President Trump’s Cabinet secretaries are growing exasperated at how slowly the White House is moving to fill hundreds of top-tier posts, warning that the vacancies are hobbling efforts to oversee agency operations and promote the president’s agenda, according to administration officials, lawmakers and lobbyists.
The Senate has confirmed 26 of Trump’s picks for his Cabinet and other top posts. But for 530 other vacant senior-level jobs requiring Senate confirmation, the president has advanced just 37 nominees, according to data tracked by The Washington Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. These posts include the deputy secretaries and undersecretaries, chief financial officers, ambassadors, general counsels, and heads of smaller agencies who run the government day-to-day.
That’s less than half the nominees President Barack Obama had sent to the Senate by this point in his first term.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has publicly expressed frustration with the process, has routinely peppered the White House Personnel Office for updates and called Trump directly to press for faster action on filling vacant jobs at the Interior Department, said two people familiar with his contacts, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity for this report because of the sensitivity of hiring discussions.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price aired his dismay at a recent breakfast meeting with his former congressional colleagues. “He’s very frustrated,” said a Republican House member who was there . “He felt it was much more difficult to operate the department and provide the leadership level that you need to provide.”
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has also become impatient, said a Republican lobbyist who is close to her. Chao has tapped an outside consultant to help her identify candidates for top jobs and shepherd them through the White House nomination process, an agency official confirmed.
In part, the delay in filling leadership posts is a result of a chaotic transition after Trump won the November election. Just days after his victory, Trump dumped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) as transition director and jettisoned much of his work, replacing him with Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
But the nomination process has also been slowed by the unusual degree of scrutiny the White House is giving job candidates. Prospective nominees for senior posts and even some of the more junior ones must win approval from competing camps inside the White House, according to close Trump associates and Republican lobbyists.
Around the table for weekly hiring meetings are chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, representing the populist wing; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, leading the establishment Republican wing; White House Counsel Don McGahn; Pence’s chief of staff, Josh Pitcock; and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, representing a business-oriented faction, according to a lobbyist and several White House officials. For economic appointments, Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, also sits in, as does the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, when a hiring decision piques her interest.
“We make sure the people involved in hiring decisions don’t have an objection,” Priebus said. “To get to that point, you’ve gone through a long process. If someone has a serious objection, unless it can be resolved, it’s probably not going to move forward.”
Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser who served as a communications director under President George W. Bush, said requiring so many White House figures to sign off on appointments can be unusually cumbersome.
“There are big differences among them about the people they’re talking about putting in these positions,” Bennett said. “Of course, it’s going to take longer.”
Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, who stays in regular touch with White House officials, said the drawn-out hiring process is leaving Cabinet secretaries “stuck in most instances.”
In the interim, the secretaries are relying on civil servants in acting leadership roles, which can create an uneasy relationship given the Trump administration’s aim of upending many traditional agency functions.
To accelerate the process of filling top posts at the Transportation Department, Chao has hired Edmund Moy to help identify candidates to staff her office and to head 10 agencies within her department. He is also guiding them through the White House nomination process. Chao worked closely with Moy when she was labor secretary under Bush and Moy was a White House personnel official responsible for hiring senior figures at the Labor Department and other agencies.
A Transportation Department spokeswoman said the department is about halfway toward filling its vacancies. “Our focus remains on aligning a top-notch team to carry out the priorities of the department and the administration.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions faces perhaps a more daunting challenge at the Justice Department, which has openings for all 93 U.S. attorneys around the country and vacancies atop its divisions. When a reporter asked Sessions last week how he can pursue Trump’s tough-on-crime agenda with so many vacancies, Sessions said, “We really need to work hard at that.”
The Interior Department, a more modest agency, may have far fewer top posts to fill, but with 16 senior jobs still empty, Zinke has been airing his “frustration on the process.” In remarks to journalists this month, as reported by E&E News, Zinke said: “A lot of it — the executive branch is no different than any branch — is the frustration of the bureaucracy. . . . We’re working with the White House every day” to get the nominations out.
At the Education Department, Secretary Betsy DeVos has devised a strategy to compensate for her depleted senior ranks. She is leaning heavily on the staff of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former education secretary who now chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a former top aide to the senator said. Alexander’s aides are involved on behalf of the agency in working with state governments to put in place a new law that shifts much of the federal role in elementary and secondary education to the states.
“The chairman is committed to providing any assistance the secretary requests,” an aide to Alexander said. Offering this kind of assistance, the aide said, “is standard practice” for the committee.
DeVos had hoped to have her own staff in place to manage the major shifts the administration hopes to make in education. She had backed New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera for assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, but the White House soured on her after some Senate Republicans raised concerns about her support for Common Core standards, according to a Republican familiar with the senators’ thinking.
DeVos had wanted to have a deputy by now. The name of Indiana businessman Allan Hubbard has surfaced as a possible deputy education secretary. Although he has yet to be nominated, Hubbard has already joined a team of Education Department officials meeting with potential candidates for other top agency posts, according to a Republican with knowledge of the discussions.
Across the government, there are posts for 16 deputy secretaries, but only two have been filled so far: Elaine Duke at the Department of Homeland Security and Rod Rosenstein, who was confirmed for a Justice post Tuesday. Trump has nominated four others, though one of them, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, withdrew his name for consideration to be commerce deputy secretary last week, citing difficulties in complying with rules on avoiding financial conflicts.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has been pushing coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler for his agency’s No. 2 job, another Republican lobbyist said, but the White House has not signed off, almost two months after Wheeler’s name surfaced.
In the winter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson picked Elliott Abrams, a national security veteran of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, to be his deputy secretary. Abrams said he met with Kushner and Trump but was told that Bannon vetoed the choice. Abrams had been critical of Trump during the election campaign.
And at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis withdrew his top choice for undersecretary for policy in March after the White House told him it would not fight an expected battle for Senate confirmation for retired senior diplomat Anne Patterson. While the president has since named several candidates for senior defense positions, the policy post, arguably the most important person on the secretary’s team, is still held by an acting career official.
Mattis has skirmished with the White House over other appointments as well and told colleagues he is frustrated by the delays, especially since he had insisted on being able to choose his team, according to current and former national security officials.
The screening of potential nominees for conflicts of interest arising from their business activities has contributed to the lengthy nomination process in some instances. White House officials said they have given preliminary approval to 250 job candidates who are now undergoing vetting by the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics before being nominated and sent to the Senate for confirmation.
Johnny DeStefano, who heads the White House Personnel Office, said he aims to ensure that the president’s key advisers have no objections before advancing the name of a prospective nominee.
“Generally, we just have a discussion about each of the individuals,” DeStefano said. “I’m there to represent all of the White House interests. The goal is that by the time [the decision] gets to the president, he understands that everybody is on the same page.”
DeStefano defended the pace of nominations, saying that the White House is “making sure we find, in as deliberative a fashion as we can, the right mix of folks . . . who have experience driving change, who understand what the problems are.”
But Clay Johnson III, who led the White House personnel operation during Bush’s first term, said that the hiring process during that administration was much more streamlined and that he routinely presented the president with two dozen names to approve each week. Although hires for senior jobs had to pass muster with Chief of Staff Andrew Card and political strategist Karl Rove, fewer White House officials had a veto over nominations.
“People didn’t automatically say, ‘I have a say in this,’ ” Johnson recalled.
Devlin Barrett, Emma Brown, Anne Gearan, Sari Horwitz, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Missy Ryan and Lena Sun contributed to this report.