive

President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

As President Trump’s administration reaches its 100-day mark, many will comment on whether his presidency has been successful legislatively. But comparatively few will examine how well Trump has handled an equally important presidential responsibility: managing the executive branch.

New presidents take charge of governing by appointing capable managers who are simpatico ideologically. Indeed, Trump campaigned in no small part on his skill as a business executive. So how has he done as the nation’s chief executive?

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How many key policymaking positions has Trump left unfilled?

The Constitution requires that all “Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law” be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Currently, the executive branch includes 1,242 positions that fit this requirement, as defined by law. The Partnership for Public Service names 556 of these positions as key policymaking positions; the remainder includes U.S. marshals, U.S. attorneys, ambassadors, appointments to small commissions like the African Development Foundation, and a few others.

So how many of these 556 positions has Trump filled? As of this writing, he has nominated 66, and the Senate has confirmed 26. Compare that to the record of his four immediate predecessors. At this point, Barack Obama had nominated 190 and had 69 confirmed; George W. Bush had nominated 85, with 35 confirmed; Bill Clinton had nominated 176 with 49 confirmed; and George H.W. Bush had nominated 95 with 50 confirmed.

Clearly, Trump is well behind.

Is Trump intentionally leaving the executive branch understaffed?

In February, Trump told Fox News that he was intentionally leaving many spots open, saying:

When I see a story about ‘Donald Trump didn’t fill hundreds and hundreds of jobs,’ it’s because, in many cases, we don’t want to fill those jobs …
A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have. You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.

Is he right? Critics have long charged that there are too many political appointees in the United States system. The U.S. executive branch includes another 2,800 political appointments that don’t need Senate confirmation. Most developed democracies have from 12 to 200 appointees, rather than that 4,000.

But that doesn’t exactly compare apples to apples. While we might disagree about whether a career professional or an appointee should run a particular agency or function, that’s not the same as disagreeing over whether that function should be staffed.

Consider national health. Earlier this month, Lena H. Sun reported in The Washington Post that the Trump administration had not filled appointed positions critical for responding to a global pandemic of infectious disease, such as the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both the Ebola and Zika viruses have, so far, not spread wildly in the United States. But global health experts suggest that a bad outbreak of a particularly virulent influenza or some other easily transmitted virus or antibiotic-resistant bacteria could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. In such a case, the United States will not be spared.

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Should there be such an outbreak, the temporary officials currently staffing key agencies would have a difficult time mobilizing resources or making key decisions. At last reporting, it was still unclear who will represent the U.S. in international negotiations on preventing or slowing global pandemics. And tremendous international cooperation is required to monitor, isolate and stop outbreaks that could spread globally.

Running government like a business requires managers

Further, leaving key positions vacant makes it impossible to run government like a business, one of Trump’s stated goals. Generally, we teach that managers should state clear goals and define bedrock organizational functions. They should then work to refocus structure, process and human capital around those core missions and goals.

The president has begun an ambitious program to reorganize government — but with no appointees in place to define the goals by which that reorganization should be guided. Even if the president wishes to eliminate agencies and programs, he still needs people in place to direct orderly shutdowns. Poorly run shutdowns or reorganizations can cost more than they save.

The president cannot steer the entire federal bureaucracy without intermediaries to put his agenda into action 

Finally, if the president wants to control the bureaucracy, he needs appointees. Career executives are obligated by law to do what the law requires. They will do that the best they know how — which is usually defined as the way they have done it in the past.

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Without Trump’s appointees in place to control the levers of action — communications, budgeting, personnel and legal affairs — agencies will keep doing what they have always done. If they don’t respond to Trump’s public statements, the result will look like a bureaucracy that is working against the president.

The president claims that he has few appointees in place because of Democrats’ obstructionism. It’s true that Senate Democrats have tried to delay approval of Trump’s executive and judicial nominees. But their power is limited. They are in the minority — and are no longer able to indefinitely filibuster executive nominees.

Trump’s personnel office is inadequately staffed

But there’s another, more persuasive explanation, for why Trump’s nominations have come so slowly. Filling thousands of positions is an immense and complicated job. The president got a late start — because he decided to disregard much of the work done by his own transition team.

It takes 40 to 60 days for a potential nominee to clear the ethics and FBI background check reviews required before being considered by the Senate. The office that does this, the Office of Presidential Personnel (or OPP) currently employs 36 to 38 people — and Trump has it staffed with campaign and political operatives.

According to the White House Transition Project, Democratic and Republican presidents since the Reagan administration have had an OPP staffed by close to 100 people by the president’s 100-day mark, including professional executive recruiters practiced at precisely this task. Two weeks ago, Politico reported that the reason few nominees are coming out of the OPP is because:

… of micromanaging by the president and senior staff, turf wars between the West Wing and Cabinet secretaries and a largely inexperienced and overworked staff, say more than a dozen sources including administration insiders, lobbyists, lawyers and Republican strategists.
Trump personally oversees the hiring process for agency staff by insisting on combing through a binder full of names each week and likes to sign off on each one. … Also weighing in on the names — and not always agreeing on final picks — are leaders of sometimes warring factions, including chief of staff Reince Priebus, senior strategist Steve Bannon, Cabinet secretaries and, sometimes, the White House’s top lawyer, Don McGahn.

If the reporting is accurate, the key delay in filling out Trump’s team is not the Senate. It is the White House.

Things may not improve. The president has squandered an opportunity. Congress is predisposed to set aside time and attention to confirm nominees during the first part of every administration.

If the president wants to do better by his next benchmark, he will have to improve his White House process and focus on staffing his administration.

David E. Lewis is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the department of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Politics of Presidential Appointments” (Princeton 2008).