President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have been extraordinarily newsworthy, from the ongoing investigations into Russia’s contacts with his inner circle to courts repeatedly halting his immigration-related executive orders to the missile strike on Syria. But in the midst of all the action, Trump has quietly failed to accomplish a mundane but critical task facing every new president: to appoint people to fill 4,000 job openings in the federal government.
Of the approximately 1,200 jobs that require Senate confirmation, Trump has filled just 27; in their first 100 days, Barack Obama filled 69 and George W. Bush filled 35. (Obama had a strong Democratic majority in the Senate, Bush had a Senate that was roughly evenly divided, and Trump has a Republican majority.) That doesn’t mean there are thousands of empty desks in the executive branch, but many government employees are now answering to fill-in bosses or to leftover Obama appointees who are effectively unable to take active roles in formulating policy and making decisions.
And it’s not simply a matter of the Senate failing to confirm Trump appointees. The president had nominated 71 people as of Friday. Obama nominated 190 in his first 100 days, while Bush nominated 85.
Trump sees this slow progress not as a failing, but as a strategy. On the campaign trail, he promised to reduce the number of people working for the federal government. The first day of his first full week in office, Trump initiated a federal hiring freeze — he then quietly rescinded it in mid-April — and in February, Trump told “Fox & Friends” that he simply doesn’t want to fill all the openings.
“A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump said at the time. “You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.”
But the positions Trump has yet to fill aren’t simply low-level bureaucrats. Current openings include the administrators of NASA and FEMA, as well as 14 out of 16 deputy cabinet secretaries — the No. 2 people at federal departments who are crucial to ensuring the executive branch runs smoothly. (Obama had five of these confirmed after 100 days.)
“The president has embarked on a Herculean challenge of reorganizing the government to make it leaner and more effective,” said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that promotes efficient and responsive government. “[This is] even before he has named or won Senate confirmation of dozens of agency leaders beyond his Cabinet who will be needed to drive these changes.”
“President Trump needs to prioritize having his team in place,” he added. “Not doing so sub-optimizes his ability to run the government well.”
The appointment of 4,000 people is not something that can be done quickly. In fact, it typically takes more than a year for a president to complete the task. By the time Congress took its August recess in the first years of their presidencies, Bush had a total of just 294 people confirmed, Obama 411.
“No president has done this efficiently,” Stier noted. “This president is just doing it even less efficiently.”
UPDATE (April 28, 4:30 p.m. ET): Numbers in the story were changed to reflect both the five nominations Trump sent to the Senate Friday and the confirmation of Alexander Acosta as secretary of labor.