Trump has no nominees for 245 important jobs, including an ambassador to South Korea
By JAMES HOHMANN | The Washington Post | Published: January 13, 2018
The Winter Olympics begin one month from Friday in South Korea, and American officials are reportedly contemplating a "bloody nose" strike on nuclear North Korea, yet President Donald Trump still has not nominated an ambassador to Seoul.
Next Saturday brings the anniversary of the inauguration. Over the first year, a fixation on the chaos and churn inside the West Wing has often overshadowed the less-sexy decay and neglect at the departmental level. There are a striking number of big jobs that have not been filled.
The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, have been working together to track the status of 626 top jobs in the executive branch. This includes assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels, heads of agencies, ambassadors and other leadership positions that experts believe are critical for the federal government to function effectively. These represent about half of the roughly 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation.
The White House likes to blame Congress for dragging its feet, but that's only part of the story: As of Friday morning, there is no pending nominee for 245 of the 626 jobs we're tracking. Among them: deputy secretary at Treasury and Commerce, director of the Census, director of ATF, director of the Office on Violence Against Women at Justice and commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
At Veterans Affairs, no one has been tapped to be the undersecretary for health or benefits.
At the Transportation Department, there is not a nominee to be administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Trump has not submitted nominees to direct the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the U.S. Geological Survey. He has also not picked someone to be assistant secretary of Interior for fish, wildlife and parks.
Many of these jobs have "acting" directors, but these people aren't fully empowered and cannot indefinitely stay in these roles without being confirmed by the Senate because of laws related to vacancies. The lack of permanence creates uncertainty and makes strategic planning difficult. It also makes it harder to manage career staff, who are less likely to follow orders they disagree with when they realize that their boss is a short-timer.
"It's pretty striking to see how many open positions there are all over the place," said Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. "This administration is way behind prior presidents in actually staffing out the government. They still have a very long distance to travel."
No department has more unfilled slots than State. Rex Tillerson wanted to conduct a review of how the department worked before he filled all the open positions. He resisted some people that the White House wanted, and for a variety of other well-documented reasons he found himself on thin ice with the president.
As official Washington speculates about when "Rexit" will come, there are still no nominees for these assistant secretary positions: African affairs; Near Eastern affairs; South Asian affairs; Western Hemisphere affairs; intelligence and research; political-military affairs; conflict and stabilization operations; democracy, human rights and labor; international narcotics and law enforcement; population, refugees and migration; energy resources; oceans and international, environmental and scientific affairs. The men and women who hold these jobs often wind up managing U.S. foreign policy in a day-to-day way.
The administration has also not nominated ambassadors to many major countries, from close allies like Australia to strategically important regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The most striking on the list, though, might be South Korea.
In the absence of a permanent ambassador, the top U.S. representative in Seoul right now is Marc Knapper, a veteran Foreign Service officer. "He's traveled to [North Korea] twice, speaks Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese, and has worked on Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. "He's served at the embassy in Seoul since 2015 and before that had done two previous tours in [South Korea], so I'm confident our diplomatic engagement in Korea is in good, solid hands."
Nauert added that there are highly qualified people on the job across the department. "We have a deep bench of experienced career professionals serving in key positions that are highly capable and able to help the Secretary lead the Department and advance U.S. interests worldwide," she wrote in an email. "The Department is working closely with the White House to identify qualified candidates for our vacant senior leadership positions."
Trump has said he is intentionally leaving some of these positions open. During a November interview on Fox News, conservative host Laura Ingraham expressed concern to the president about the unfilled positions: "Are you worried that the State Department doesn't have enough Donald Trump nominees in there to push your vision through?"
"We don't need all the people they want," Trump replied. "I'm a businessman, and I tell my people, 'When you don't need to fill slots, don't fill them.' But we have some people that I'm not happy with there. Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I'm the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that's what the policy is going to be."
He added that he's saving taxpayers money by not filling open jobs.
But there are a variety of additional explanations:
Trump did not think he was going to win, and he did not take transition planning seriously before the election. The historic level of first-year staff churn at the White House has slowed down the pipeline for approvals. A lot of highly qualified people with sterling credentials don't want to work for Trump. Some who would be willing to go into the administration cannot get through the vetting process because they signed anti-Trump letters during the 2016 campaign.
"I think this administration isn't so much arrogant as uninformed," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at NYU and expert on government bureaucracy. "I think they want to grab the levers of power, no matter how much President Trump says he thinks there are too many people. I just don't think they understood the mechanics of all of this. . . . They weren't very serious about governing, and it shows in this process."
Progressive activist Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which scrutinizes executive branch appointments, believes something more sinister is going on. He worries that the Trump team is trying to minimize accountability to Congress. He's especially concerned about the Internal Revenue Service, where a commissioner has not been named. The acting leader is an assistant secretary of the Treasury, who reports to Steven Mnuchin. Hauser said that this makes it harder for the IRS to function in its intended way, as an independent agency. He also fears that no director for the Census will be named, but that someone political who lacks required technical proficiency could be placed into a deputy slot that doesn't require Senate confirmation.
"Not all of this is part of a master plan," Hauser said. "Some of this is due to incompetence. Some of it is that there are positions of government they just don't value, so they'd like to see them erode. . . . But there are other parts of it that are more problematic, where I think there's more intentionality."
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
To be sure, the Senate is moving slower to confirm the people that Trump has named than it did for his predecessors. Eighty-five of the president's nominees have now been waiting more than 100 days to be confirmed. The average time it's taken to confirm those who have made it through is 72 days.
"The later you get into an administration, the more these become bargaining chips and the less there's an expectation that the Senate is going to move with dispatch," said Stier, who runs the Partnership for Public Service. "It's also the case that the Senate gets busy with other things."
With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.