President Trump and his allies have lots of complaints about Democrats’ holding up White House appointees. “Their underlying goal is to allow remaining Obama-appointed bureaucrats to do as much damage to the Trump administration as they can before leaving,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich wrote at Fox News last week.
But while Democrats did stall several Trump Cabinet picks, the vast majority of sub-Cabinet slots that require confirmation are vacant because of a personnel crisis in the Trump White House. And there are many such empty slots. Trump has named only 20 sub-Cabinet-level positions, including two who withdrew — a list that includes nominees for ambassadorships, counsel positions, and commissioners, according to a tracker from the Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service. CNN reports that “Trump has more than 1,900 vacancies within his new administration, most of which did not require Senate confirmation, according to data from tracking service Leadership Directories. The White House objects to those numbers, but didn’t provide me with any data of their own to refute them.
Nor did the White House offer up any numbers refuting my contention in a previous article that the Office of Presidential Personnel had only 18 people working in it — only one-fifth the number employed by President Bill Clinton at this point in his presidency. This ghost office is captained by 38-year-old John DeStefano, a former political director for former House speaker John Boehner. His only major personnel experience has been advising newly elected 2010 tea-party members on whom to hire.
The management chart at the Department of Defense is marked by Swiss-cheese-like holes. The Associated Press reports that after two months, not a single political appointee has joined Secretary Mattis. “The process has definitely slowed,” said Dov Zakheim, who served as the Pentagon budget chief during the George W. Bush administration. “The delays are already causing much consternation among allies, especially in Europe and Southeast Asia, as their most senior working level day-to-day contacts — the deputy assistant secretaries — may not come onboard until the summer,” he told the AP. “Lots of mayhem could take place before then.”
Team Trump has offered a series of excuses for the logjam. Some say that the FBI has been slow in finishing security clearances, but an FBI source has strongly disputed that to me. A top Trump aide told me that some Cabinet secretaries have been alerted that they will be able to name their own deputies only after the White House is assured that they are not liberals and that they did not take a Never Trump stance in the 2016 election. Jonathan Swan of the new media company Axios reported last week (based on an unnamed source) that when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke complained directly to Trump that he had no deputies beneath him, Trump replied that he would get his people “as long as they’re our people.”
Trump himself has his own explanation for some of the vacancies. He says critics misunderstand what he is doing in staffing his administration, because he doesn’t plan to fill every vacancy. “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” he told Fox News in late February. “We have so many people in government. . . . I say, What do all these people do? You don’t need all these jobs. . . . Many of those jobs I don’t want to fill.”
Trump says critics misunderstand what he is doing in staffing his administration, because he doesn’t plan to fill every vacancy.
Arnold Steinberg, a veteran GOP political strategist and author of the forthcoming book WHIPLASH! From JFK to Donald Trump, is encouraged that the Trump administration is moving boldly on its campaign promises. He told me:
But personnel is policy, which is being subverted by holdovers. Unfilled key positions enable synergistic dysfunction. In simple terms, the longer the hundreds of key positions remain unfilled, not only is sound policy delayed, but there is more damage, even sabotage. Better to put in a B+ person now, than an A+ person in six months. The B+ nominee will be infinitely superior to the Obama holdover. A beefed-up personnel operation with authority and clout and that is policy-oriented needs to operate in 24/7 mode.
“If something is broken, you fix it,” Donald Trump frequently said on the campaign trail. His current personnel recess is not working, irrespective of Democratic resistance to his appointees. Radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt raised the issue last week with presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. Hewitt urged Trump to bypass the presidential-nomination process and simply make recess appointments to key sub-Cabinet agencies after Congress leaves town on March 22. Conway replied: “Everything’s on the table. All of that is being discussed, Hugh.”
But making recess appointments would be both controversial and premature. A top Republican strategist who has worked on several presidential personnel teams told me that the Trump administration must take command of the situation.
“The President needs to ensure a process by which 30 to 40 top-tier nominations a week get processed for the next ten to 20 weeks to even be in a position to recess-appoint any who are bottled up by the Democrats,” he told me. “The entire system is down now, soup to nuts.” He says that the current staff at Presidential Personnel is incapable of handling anywhere near that flow. If nothing is done, the problem will only get worse. At the current rate of nominating individuals to positions, we could see the Trump administration’s first or even second anniversary before it would actually be filled with Trump people.