The understaffing of his administration is going to have long-term consequences, experts warn—we just won't know what those consequences will be.
Photo of Trump in 2015 by Ian MacNicol/Getty
As Donald Trump’s presidency lurches along, it’s become increasingly clear that he tolerates, even encourages, a certain amount of chaos around him, with high-profile resignations and firings happening every couple weeks. But Trump’s administration has not just been defined by personnel turmoil. Although it receives less coverage, the administration is just as bedeviled by chronic understaffing, even at the highest levels. To cite just one metric from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, as of this moment Trump had not even submitted nominations for almost 200 of 662 of the most vital presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed federal jobs. These include assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, and others responsible for the nuts and bolts activities of the feds. Many more jobs at lower levels of governance remain unfilled as well.
It is not unusual for a modern president to be fairly understaffed, even 16 months into his term. As Anne Joseph O’Connell, a scholar of presidential appointments and the federal bureaucracy, pointed out, Trump is only perhaps 20 percent behind Obama at the same point in his presidency when it comes to filling up top-level agency posts. And some of the complaints about Trump’s administration were also made about Barack Obama’s administration—that his appointment process was managed by young and inexperienced staffers and that he at times favored, at the risk of damaging governmental transparency and order, workarounds to fill posts and delegate duties rather than going through often grueling confirmation processes.
But Obama drew criticism for his notably slow staffing too, O’Connell told me. And many of the positions Trump has not even nominated a candidate for by now are especially key, and were filled by this time by Obama. These include the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, the undersecretary for domestic finance at the Treasury, and the undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, to name just a few. So why is Trump’s administration so understaffed? And what effects has this understaffing had on the nation?
Trump has argued on numerous occasions that much of his understaffing is intentional. He claims that some roles are unnecessary and that by not filling them he is downsizing the federal government and saving taxpayer money. It is also tempting to believe that Trump may be leaving some posts unfilled because he wants to whittle down functions of government he doesn’t like. “So like the State Department positions dealing with things like… human rights that Trump is pretty indifferent to,” said Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, a executive branch appointee watchdog group. Trump may be, Hauser argued, “demonstrating his opposition to the purpose of those jobs by leaving open the leadership positions, which nullifies the effectiveness of the career public service people.”
(This, O’Connell told me, might not be a great strategy for Trump, since new appointees could undercut or weed out career government workers who Trump believes oppose him rather than leave them minimally active on their own.)
Most of the experts I’ve spoken to believe Trump is actually likely intentionally leaving a few positions unstaffed. They all give differing ideas for why Trump might actually be doing so. But they all agreed that intentional snubs account for a tiny minority of team Trump’s unfilled posts.
“You could pick out, virtually in any agency, some consequential hole,” said Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Policy. “There is not an easily discernible rationale for why the gaps are where they are.” Many of these posts cover areas Trump is ostensibly interested in—the Department of Homeland Security, for example, has no nominee for its high-level assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement post.
The vast majority of staffing gaps, especially at the high level, are, the experts I’ve spoken to believe, more likely to be the product of ineptitude. Terry Sullivan of the White House Transition Project, which offers help to new administrations of either party to get their operations up and running quickly, told me that Trump’s people didn’t plan things out before taking power, putting them behind the ball on staffing. O’Connell added that many individuals working on staffing for Trump seem to be young and inexperienced to boot. It doesn’t help, experts told me, that the Trump team is drawing from a smaller than average pool of people willing to work with them since they appear to be vetoing any potential candidate seen as having in some way offended Trump or his inner circle. The administration also likely knows it cannot get some of the loyalists it’d like to work with through confirmation proceedings because they have too many blatant conflicts of interest or skeletons in their closet, among other possible issues.
Concentrations of vacancies in certain departments, like State, may also have less to do with the president’s distaste for an agency’s mission and more with strife between current appointees and the president. This appears to especially be a problem at the State Department, where clashes between career employees and Trumpists have been especially apparent. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly faced heavy pushback on his preferred candidates for many posts, as he clashed with Trump on a number of issues. However since Mike Pompeo took over for Tillerson, tension between State and the White House has lowered and staffing has improved, noted presidential appointments scholar Gary Hollibaugh.
The Senate has been historically slow in confirming his nominees, in part due to Democratic obstructionism but in part due to Republican objections and real concerns about the competence of Trump’s appointees.
At lower levels, Trump’s administration is understaffed sporadically as well, thanks in large part to an exodus of career bureaucrats. A historic 70,000 of the approximately 2 million strong national workforce quit or retired in Trump’s first six months in office. Some of this comes down to tensions with Trump. Some is just a result of an aging workforce. But all of this lost labor is hard to replace when the administration in general remains chaotic and higher posts are vacant.
No matter the causes, understaffing doesn’t necessarily mean that the federal government isn’t delivering on all of its responsibilities. Most vacant posts can temporarily be filled with an interim staffer for a period of time. And once the statute of limitations on an interim staffer’s tenure runs out, most, if not all, of a post’s duties can be delegated to one or multiple other staffers within an agency. “The steady state of government is very good at keeping things moving along,” said O’Connell.
But excessive delegation can lead to inefficiency or neglect. “There are a number of people who have multiple hats and it’s hard for them to get anything done,” said Stier. “These jobs are huge. The idea that it’s possible for anyone to manage multiples of them, it’s not going to go well.” A lack of consistent central leadership makes it difficult to maintain morale or launch new initiatives as well. “Any desire to overhaul agency policy, or at least a desire that isn’t related to having intentionally ineffective agencies,” added Stier, “will be hindered.”
Trump may actually prefer this setup. Delegating duties, Hauser and Hollibaugh argued, allows Trump to put key powers and controls into the hands of loyalists who’ve already been approved by the Senate rather than suffer more Congressional rigmarole. However, they note, just because someone was confirmed for one post doesn’t mean they don’t have conflicts that would have barred them from being confirmed to handle duties Trump is delegating to them. Case in point, Mick Mulvaney officially leads the Office of Management and Budget, but has taken interim control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency openly loathes, by Trumpian fiat.
These workarounds make life easier for Trump. But when duties from an unfilled post are split over many others, O’Connell noted, they reduce government transparency. “I see a lot of motive and opportunity,” said Hauser, “for catastrophic misdeeds.”
The effects of all this are hard to pinpoint. Many, said Hauser, are likely subtle. Others will take time, perhaps years, to piece out as we uncover which agency decisions were the result of dubious delegation choices. “It’s the dog that didn’t bark syndrome,” said Stier. “Can you point to a specific disaster? Maybe not. But is it clear that the government isn’t getting everything done that it could be?… I’m sure that is the case.”
Trump’s understaffing conundrum and its implications may soon worsen. As Stier pointed out, the deeper into a presidential term one goes, the less bandwidth the Senate has for appointee hearings and the less potential candidates are willing to sink time and energy into that process. Meanwhile, turnover rates tend to increase in a president’s second year. And if Democrats flip the Senate in the midterms (a possible, if not likely, outcome), that will make confirmations even harder, and the process even less attractive to candidates, leaving more openings all the more difficult to fill.
“Unless the administration changes the way it prioritizes and staffs these operations,” said Stier, “it’s hard to believe that they’re going to have a full team on the field—maybe ever. And that’s not good.”
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