White House

The Empty Trump Administration

It's possible he intends to run the nation out of the White House. But that rarely ends well.

Where are all the executive-branch appointees?

Photographer: Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images

We're two days away from having a new president. But we're apparently a lot longer than that from having a Trump administration with even a minimally functional ability to govern.

Politico's Michael Crowley has a nice piece explaining the missing National Security Council staffers, and the dangers that could cause if there's an early crisis. Hundreds of briefing papers have been created by Obama's NSC and sent to Team Trump, but the New York Times reports that no one knows if they've been reviewed

Yet the NSC is ahead of the curve for this administration. Look at the big four departments. There's no Trump appointee for any of the top State Department jobs below secretary nominee Rex Tillerson. No Trump appointee for any of the top Department of Defense jobs below retired general James Mattis. Treasury? Same story. Justice? It is one of two departments (along with, bizarrely, Commerce) where Trump has selected a deputy secretary. But no solicitor general, no one at civil rights, no one in the civil division, no one for the national security division. 

And the same is true in department after department. Not to mention agencies without anyone at all nominated by the president-elect.

Overall, out of 690 positions requiring Senate confirmation tracked by the Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, Trump has come up with only 28 people so far. 

The Atlantic's Russell Berman had a good story two weeks ago about how far behind Trump was. Since then? If anything, it's getting worse -- he's added only two of those 28 since Jan. 5. As Berman reported, the Partnership for Public Service suggested a president should have "100 Senate-confirmed appointees in place on or around Inauguration Day." At this pace, he won't have 100 nominees by the end of February, let alone having them confirmed and hard at work.

The likely consequences?

First of all, the government actually does things, and without all the jobs filled it's not apt to do them very well. Even if there's no catastrophic failure, lack of leadership will, as should be no surprise, yield inertia and low morale, leading to steadily worse performance. 1  

When it comes to policy, Trump will be only a vague presence in the executive branch during the months when presidents normally have the best chance to get things done. It's not news to anyone that bureaucrats are skilled in resisting the preferences of presidents. But an entrenched bureaucracy against a secretary (and in most cases, a secretary with little government experience or little policy expertise or both) and a bunch of empty desks? That's no contest. Congress and interest groups may still have plenty of clout inside the departments and agencies, but Trump, at least until he has some people there, will have little.

It's possible Trump, or the people around him, intend to just bypass the executive branch and attempt to run the nation, including its foreign policy, out of the White House. It's possible, to some extent, but that rarely ends well

It's also possible Trump just wants to outsource policy beneath his main agenda to interest groups, the way he's apparently accepted a list of potential Supreme Court nominees from the Heritage Foundation, or to Congress. That's a dangerous step for a president, because even if he has no personal objections to the policy outcomes, neither interest groups nor Congress is apt to look after the best interests of the president. 

If I had to guess, however, I'd say that the failure to get his administration up and running on time isn't a deliberate choice by Trump; he just has no idea what he's doing, and hasn't surrounded himself with people well-equipped to translate his impulses and his campaign commitments into a full-fledged government. This isn't exactly a surprise. Recall that the Trump Organization has never had a large bureaucracy and that his campaign didn't staff up the way campaigns normally do, so he doesn't really have any relevant management experience. And, of course, he's never demonstrated any significant knowledge in how the government actually works. The results are likely to be damaging to his presidency, and to the nation. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. I have nothing but respect for federal civil servants, but it's worth mentioning that the combination of loose supervision, the low morale that comes (in several agencies) from having a president and a political appointee who don't believe in the mission of the agency, and the example of the ethics practices of the incoming president himself are just about the best formula for corruption I can imagine. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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