By now, we’re used to the pattern. President Trump appoints a staffer to a position, lavishing the person with praise and often implying that no better person could have been chosen. Over time — sometimes a lot of time, sometimes not — cracks start to appear. Reports of Trump growing frustrated with the person and/or reports of other administration officials growing impatient. Often Trump will come out and rebut those claims, but, inevitably, there’s then a tweet.
As there was on Sunday, when it was Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s time.
In the next tweet, Trump announced Nielsen’s temporary replacement, Kevin McAleenan, who will become acting head of the department.
Just by considering Trump’s history, it’s fairly obvious that he’s comfortable with acting agency heads. Including the first several months he was in office when some nominees were awaiting confirmation, more than a fifth of Trump’s presidency has seen departments run by acting heads. (Specifically, 21 percent of the days that one of the 15 consistent Cabinet positions could have had a director, there was an acting director in place.)
But we don’t need to infer that Trump appreciates acting department heads. He’s said as much.
“I like acting because I can move so quickly,” Trump said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in February. “It gives me more flexibility.”
That’s obviously true. Trump can slot someone in without having to have the person confirmed by the Senate, a move he used at the Justice Department last year after he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Trump may not have the modern record for the most days with an acting Cabinet chief in a year, a title owned by Barack Obama in 2013.
But if you look at cumulative days with acting department heads over the course of Trump’s presidency, his administration stands out. (If Jan. 1 saw an acting director at State and Agriculture, for example, that would count as two days on this metric.)
One small caveat: As the graph at the bottom shows, the Cabinet is larger these days than it used to be.
On average, though, Trump’s agencies have spent much more time being led by acting directors. He’s had 388 days on average in each of the years of his presidency in which a department was led by an acting director.
Why? Two reasons. The first is that Trump’s also seen more turnover than past presidents. Over the course of his first two years in office, nearly two-thirds of his leadership team left or took a new position, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution’s Kathryn Tenpas.
But Trump has also been slow to fill positions across the agencies, not just at the top. As of writing, Washington Post-Partnership for Public Service data suggests that at least 12 agencies still see a quarter or more of their Senate-confirmed positions unfilled.
In some cases, there are nominees waiting to be confirmed, something that Trump has often complained about. In many cases, though, there aren’t.
While Trump has a lot of acting directors now, he doesn’t really have an exceptional number of them. It’s not uncommon for a president to see several positions open in recent years, especially at the beginning of his term or after an election.
What is uncommon is his willingness to embrace acting directors as a good-enough solution. Why have a political fight in the Senate, he seems to think, unless it’s absolutely necessary? The Senate’s supposed to have an advise-and-consent role in the process, but if a president weren’t looking for advice and didn’t feel he needed consent, what then?