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4 months into Trump's term, most top Pentagon jobs are still unfilled

By VERA BERGENGRUEN | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: June 5, 2017

WASHINGTON — Four months into his presidency, Donald Trump has filled only five of the 53 top jobs at the Pentagon — the slowest pace for nominations and confirmations in over half a century.

Several of his high-profile picks, including Navy and Army secretary nominees, have had to withdraw because of their business entanglements. In other cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has clashed with the White House, which has blacklisted national security and defense leaders who publicly disagreed with Trump during the 2016 campaign, according to several current and former defense officials.

“In the vetting process there is a lot of scrutiny of social media accounts, Twitter … any hint of something negative about Trump as a candidate can be disqualifying, and a lot of people haven’t made it through that filter,” said Christine Wormuth, who served as the Pentagon’s top policy official from 2014 to 2016.

Now the escalating investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials is also scaring off people who’d been on the fence about joining the administration. Even the opportunity to work under Mattis, who many of the potential picks know and respect, may not be enough.

“With, frankly, the chaos that is happening, people who might have been open to it are asking themselves ‘Do I want to join this administration? How much of an impact will I have? Will I have to get a lawyer?’” Wormuth said.

Trump’s nominees for top Pentagon posts have taken an average of 38 days to be confirmed, compared to 22 days under President Barack Obama, 23 under George W. Bush and 17 under Bill Clinton, according to an analysis provided to McClatchy by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that runs programs aimed at improving government hiring.

By this point in Obama’s presidency, 16 appointees had been confirmed and 24 nominated. By June 2, 2001, President George W. Bush had confirmed 12 and nominated 17. Trump has nominated 12 and confirmed five.

The problem isn’t that the Senate isn’t confirming Trump’s picks, but that dozens of national security posts still don’t have nominees. In the meantime, a skeleton crew of holdovers from the Obama administration and career civil servants are doing the day-to-day work at the Defense Department.

“It’s not as if these jobs are in fact vacant, but it’s the equivalent of a substitute teacher,” said Max Stier, who leads the Partnership for Public Service. “Since they are not perceived as having long-term authority, they don’t view their role as addressing those long-term issues and this leads to important decisions being kicked down the road.”

The same issue is mirrored at the State Department, which has eight confirmed appointees out of 120 positions to fill. With the vast vacancies there and at the Pentagon, crucial policy roles are in limbo at a time when the U.S. faces challenges on multiple fronts, from the Islamic State to Russia, North Korea and China.

Until early May, Mattis was the only Pentagon appointee who’ve been confirmed. Since then, the Senate has confirmed four other appointees: former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson as secretary of the Air Force, David Norquist to be comptroller, Robert Story Karem as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Kari Bingen as principal deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence.

Even if the White House picks up the pace, there will be a significant backlog.

“The Senate can only review so many people at any given time,” Stier said. “It has to deal with competing priorities, health care, tax reform. … Part of the challenge is that by not moving quickly at the beginning you wind up blocking the tracks.”

The fact that Mattis, with his decades of experience, has not been able to fill his own building shows that it’s the White House ultimately making the decisions on his team. And for Trump, it comes down to loyalty.

Dozens of the most senior Republican national security officials in the country signed a public letter last August saying they would not vote for Trump. Many of them were former cabinet members or top aides to President George W. Bush, who would have been natural fits for many leadership posts.

“We are convinced that he would be a dangerous president and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being,” they wrote in the letter.

Between them and the more than 120 national security leaders that had signed another letter a few months earlier, there are roughly 150 top Republican national security and defense officials that the Trump administration won’t consider.

Mattis wanted Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense under Obama, to consider becoming his deputy. When she was interviewed by Trump aides, she was asked “What would it take for you to resign?” she told The New Yorker in an interview. She told Mattis she couldn’t take the job.

Trump ended up tapping Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan for the No. 2 spot in the Pentagon, but two months after his appointment was announced his nomination still has not been submitted formally to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

As with other leaders Trump has tapped from the private sector, the stringent scrutiny of their finances causes a delay. Nominees who go through the process with the Defense Department and the Senate Armed Services Committee have to adhere to strict guidelines that bar them from owning stock and bonds in companies that have Pentagon contracts.

Army secretary nominee Vincent Viola and Navy secretary nominee Philip Bilden withdrew their names after citing difficulties disentangling from their businesses. The second Army secretary nominee, Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green, withdrew after a fierce backlash because of anti-gay and anti-Muslim remarks he had made.

“Even if you have all your paperwork in order, it’s a really lengthy, substantial process, especially coming from the business community,” said Katherine Kidder, a military personnel expert at the Center for a New American Security.

Given that so many nominees are experienced professionals between the ages of 50 and 65 “if you are facing down retirement it can also be risky to divest,” she added.

However, the White House could be using this chance to put together two of Trump’s campaign promises, draining the swamp and using his business savvy to modernize the government in lower level positions.

“This could be a prime opportunity to dive into the business contacts and portfolio, and get people to manage the changing landscape and provide new value and efficiencies,” Kidder said. “Think if you could tap into GE or any large organization known for talent management; those are the contacts that Trump could use for good here.”

For now, however, there are very few people in the nomination pipeline as the White House is distracted by ongoing controversies.

When it comes to the military, Trump “has said with his budget it’s a priority, he’s said with his rhetoric it’s a priority, but he has not gone about making (these appointments) a priority,” Kidder said.

This has resulted in several embarrassing communications mishaps on the international stage. In one case cited by defense officials that could easily have been prevented by effective communication, Trump announced that the U.S. was sending a naval “armada” as a powerful deterrent to North Korea. Meanwhile, the USS Carl Vinson was actually on its way to participate in military exercises 3,500 miles in the opposite direction.

In another, Mattis was taken by surprise when Gen. John Nicholson, the Army general commanding forces in Afghanistan, decided to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal on Islamic State targets.

More seriously, the near-standstill in filling the empty positions is hampering the Pentagon’s ability to plan long-term policy. The National Defense Strategy Review, which puts together a cohesive U.S. defense strategy and policy, would usually be led at the undersecretary or assistant secretary level. It’s a complicated process in the best of circumstances, and not having even part of his team in place will hinder Mattis’ ability to lay out strategic guidance early on.

The slow pace of appointing civilian leadership also means that the overall decision-making, given the makeup of Trump’s Cabinet and National Security Council, is skewed toward military brass.

“It’s not necessarily bad by definition, but it does mean that the military voice is amplified far more than it would otherwise be, since there is no counterweight in civilian (appointees),” Wormuth said. “When we’re deliberating in the situation room, you need that diversity of perspective and experience.

©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
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