The Trump administration will be God’s gift to natural experiments. As I explained back during the campaign, a natural experiment “is an instance in which an event transpires that looks like other events in its category, but has some extreme values on certain variables. This allows researchers to see just how important those particular variables are on the outcome of something we care about.”
The 2016 campaign was a great test of the value of traditional campaign tools of the trade like field offices and get-out-the-vote operations. Clinton dominated Trump in those areas — and as we now know, they didn’t matter all that much at all.
Because of Trump’s unorthodox approach to the presidency, there will be a cornucopia of natural experiments coming down the pike. But a quick scan of news stories over the past few days suggests a big one for the first few weeks of the new administration.
See if you can spot the theme:
Michael Crowley, Politico: “Is Trump Ready for a National Security Crisis?”
The abrupt withdrawal of a top Trump National Security Council appointee and the dozens of high-level personnel holes across key foreign policy and defense agencies have national security experts posing a dark question: Will Donald Trump be ready to manage a national security crisis from Day One?
Sources close to the transition describe Trump’s national security staffing as a “black box,” leaving everyone from Obama administration officials to Trump job seekers and foreign diplomats guessing at who will land crucial positions shaping policy and managing crises.
Mark Landler, New York Times, “Trump National Security Team Gets a Slow Start”
The chronic upheaval in Mr. Trump’s transition, a delay in appointing senior National Security Council staff members, and a dearth of people with security clearances have deprived the Trump team of weeks of prep work on some of the most complex national security issues facing the country.
Jonathan Bernstein, BloombergView, “The Empty Trump Administration.”
Look at the big four departments. There’s no Trump appointee for any of the top State Department jobs below secretary nominee Rex Tillerson. No Trump appointee for any of the top Department of Defense jobs below retired general James Mattis. Treasury? Same story. Justice? It is one of two departments (along with, bizarrely, Commerce) where Trump has selected a deputy secretary. But no solicitor general, no one at civil rights, no one in the civil division, no one for the national security division.
Dan DeLuce and John Hudson, Foreign Policy, “Trump’s National Security Team is Missing in Action.”
President-elect Donald Trump will enter the White House Friday with most national security positions still vacant, after a disorganized transition that has stunned and disheartened career government officials.
Instead of hitting the ground running, the Trump team emerged from the election ill-prepared for the daunting task of assembling a new administration and has yet to fill an array of crucial top jobs overseeing the country’s national security and diplomacy, fueling uncertainty across the federal government. …
The delays and dysfunction threaten to cripple the incoming administration from the outset and raise the risk the White House will present confused or contradictory policies to the outside world. Without his team in place, the new president will likely be unprepared should an early-term crisis erupt abroad, or an adversary test the new administration’s mettle, said former officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
If you just want the raw data on this, go check out The Washington Post’s tracker of Senate-confirmable positions.
None of this is all that surprising; the slow pace of the transition has been clear for quite some time. Even when the Trump team has announced hires, the Monica Crowley incident highlighted the fact that it hasn’t vetted them. And this isn’t just happening on the foreign policy side of the ledger. Trump’s transition has been slow on the domestic policy side as well. They’ve even been slow on the ceremonial jobs that one would expect a
narcissist man like Trump to want to fill.
To be fair, all presidential transitions have their slow days and rough patches. It’s possible that Trump will not be that far behind the Obama administration on Senate-confirmed positions by, say, the end of March. But it does seem clear that on the foreign policy and national security side of the equation, Trump’s team remains woefully understaffed. It can rely on the permanent bureaucracy to step up in the absence of political appointees. The thing is — and I know this will shock you — but these staffers are not big fans of the incoming president (to be fair, they have their reasons).
And now we arrive at the natural experiment: Will any of this matter? Intuitively, one would think so. Max Boot explained the problem very well over at Foreign Policy:
[A slow transition is] not a huge problem in the Department of Education, where policy decisions can be contemplated in a more leisurely fashion. It is potentially a big problem for national security jobs, whose occupants will have to deal with numerous crises, known and unforeseen, that can have the most serious repercussions for the security and prosperity of the entire country. Career officials can occupy those positions for the time being, but the consequence of that will be to freeze policymaking.
I will be curious how the short-staffed Trump administration handles any foreign policy crises over the next few months. Because they’re going to come *COUGH* North Korea *COUGH*. If Trump takes the weekend off after the inauguration, who will be staffing the Situation Room if a situation goes south?
Remember, the natural experiment of the 2016 election revealed that a lot of things people thought were absolutely crucial for campaigns were not so important after all. It might turn out that the United States doesn’t need all the deputy undersecretaries or assistant secretaries or NSC senior directors or ambassadors to handle its foreign policy business. We’ll see.
It’s a very exciting time to be a political scientist. But I suspect that many readers might be thinking of a different adjective.