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.