The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion President Trump has created an ‘acting’ government

Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is President Trump’s acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is President Trump’s acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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IT IS getting to the point at which seemingly every high Trump administration official is an “acting” something or other. Mark Morgan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, recently moved over to become the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Before that, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan resigned and Army Secretary Mark T. Esper replaced him as acting Pentagon chief, who knows for how long. The Defense Department has lacked a Senate-confirmed leader since the beginning of the year.

President Trump has tapped former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli to be acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services. In that role, Mr. Cuccinelli reports to Kevin McAleenan, who is the acting homeland security secretary. Mick Mulvaney is acting White House chief of staff. The nation’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, the ambassador to the United Nations and the Food and Drug Administration commissioner are all acting.

In some of these cases, circumstances are extenuating. Mr. Shanahan withdrew from Senate consideration to fill his job permanently because his FBI background check dragged on and his family’s sad history of domestic strife was coming to light. Nor is Mr. Trump unique in relying on acting officials in senior positions, sometimes for substantial lengths of time.

But Mr. Trump has taken the practice to extremes. The Associated Press last month highlighted research from Christina Kinane, now a Yale political science professor, finding that some 3 in 10 Cabinet officials had served on an acting basis from the beginning of the Carter administration to now. (That includes holdovers from outgoing administrations who served briefly until the Senate confirmed permanent replacements.) Under Mr. Trump, a bit more than half of the people who have held top Cabinet posts have done so on an acting basis. A quarter of the acting officials counted over the whole period have worked for Mr. Trump, who has been president for about 5 percent of the time considered.

Part of the problem is incompetence in selecting decent people to serve. Several Senate-confirmed Cabinet officials, such as former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, departed in scandal, while the president had to withdraw the names of many flawed nominees who never made it through the Senate.

Amid the Trump administration’s near-daily chaos, the president also discovered advantages in skirting the Senate. “I like ‘acting’ because I can move so quickly,” the president said earlier this year. “It gives me more flexibility.” In Mr. Cuccinelli’s case, tapping the ideological bomb-thrower as an acting immigration official is a transparent way to sidestep a Senate that was not likely to confirm him.

The parade of acting officials leaves major agencies in administrative limbo, unable to move forward on major initiatives and under a cloud of uncertainty about whether their direction might change with little notice. At the same time, Congress allows acting officials to serve for up to 210 days — plenty of time for acting appointees to cause damage even though they have obtained no Senate consent. Whether because of incompetence, calculation or both, this is no way to run a government.

Read more:

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Daniel W. Drezner: How hard up is President Trump in staffing his administration? Pretty hard up!

Jennifer Rubin: The Shanahan debacle exemplifies Trump’s incompetence

The Post’s View: Patrick Shanahan’s departure plunges the Pentagon into uncertainty