As tweet-storm controversies and allegations and investigations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election continue, President Donald Trump is having trouble — for reasons both self-made and external — filling vacancies in top jobs throughout the federal government.
Trump has recently announced a few nominations. These include Richard V. Spencer (not to be confused with Richard B. Spencer, the “alt-right” leader and white supremacist) for Navy secretary, and, more controversially, Steven Bradbury, former assistant attorney general under George W. Bush and author of a series of “torture memos” advocating “enhanced interrogation techniques,” to be the top lawyer for the Department of Transportation.
Yet as Vera Bergengruen, a reporter for McClatchy DC points out, Spencer is Trump’s second nominee for Navy secretary, the first having turned down the post amidst intensive media scrutiny of Trump’s every move.
“Several of his high-profile picks, including Navy and Army secretary nominees, have had to withdraw because of their business entanglements,” Bergengruen notes. “In other cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has clashed with the White House, which has blacklisted national security and defense leaders who publicly disagreed with Trump during the 2016 campaign, according to several current and former defense officials.”
Indeed, the Defense Department is one of the agencies facing the greatest number of vacancies — having filled only 5 out 53 top positions, marking the slowest pace of nominations and confirmations in more than 50 years, according to Bergengruen’s reporting.
“The problem isn’t that the Senate isn’t confirming Trump’s picks, but that dozens of national security posts still don’t have nominees,” she writes. “In the meantime, a skeleton crew of holdovers from the Obama administration and career civil servants are doing the day-to-day work at the Defense Department.”
The situation is comparable at the State Department, where only eight nominees have reportedly been confirmed to fill a total of 120 vacant positions. Part of this may be attributable to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s inexperience and reported reliance on his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and policy chief Brian Hook, as well as plans to downsize the department.
“Tillerson has imposed a partial hiring freeze and is in the midst of a wide personnel review ahead of planned job cuts,” the Washington Post reports. “The administration’s budget calls for a cut of about 30 percent to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, although Congress is unlikely to go that far.”
Yet the lack of nominees at the State Department, similarly to the situation at the Defense Department and elsewhere in the federal government, also reflects the ongoing fallout from last year’s election, when many conservatives in the foreign policy establishment strongly opposed Trump. As Politico reports:
Prior to working at the State Department, Hook was a member of the John Hay Initiative, a 250-member group founded after Romney’s 2012 election defeat to brief lawmakers and politicians about foreign policy. The group rejected the type of isolationist rhetoric then ascendant in both political parties.
Hook was one of the group’s three founders. The other two — former Bush administration State Department officials Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman — became leading voices of the “Never Trump” movement.
The vast majority of the Republican foreign policy establishment — and many of the national security experts Hook worked closely with at the John Hay Initiative, whose members could ease the hiring challenges at the department — have been effectively blacklisted from Trump administration jobs because they publicly criticized Trump during the campaign. Cohen, Edelman and several others (but not Hook) signed letters stating that Trump was “unfitted to the office.”
At the Defense Department, the lack of nominees can in part be similarly attributed.
“Dozens of experienced national security officials who would have been natural fits for leadership posts, many of them former cabinet members or top aides to Bush, signed a public letter last August saying they would not vote for Trump,” Bergengruen notes.
“‘We are convinced that he would be a dangerous president and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being,’ they wrote in the letter,” she continues. “Between them and the more than 120 national security leaders who had signed another letter a few months earlier, there are roughly 150 top Republican national security and defense officials that the Trump administration won’t consider.”
Almost a month after firing James Comey, Trump has not nominated a replacement as permanent head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has also reportedly filled only two of 16 top jobs at the Department of Homeland Security. He has not nominated a head of the Transportation Security Agency, and while he has nominated a leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he has not nominated a deputy, nor an assistant attorney general for the national security division at the Justice Department. Trump has also been criticized for his slow pace of nominations for key cyber-security positions.
President Trump took to Twitter this week to decry Democrats as obstructionists for blocking his nominees. “.@foxandfriends Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors. They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals,” he wrote June 5.
Despite the president’s questionable choice of medium for conveying his message, and his use of all caps to try to drive it home, Trump may have a point when it comes to partisanship. During the Obama administration, Democrats complained loudly when then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that for Republicans “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has denied that the script has flipped, and that it is now Democrats who have elevated party over country in an obsessive effort to make Trump a one-term president at whatever cost. Yet others seem to think that taking a page out of McConnell’s obstructionist playbook is exactly what Democrats should be doing, and at times it seems they are.
As Conor Finnegan of ABC News points out, however, “President Trump is blasting Congressional Democrats for obstructing his nominations, but his administration has not nominated candidates for the vast majority of positions that require Senate approval.” Once he takes that step, maybe his complaints about obstructionist Democrats can be more seriously evaluated.