The Ugly, Sad (!) Truth Behind All Those Government Vacancies

Why is the president leaving so many high-level positions unfilled? Because to Trump, the government is Trump. Plus his Cabinet members don’t want smart people to challenge them.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Here is what President Donald Trump likes about his job: open-press events where he is called the greatest president ever, making deals where he doesn’t have to master what’s in it, golfing more than any of his predecessors, TV (watching and being watched), and flooding the courts.

What he doesn’t like: governing. His contempt for what public servants do was expressed early on: “I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be—because you don’t need them. I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it’s totally unnecessary.” This came after he was surprised that everyone below Cabinet level didn’t just stay in place.

Filling jobs is a key part of any CEO’s success, but casino owner and property manager Trump has little experience at his mom-and-pop operation filled with friends and family. He filled his Cabinet on looks and who liked him, with two gone (one under indictment), a number withdrawn (Scott Garrett just removed from Ex-Im Bank consideration), and 14 not confirmed. Trump has left 250 of the 620 top-level administration posts—those that help a president put his stamp on government and manage a sprawling bureaucracy—empty or with “actings,” many without nominees pending, according to the Partnership for Public Service.

Trump is so far behind in staffing his administration, he’s to the point of illegality. After 300 days, “actings” are acting but on borrowed time, with their actions subject to a court challenge in which they can be voided by a lawsuit brought by anyone who doesn’t like what’s been done.

Besides that, actings tend to accept that they’re caretakers not likely to get the job permanently, like substitute teachers who keep the class from anarchy but don’t teach long division. Trump is compensating for not finding confirmable people by having his appointees hire pliant commissars who don’t have to go through the Senate. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has avoided bringing on scientists, for instance, who could challenge him from within, preferring to build a fortress in which he can go about his business of dismantling environmental protections unhampered. Get a qualified staff and it might be harder to spend $25,000 on a secure room for super-private discussions, meet almost exclusively with lobbyists, scrub inconvenient phrases like “climate change” from documents, and revive the coal industry with specific permission to pollute streams with runoff from mines. 

Maybe some jobs are “totally unnecessary” as Trump would have it, but that could hardly include so many heads of agencies, deputy and assistant secretaries, and general counsels. Into the fall there were no nominees at the Department of Education to back up Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation hearings were so shaky she had to be dragged across the finish line.

There is no administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, or at the Office of Federal Procurement, which buys $450 billion worth of goods annually. It took nine months for Energy to get a deputy secretary in charge of nuclear matters, a responsibility Secretary Rick Perry was surprised to find in his portfolio. Setting an interim record, there are seven actings at Health and Human Services, including the secretary himself, who succeeded former Secretary Tom Price, who had to leave after taking $500,000 worth of trips on private aircraft. Trump’s main agreement with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to hollow out the place so that Trump can communicate by tweet with world leaders without a pesky diplomat telling North Korea’s Rocket Man what he really meant to say, or a chief of protocol to warn him that changing seats at the G-20 dinner to go sit beside Russian President Vladimir Putin could cause an international incident.   

Even a position Trump needs to carry out his promises, after declaring the opioid epidemic a national public-health emergency, lies vacant. With 63,000 people dead from drug overdoses last year, more than from breast cancer or the diseases of old age, he’s yet to follow up with action or hire a head of the White House to carry out the emergency office known as the Drug Czar. Trump’s first choice, former Rep. Tom Marino, was withdrawn after a 60 Minutes report showed that he, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, sponsored legislation that gutted the government’s power to slow the flood of painkillers to the country’s most vulnerable communities. No one’s been put forward since.

There’s one exception to Trump’s blasé attitude. It turns out Trump does like judges when they’re not presiding over a lawsuit against him or from Mexico, and he’s setting a record for appointing them. That doesn’t mean he’s interested enough to study potential nominees who largely come by way of conservative special-interest groups like Heritage and the Federalist Society and White House counsel Don McGahn. He asks very few questions, other than age (he wants them young to leave a lasting stamp) and bravado (he’s not weak, is he?). Without regard to competence or senatorial input (blue slips placing holds on nominees are frequently ignored), he’s pumped 60 names into the system with 19 confirmations, including 12 Circuit Court judges. 

But the rush to judgment is exposing how low Trump’s bar is. Jeff Mateer was forced to withdraw over calling transgender children part of “Satan’s plan” in 2015. McGahn friend Brett Talley’s nomination ended over a reported defense of the Ku Klux Klan in 2011, his penchant for ghost hunts, and the little fact that he’d never tried a case. Both Talley and McGahn forgot to mention that his wife works for McGahn. Just last week, Matthews Peterson, another friend of McGahn’s, wilted during a Judiciary Committee hearing when asked basic questions about motions in federal court from Republican Senator John Kennedy.

Kennedy may be a canary in the mine for Trump. Former President George W. Bush will long be remembered for “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” about his FEMA head managing, or not, Hurricane Katrina. He was exposed for his lack of experience, having only supervised competitions at the International Arabian Horse Association before taking a Cabinet job. Most of Trump’s nominees for judgeships and administration jobs have sailed past a complacent Senate, despite their being asked to approve some similarly borderline candidates like DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Senator Ben Carson, who confused immigrants and slaves.

Going forward, it may not be Democrats blocking Trump from catching up with every modern president on building his administration, but Republicans who don’t want to hear Trump say in the middle of a crisis “heckuva job” about one of his appointees they rubber-stamped who is exposed as obviously not up to the job.