News & Politics

Trump Is Bad at Filling Adminstration Posts. That’s Not Entirely His Fault.

The US has a bizarre system for staffing its government.

The executive branch right now. Photograph via iStock.

Five weeks into his presidency, only 14 of President Trump‘s executive-branch nominees have been confirmed to start working in government. As many have documented, his administration is off to a more skeletal beginning than Barack Obama‘s, George W. Bush‘s, and Bill Clinton‘s. Part of the thin staffing can be chalked up to more-laborious-than-usual confirmation processes:

Trump’s nominees have faced an average of 15 days between their nominations and confirmation votes, a figure that may only grow larger as the President’s picks for energy, commerce, interior and housing and urban development secretaries wait until at least early March for the Senate to vote on them. By comparison, Obama’s first-term cabinet appointees waited an average of six days between nomination and confirmation, while Bush’s waited five and Clinton’s just three.

The President can grouse about Senate Democrats slow-walking his nominations, but that’s only a shred of the explanation why the United States appears to have a barely functioning government right now, says Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that helps new administrations with recruitment and staffing. The biggest reason, Stier says, is that the US government is unique among liberal democracies in putting so many executive-branch positions—nearly 4,000, 1,212 of which require Senate confirmation—at the president’s discretion.

“No other democracy has this kind of leadership turnover, and no president has done this well,” Stier say. “Obama didn’t do well at this, and Trump is not even keeping pace with that. In this world, you need to do more than just beat the last person. You need to do well at this because it’s a fast and dangerous environment we’re in.”

In the United Kingdom, for example, a new Prime Minister fills out his or her cabinet with co-partisan members of Parliament, but the day-to-day operations of government agencies are overseen by career civil servants. Stier isn’t advocating for a switch to the Westminster system, but he does say leaving open so many sub-cabinet positions to political hires stalls the federal agencies that the President needs to execute his agenda.

It can be especially tenuous in agencies involved in diplomacy and national security. Of the State Department’s 116 Senate-confirmable positions, only two have been confirmed: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Representative Nikki Haley. Of the remaining 113, Trump has only put forward names for three ambassadorships. Meanwhile, there are numerous empty posts in the secretaries office that don’t require a Senate hearing, but are reserved for political hires. With Tillerson, a rookie diplomat, apparently alone at Foggy Bottom, the State Department has seemed ominously quiet, even as he conducts the international business of the United States. A phone call Thursday between Tillerson and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was reported only because Abadi’s office announced the conversation.

Stier points out that Obama was slow to make sub-cabinet appointments, too. In the middle of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner didn’t get a deputy until May 2009. And the appointment process is never really complete. Between cabinet jobs, sub-cabinet positions, ambassadorships, commissions, and boards, Obama was sending executive-branch nominations to the Senate as late as January 17 of this year.

Trump’s young presidency has in many ways mirrored his campaign and his business career. As both a businessman and a candidate, tended to confine himself to very small circles of advisers and family members, and appearing to have direct control over all hiring and firing decisions. But as much as he boasts about the Trump Organization’s scale, his company is puny compared to the enterprise he now leads, and Stier says what may have worked on Fifth Avenue isn’t scalable.

The fact that you’ve run a B&B doesn’t mean you can run a Trump hotel,” he says “There’s nothing close in size to the scope of the US government. People sometimes learn the wrong lessons from winning. You need expertise. There’s a misconception that in order to drain the swamp, you don’t need engineers.”

The President’s vindictiveness doesn’t help either. Tillerson had wanted Elliot Abrams, who served in Bush’s and Ronald Reagan’s administrations, as his deputy, but Trump refused to make the nomination after learning that Abrams had been publicly critical of him last year.

Stier’s organization is working with Trump’s team to identify talent who might be a good fit for this administration. (The Partnership for Public Service works with presidencies agnostic of party, and would’ve done the same had Hillary Clinton won.) And while other new presidents have shown disappointing paces in filling out the government, there are signs Trump has made it more difficult. Stier says Trump’s original transition team, which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie organized last summer, did a “very strong job” before it was upended when Christie was sacked in favor of Mike Pence, now the Vice President.

One of the results is that the transition process effectively reset, compressing the window during which people could be recruited and vetted. “People have to have done their paperwork and background checks, which is much more complicated when you have high-net-worth individuals,” Stier says.

Another effect, which has perhaps been on fuller display in the first month of Trump’s presidency, is that hollowed-out agencies put more of the onus of governing on the White House, which is not always capable—or legally qualified—of implementing its sweeping agenda. Trump’s ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries collapsed under judicial scrutiny after it had been rushed out by a handful of White House staffers without any sufficient legal review by the relevant agencies.

“The White House isn’t the only game in town,” Stier says. “You’ve got a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the government, and will they learn? Time will tell. I think the jury’s out right now.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.