A week ago, on April 3, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, for having forwarded to Congress a complaint from a whistleblower about Trump’s attempts to extort Ukraine. This adds to the turmoil in the intelligence community, our first line of defense against pandemics and other threats. The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, was fired in February and replaced by yet another acting director — a Trump loyalist named Richard Grenell.
Four days after getting rid of Atkinson, Trump fired Glenn Fine, the acting Pentagon inspector general who was chairman of a new panel to oversee $2 trillion in stimulus spending. His temporary replacement, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency, is supposed to act as inspector general of both departments until a permanent successor is confirmed for the Pentagon.
The same day that Fine was fired, acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly resigned after relieving and insulting the captain of an aircraft carrier who had demanded more aggressive action to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus aboard his ship. Modly acted so obnoxiously, it appears, because he was terrified of being fired like his predecessor for displeasing Trump. The Navy now has its second acting secretary in a row while other unconfirmed placeholders fill other critical Defense Department posts including the Pentagon comptroller and undersecretary for policy and the assistant secretaries for Asian affairs, special operations, international security affairs, manpower and readiness. All those vacancies hinder a military struggling to deal with an invisible enemy spreading rapidly through its ranks.
Yet both the intelligence community and the Pentagon are bastions of stability compared to the White House. This week, Trump removed Stephanie Grisham as press secretary and replaced her with Kayleigh McEnany, one of his most shameless defenders on television. (She insisted on Feb. 25 that “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here” because we are no longer afflicted by “the awful presidency of President Obama.”) McEnany’s ascension as Trump’s fourth press secretary doesn’t matter much per se; Grisham did not give a single press briefing during her 281 days on the job. But it is indicative of the changes being made by the new White House chief of staff — a job that matters a great deal.
Trump fired acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on March 6. His replacement, Mark Meadows, waited until March 30 to resign from Congress and formally assume the post. What is often described as the second-most-important position in the entire government was effectively empty during the month when America became the world leader in confirmed coronavirus cases. Who was in charge of pandemic response? It’s hard to say since Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Vice President Pence and Trump’s unqualified son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have all been jostling for influence.
It doesn’t help that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — which should play a major role in addressing this threat to the homeland — has fewer confirmed appointees than any other Cabinet department. According to a political appointee tracker from The Post and the Partnership for Public Service, while confirmed appointees fill 68 percent of the top jobs across the government (itself a low rate this late into a president’s term), at DHS it is only 35 percent.
It’s been a year since Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out as secretary and Elaine Duke as deputy secretary of DHS, and no one has been nominated to either post. Also lacking Senate-confirmed appointees are the undersecretary for management, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. At least a new administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was confirmed in January, but there is still no confirmed deputy administrator.
Even if Trump really were a “stable genius,” he would be hard-put to run the government effectively with so many appointees of dubious competence coming and going. Given that Trump is incompetent, ignorant and often irrational, his failure to surround himself with a strong, stable team exacerbates his own deficiencies and makes it nearly impossible to coordinate a sensible national response to the worst pandemic in a century. State and local leaders are largely on their own — and so are the rest of us.