The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump drags feet on political appointees, lags behind predecessors

President  Trump attends the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s National Days of Remembrance ceremony on April 25. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

President Trump has found a way to cut the federal workforce while lightening the Senate’s workload as a bonus — go slow on nominating political appointees.

Compared with his recent predecessors and with little time until his 100th day on Saturday, Trump lags behind their century totals in filling the high-level government positions that are necessary to set agency policies. Given his policies, it’s tempting to say that’s a good thing. But politicos provide the direction and guidance needed to get work done. Even an administration with harmful policies needs its people in place for government to work as it should.

Tracking how many key positions Trump has filled so far

Knowledgeable and experienced career civil servants are in charge when political appointees are absent. But they are charged with carrying out policy, not initiating it.

“Career executives who serve in an acting capacity when a political appointee has not been nominated by the president or confirmed by the Senate are akin to substitute teachers,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which has studied presidential transitions. “They may have deep experience, but they are not perceived as having real authority and are unlikely to make key decisions or take on long-term challenges, because of the temporary nature of their positions.”

As of late Tuesday, his 96th day in office, Trump had nominated an estimated 66 officials, just over a third of the 190 President Barack Obama selected in his first 100 days, according to Partnership data. The 100-day number for President George W. Bush was 85; Bill Clinton, 176; and George H.W. Bush, 95.

Why is Trump’s number so low? The White House did not answer.

Does anyone believe it is the result of a well-thought-out policy to cut back on the excess number of political appointees?


Instead, it reflects a president who was not prepared to govern. Now the agencies, federal employees and the public are paying the price.

“I do not think President Trump’s delay in filling critical leadership jobs across the government is deliberate,” Stier said. “This represents an example of the president’s unfamiliarity with the governmental process and lapses during the transition. At the same time, I believe you can run the government with fewer political appointees, but to do that, you must be strategic and understand which jobs have merit and which ones are unnecessary.”

Here’s another striking statistic from the Partnership: “The pending number of appointees to clear federal ethics requirements is striking compared to that of the Obama administration. As of April 17, Trump had only submitted 41 percent of the nominee reports that his predecessor submitted in 2009, according to Office of Government Ethics data.”

This further detracts from an administration whose ethical reputation has steadily deteriorated as it bolsters Trump’s reputation for being unfit and unprepared for the presidency.

“I think the president was a little surprised he won,” said G. Edward DeSeve, author of “The Presidential Appointee’s Handbook.” DeSeve was an Obama administration appointee and co-chairman of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transition 2016 initiative. “He was more focused on the campaign and the tactics of the campaign than he was getting ready to govern.”

New York University public-service professor Paul C. Light said that Trump “started late, didn’t care a bit about the transition process.”

In federal agencies, the transition remains a work in slow motion.

We asked federal employees how the lack of political appointees affects their agencies. For some, it didn’t matter. That was not the case everywhere. Like feds generally who fear management retaliation, they did not want to be named criticizing their agencies or the president.

The question: Has a shortage of political leadership affected your agency’s operations?

An Environmental Protection Agency employee: “Yes, absolutely. . . . There is a mess when it comes to decision-making. There is a lot of infighting between the Trump political appointees and we see competing with each other for power at meetings. The career leaders are in acting positions, but they do not have the authority to make decisions. They are caught in a limbo. They are trying to protect programs by not talking about them and concealing information.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staffer: “Our initiatives seem to be on hold while the administration decides what to do about the environment. . . . We have had a few projects that have stalled because we don’t know if the current administration will keep up the previous one’s focus on environmental health and public outreach for health concerns.”  This worker said that “my job has slowed down considerably” under Trump. “The current mission is to rock the boat as little as possible.”

A Department of Health and Human Services worker: “No clear sense of mission, though we’re promised a new strategic plan. Not clear what that process is, to my knowledge senior executives not engaged. Lack of political appointees — even lack of nominees until the past week — has only increased anxiety, as the career acting leadership seems hellbent on keeping things quiet and taking no risks even with issues of timeliness or urgency. . . . Everything screened with a policy filter, irrespective of the science.”

But the lack of Trump appointees is a good thing for some.

Said one federal employee: “The shortage of political leadership improves the ability of the Department to conduct business without interference.”

Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.

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