President Trump speaks to reporters alongside Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the White House Rose Garden in January after the president met with congressional leaders. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Columnist

With so many acting officials in the Trump administration, we should have a president who acts like a decent one.

President Trump performs like the reality show casting boss he was, placing an extraordinary number of acting officials in high-ranking positions where they provide no stability, no certainty and no confidence that Trump is fit for office.

“He has unleashed chaos and instability at the very highest levels of government,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations.

Twenty top administration slots are vacant or have an acting official, according to the Political Appointee Tracker published by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. That’s enough for four starting basketball teams. The tracker monitors only the top four levels — secretary, deputy secretary, undersecretary and assistant secretary. These are the top slots without a confirmed official, according to the tracker:

Department of Agriculture (four out of 13 total tracked positions)

1. Undersecretary for food safety

2. Undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services

3. Undersecretary for research, education, and economics

4. Assistant secretary for civil rights

Department of Commerce (four out of 21 total tracked positions)

1. Undersecretary for industry and security

2. Undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere and administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

3. Assistant secretary for export enforcement

4. Assistant secretary for global markets and director general, United States and Foreign Commercial Service

Department of Defense (eight out of 61 total tracked positions)

1. Secretary

2. Undersecretary for personnel and readiness

3. Assistant secretary for health affairs

4. Assistant secretary for international security affairs

5. Assistant secretary for logistics and materiel readiness

6. Assistant secretary for readiness

7. Assistant secretary for research and engineering

8. Assistant secretary for reserve affairs

Department of Education (three out of 16 total tracked positions)

1. Undersecretary

2. Assistant secretary for communications and outreach

3. Assistant secretary for postsecondary education

Department of Energy (one out of 23 total tracked positions)

1. Assistant secretary for nuclear energy


Today’s turnover of key leadership positions across government is unprecedented,” Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive, said by email. “This administration has been the slowest to fill top jobs in government and has had the largest turnover of senior positions of any recent administration. That said, there is plenty of blame to go around, and Congress has been slow to confirm nominees.”

It’s even worse than the tracker indicates.

Using the Leadership Directory to look deeper into the bureaucracies, my colleague, national politics research editor Alice Crites, found 1,050 political positions that are vacant or held by someone in an acting capacity.

Nowhere does this hurt more than at the Department of Homeland Security, where Trump is tossing out officials like he’s having a garage sale. Apparently, he wants folks who will push even crueller policies for Central American migrants.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is a loyal Trump sycophant. She embraced his family separation policy, dumping shame and disgrace on herself and the nation while doing his bidding. Yet the rising migration numbers so riled Trump that he bumped her, as he has many. Now this crucial department will soon have four top acting officials — in her job and at the Secret Service, along with the top slots at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This situation is irresponsible and possibly dangerous,” warned Linda J Bilmes, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “By leaving so many senior positions vacant, Trump is sending a message to the men and women who work at DHS that their work is not important. . . . It’s unthinkable that any major company would be run this way.”

DHS has had deep problems since it opened in 2003, formed from 22 agencies and becoming the third-largest federal department. The idea was to forge an integrated and unified command to protect the homeland on many fronts.

But it has long wallowed in low esteem. In 2018, in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ranking, it was last among 17 large agencies. Yet DHS has improved steadily and significantly since 2014. In fact, the department scored higher last year than any year after 2011.

Trump’s actions threaten that improvement, just as his leadership led to a decline in employee engagement at nearly 60 percent of all federal agencies last year, according to the Best Places report, issued by the Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group.

“President Trump’s apparent attempt to dismantle the department’s senior leadership will undoubtedly inflict untold damage on its management — in both the short and long term,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “Morale at the department is already low, and its 240,000 employees require — and deserve — steady leadership in order to best help keep the country secure.”

Steady leadership? Not from Trump.

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