Politics

How Can Trump Get Anything Done With All Those Empty Seats?

A lack of staff at key agencies is weighing on the president’s agenda and frustrating cabinet officials.
Illustration: Sam Island

During Workforce Development Week at the White House in mid-June, President Trump and his top advisers spoke urgently about the need to fill millions of vacant jobs. “There are currently 6 million job openings in the United States—vacant jobs that can be filled,” Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told reporters. “This is the highest number of job vacancies ever.”

That may be true, but when it comes to job vacancies, Trump & Co. would do well to look closer to home. The White House has struggled to fill hundreds of critical political appointee positions in federal agencies, making it harder to advance the president’s agenda. From the Department of State, where no assistant secretaries and only a few ambassadors have been appointed, to the Department of Justice, where dozens of U.S. attorney positions remain vacant, Trump’s government has a skeletal feel as it heads into its sixth month. At the Department of Labor, the president has yet to fill any of the 13 senior positions that support Acosta. That includes the commissioner for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the office tasked with tracking the number of job vacancies nationwide.

As of June 20, the Trump administration had filled 44 of the senior positions that require confirmation by the Senate, or less than 10 percent of the more than 500 openings, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. In contrast, Barack Obama had 170 positions confirmed at this point in his presidency, and George W. Bush had 130 filled.

The causes for the delay range from a chaotic period marked by the abrupt dismissal of transition chairman Chris Christie to concerns among potential appointees about working for an unpredictable boss. There’s also, as Trump called it in his May 11 interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, “this Russia thing”—a broadening swirl of federal investigations casting a cloud of legal uncertainty over the presidency. “A few months ago, people might have been willing to say, ‘I still want a job, even if I don’t like Trump,’ ” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton. “My guess is there are more people now who are just not interested in being part of the chaos.”

Personnel shortfalls have sometimes made for bad optics, such as during a recent meeting between Trump and top tech chief executive officers at the White House where key members of his American Technology Council were absent because they hadn’t been named yet. The lack of staff is also starting to impede the president’s ability to turn his campaign promises into policy, frustrating allies. The Coalitions for America, a think tank group of 25 conservative Republicans, sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on June 14 complaining about the staff shortage. “We remain very concerned over the lack of secondary and tertiary executive-level appointments,” it said.

The White House says the pace of hiring is picking up. Trump has signed off on appointments for most of the top positions, but they can be announced only after lengthy FBI background checks and ethics reviews, according to a senior White House official who requested anonymity to speak about the process. Interviews are taking place for several other key positions, and Trump is approving 30 to 35 nominees each week, the official said.

The delays have begun frustrating cabinet officials, who’ve had to operate with vacancies in key leadership positions. “It’s way too slow for my taste,” says Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who blames delays on government bureaucracy. “We have submitted names, and the White House has vetted these names and approved names or recommended them, but they cannot be submitted to the Senate until their FBI background checks are done and the Office of Government Ethics signs off on their ethics policy regarding them. That is taking exceedingly too long.”

Business groups and lobbyists are also growing impatient, saying they often don’t know whom to contact in the administration about any number of issues. Because of the administration’s lack of personnel, American Airlines Inc. CEO Doug Parker says that U.S. airlines have struggled in their effort to determine whether three Persian Gulf carriers are promoting unfair competition. “I think it’s well known that in many cases, their ability to handle a wide number of things is constrained somewhat by their ability to have staff,” he says.

The vacancies also affect companies with pending mergers. The nation’s two main antitrust watchdogs, the Justice Department’s antitrust division and the Federal Trade Commission, are operating without permanent leadership. At the FTC, three of the five commissioner seats are vacant. Foreign investors’ acquisitions of U.S. companies are getting bogged down because the departments responsible for national security reviews are operating without the officials in charge of signing off on deals.

Democrats haven’t made things easy, slowing down the confirmation process through procedural maneuvers. But the White House has been slow to fill positions that don’t need Senate confirmation, in part because of Trump’s demand for loyalty. The political office in the White House plays a role in hiring, and Republicans who spoke out against Trump during the campaign have mostly been blacklisted.

Shermichael Singleton, who was hired as a senior adviser to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson in January, says he was fired and escorted out of his office in February after the White House discovered some of his previous statements criticizing Trump. Singleton says the White House’s quest for ideological purity is hampering efforts to recruit top talent. “To want people to agree with you on everything is just ridiculous,” he says. “You should want people who are able to challenge you so that you are quite sure that whatever policy decisions you make are indeed the best possible positions.” Obama didn’t have such a requirement, says Don Gips, who served as personnel director for the previous president. “There was much more focus on whether they were loyal to the president’s policies,” he says. —With David McLaughlin, Alan Bjerga, and Mary Schlangenstein

    BOTTOM LINE - Six months after taking office, President Trump has filled less than 10 percent of the more than 500 senior positions that require Senate confirmation.
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