A president without an administration
President Trump’s decision to fill out his White House staff and leave the rest of the executive branch without leadership tells us a lot about his limited business experience. He’s run a family business, a small one which operates on his gut instincts and impulses. That’s precisely what he recreated in the White House, complete with overlapping power centers where aides duke it out to win his favor. It may not be surprising then that what the Trump administration is lacking is the administration.
The Associated Press reports, for example:
Jim Mattis is not lonely in the Pentagon, but two months into his tenure as secretary of defense not a single political appointee has joined him.
The retired Marine general, who took office just hours after President Donald Trump was sworn in, has sparred with the White House over choices for high-priority civilian positions that, while rarely visible to the public, are key to developing and implementing defense policy at home and abroad.
When the Obama administration closed shop in January, only one of its top-tier Pentagon political appointees stayed in place — Robert Work, the deputy defense secretary. He agreed to remain until his successor is sworn in. So far no nominee for deputy has been announced, let alone confirmed by the Senate.
The administration has announced four nominees for senior Pentagon civilian jobs, and two of those later withdrew. Trump’s nominee to lead the Army, Vincent Viola, withdrew in early February because of financial entanglements, and about three weeks later Philip B. Bilden, the Navy secretary nominee, withdrew for similar reasons.
On Tuesday, the White House announced it intends to nominate John J. Sullivan to be the Pentagon’s chief lawyer. In January, Trump announced former congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico as his nominee to be Air Force secretary, but he has not submitted the nomination to the Senate.
Trump cannot blame Congress for this inexplicable ineptitude. The New York Times counts only 36 nominations sent to the Senate, about half the number President Obama had sent up at this stage. The problem certainly is not limited to the Defense Department. This is the slowest transition in history, with more than 500 unfilled spots. Trump says he doesn’t need them — after all he has all his people at the White House — but this excuse once again reflects his limited prior experience and his paranoia about trusting anyone outside of his inner circle:
The lag has left critical power centers in his government devoid of leadership as he struggles to advance policy priorities on issues like health care, taxes, trade and environmental regulation. Many federal agencies and offices are in states of suspended animation, their career civil servants answering to temporary bosses whose influence and staying power are unclear, and who are sometimes awaiting policy direction from appointees whose arrival may be weeks or months away.
Without deputies, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and other political appointees the government drifts, inertia sets in and Trump becomes a prisoner of the bureaucracy he does not understand and hasn’t bothered to tether to his White House with political appointees.
He was perfectly entitled to dismiss all 46 U.S. attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama administration, but in his haste he’s left 46 slots open, to be filled by assistant U.S. attorneys whom he did not hire. We’ll watch with interest how quickly he can fill those slots.