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President Trump is running an empty government

The American flag sits next to a empty speaker podium in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House.
Getty Images
The American flag sits next to a empty speaker podium in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House.

President Donald Trump's self-declared war on official Washington needs soldiers. Right now he doesn't have many of them.

As the New York Times chronicles at length in a new report, the Trump administration is having the slowest transition in decades, far behind where his predecessors usually were seven weeks into the job. Trump has filled most of his Cabinet, but he has not nominated anyone for more than 500 other vital posts.

That means that in department after department, countless operations are on standby or moving at a glacial pace because the president has failed to appoint the senior personnel required to keep the train rolling. Per the Times:

At the State Department, both deputy-level jobs remain unfilled, along with the posts of six under secretaries and 22 assistant secretaries. At the Treasury Department, Mr. Trump has yet to name a deputy secretary, general counsel or chief financial officer, or any of the three under secretaries and nine assistant secretaries. At the Department of Homeland Security, one of three agencies for which the president has nominated a deputy, he has yet to name any of the four under secretaries, three assistant secretaries or other crucial players like a chief of Citizenship and Immigration Services or a commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

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There are many reasons for the personnel crisis. Trump didn't use the weeks-long transition to make second- and third-tier personnel picks. He has personally vetoed high-level picks at the Treasury and State Department who criticized him — even mildly — during the campaign. His West Wing staff lack experience in Washington and don't know or seem to care much about how individual departments work.

Trump himself, meanwhile, simply thinks having fewer people working is better. "A lot of those jobs I don't want to appoint, because they're unnecessary to have," Trump said on Fox News last month. "I say, 'What do all these people do?' You don't need all those jobs." Trump thinks the best route to the conservative ideal of small government is to practice what you preach — literally make the government much smaller by refusing to fill many posts.

The problem is that it makes government far less effective, even in areas like trade that are supposed to be a top priority for the administration. To take one example, a high-level summit in Chile this week will feature trade ministers from around the globe. But because the Trump administration hasn't confirmed a trade official, the US will be represented by American's ambassador to Chile, Carol Perez, a career diplomat who lacks the power and the technical knowledge of the other attendees, according to the Times.

Doug Irwin, an economics professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in the history of trade, said Perez may have a hard time keeping up with the hugely complicated and technical talks. Without large amounts of prior experience, he said, someone like Perez may not be able to "figure out what's feasible and what's not feasible."

"It's too complicated," he said.

That captures one of the key issues with Trump's refusal to fill high-level positions. There's a difference between campaign rhetoric about trimming back the federal government and simply disregarding the management needs of mammoth government agencies that help run the most powerful country in the world and handle its relationships with other global powers. Trump appears to be heading down the latter path. And it's going to make it harder for him to pursue his own goals.

Changing Washington requires more people to get the job done

Take this week's summit of trade ministers from Pacific Rim countries such as Mexico and Japan. The meeting is likely to involve discussing the possible future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the colossal trade agreement that Trump withdrew from in his first full working day in office. Having Perez there instead of a Cabinet secretary or US trade official will be jarring for foreign governments trying to learn more about the Trump administration's true feelings about trade.

If Perez is there because higher-ups at the State Department said she should go and sort of take the temperature on a variety of trade issues and possible future deals, Irwin suspects she would be "a note taker, but not be much of a participant."

"These negotiations are very technical ... so if you don't have someone there who's really conversant with a lot of these issues, they're really not going to be able to follow," he said.

The summit could end up being a missed opportunity for other countries to develop a better understanding of exactly what Trump wants to do on trade with Pacific Rim countries — for example, does he have any curiosity about future regional deals, or will he in fact go for bilateral deals as he's suggested? And what are his negotiation priorities on any such deals?

Another example of the vulnerability of the empty Trump administration is the US Trade Representative's report to Congress published in March. The report announced brazenly that the US could defy World Trade Organization rulings when it wished to, but if you read it carefully, it didn't fully reject acceptance of free trade norms.

As trade expert Todd Tucker of the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, pointed out, the report was "divided between seven pages of Trumpist rhetoric and more than 300 pages of celebration of the older approach." As Tucker points out, one major explanation for the presence of traditionalism in the huge report was that it was mainly put together by bureaucrats whose natural inclination is to embrace old free trade frameworks. Now, if Trump were doing more to staff up on senior trade positions, that doesn't mean there would be total harmony over at the US Trade Representative's office, but stronger leadership would probably help people get on the same page.

And getting the trade bureaucracy to adopt a consistent line is crucial, as Trump faces increasingly intense challenges from Republican lawmakers who are reluctant to deviate from free trade norms.

The fewer people Trump has implementing his agenda at a senior level, the more vulnerable his policies will be to being softened by bureaucrats who often favor the status quo he has promised to buck. He's not streamlining government by leaving key positions unfilled. He's making it less likely that he'll be able to lock his own policies into place.

Commentary by Zeeshan Aleem, foreign affairs writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @zeeshanaleem.

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