The large number of vacancies in Donald Trump’s administration has been so widely acknowledged that it is almost a given that the president is operating with a bare-bones staff.
According to the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, as of May 3, the president had nominated only 73 of more than 1,100 political appointees requiring Senate confirmation and won approval for just 27 individuals. Despite a last-minute rush to nominate 21 people ahead of his 100th day in office, Trump is still well behind his predecessors in filling critical government posts, including deputy secretaries, ambassadors, chief financial officers and general counsels.
The Center for Presidential Transition notes that Barack Obama had nominated 193 individuals at this same point in his presidency, while George W. Bush’s tally was 152 nominations and Bill Clinton’s was 176. Additionally, the pending number of appointees to clear federal ethics requirements is striking compared to that of the Obama administration, the center says. As of April 17, Trump had only submitted 41 percent of the nominee paperwork that his predecessor submitted in 2009, according to Office of Government Ethics data.
In an April 12 interview with Fox Business, Trump blamed the vacancies on a “lousy confirmation process” and “obstructionists,” presumably meaning Democratic lawmakers who were holding up his nominations.
But there are other reasons for the hundreds of open positions for which Trump has not yet named nominees. For one thing, the president is known to prize loyalty over experience and has blacklisted many traditional GOP hands because they criticized him during the campaign. That means a leaner staff that has less experience navigating the government hiring process. Also not helping is the sieve of leaks coming out of the White House, which may be compounding Trump’s insistence on surrounding himself with fewer people who have pledged their fealty to him.
Another problem is an overworked, inexperienced vetting staff “bogged down as a result of micromanaging by the president and senior staff” — as well as turf wars among Cabinet agencies and warring West Wing factions such as chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior strategist Stephen Bannon, according to the April 11 Politico article “Why the Trump administration has so many vacancies.”
Although some of his Cabinet secretaries are reportedly frustrated by the slow pace of hiring, the president may not be in a rush to fill the empty jobs. He has vowed to cut down on bureaucratic waste, so some positions are likely to be consolidated or eliminated. Trump also came to office on an anti-establishment pledge to drain the proverbial swamp, so stacking agencies with establishment figures would be anathema to his unorthodox administration.
Yet the vacancies may be perpetuating a vicious cycle of bad press for the president, as his wobbly, skeletal team lurches from one PR crisis to the next. The longer Trump takes to fill the top ranks of government, the fewer allies he’ll have to implement — and defend — his agenda.
Trump’s Sparse State Department
Recent reports describe the State Department, in particular, as an all-but empty building.
There are six undersecretaries of state positions — the highest-ranking, after secretary of state — all of which have yet to be named. Beneath these top-tier offices are 24 assistant secretaries of state, none of which have been named. The positions are temporarily being filled by deputies until a permanent appointment is made. The assistant secretary of state for African affairs slot was completely vacant at the time of this writing.
“I think it shows that this administration didn’t think it was going to win the election,” said former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett, who served at U.S. embassies in Argentina and Malawi before being named ambassador to Mozambique and then Peru.
“I don’t think they were prepared to staff up,” he added, noting that the Trump team had access to presidential transition funding during the campaign but failed to use it adequately.
The transition was also hindered by the abrupt firing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition director shortly after the election, further setting back personnel decisions.
The large number of outstanding appointments in the State Department has left U.S. foreign policy without direction — at a time when America’s diplomatic corps faces a litany of crises abroad, from North Korea to Syria to Russia.
It has also sapped morale at Foggy Bottom.
“[I]n the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues” in the State Department cafeteria, according to a report by Julia Ioffe in The Atlantic on March 1. “With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do,” Ioffe wrote.
“It is very concerning, and it is in sharp contrast to what happened eight years ago,” said Philip “P.J.” Crowley, who served as assistant secretary for public affairs and spokesman for the State Department between 2009 and 2011 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
At that time, recently named Secretary Clinton had “made a deal” with President Obama to name her own team, Crowley told The Diplomat, which allowed them to streamline the appointment process and quickly fill posts around the world.
According to an April 27 report in the New York Times by Gardiner Harris, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made almost no effort to fill the nearly 200 jobs at Foggy Bottom that need Senate confirmation. The former ExxonMobil CEO maintains a low public profile and threadbare support system (his choice for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, was rejected by Trump, but Republican lawyer John J. Sullivan was recently confirmed to serve as Tillerson’s number two).
Tillerson’s slow start has led to concerns that he holds little sway in a fractious administration — and that foreign policy is being concentrated in the West Wing, specifically under Trump’s influential son-in-law, senior advisor Jared Kushner.
At the same time, observers point out that Tillerson is gradually cultivating a personal relationship with Trump, quietly meeting with the president on a regular basis. Republicans also argue that Hillary Clinton appointed too many needless special envoys and that Tillerson is still settling into the job.
So far, Tillerson has launched a listening tour and hired an outside consulting firm to survey employees before announcing his plans to streamline the department.
“The first step was to find out where the Titanic was, and then it was to map out where everything else is,” R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s spokesman, told Harris of the New York Times. “I think we’re still in the process of mapping out the entire ocean floor so that we understand the full picture.”
Comparing the potential reorganization of the State Department to an ocean liner catastrophe, however, may not inspire confidence among America’s diplomatic corps. Morale has also been damaged by Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget, which seeks drastic cuts to international affairs funding, including long-time programs with bipartisan support.
A draft of that budget released in March includes a 28 percent reduction in base funding for the State Department and USAID, which together make up about 1 percent of total federal spending (also see “Critics Say Trump’s ‘Skinny’ Budget Starves U.S. Diplomacy, Aid in Time of Heightened Need” in the May 2017 issue).
Tillerson, in keeping with the administration’s strategy to downsize the department, also plans to lay off 2,300 diplomats and civil servants — about 9 percent of the Americans in its workforce worldwide, according to Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, Trump’s budget seeks a 10 percent boost in Defense Department funding.
“What does that say to the world, to increase military spending and cut our soft power?” Jett asked.
“Our national security depends on our ambassadors,” added Jett, who is now a professor at Penn State.
But American ambassadors are in short supply at the moment. A March 29 Quartz article noted that more than half of the world’s population does not have a U.S. ambassador. Specifically, the U.S. lacks top envoys to 57 countries and territories with a combined population of 3.9 billion.
Diplomatic bottlenecks are nothing new, however, and Obama experienced similar problems. In July 2014, McClatchy reported that a quarter of the world was without a U.S. ambassador, largely due to partisan obstructionism in the Senate.
Trump has moved to fill a few key postings abroad. Bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman was approved as U.S. ambassador to Israel, despite his controversial support for Jewish settlement expansion. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was also recently confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China, as were two career Foreign Service Officers to serve in Senegal and the Republic of Congo. Other notable picks are still awaiting confirmation. That includes businessman William Hagerty (who’s been tapped to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan); New York Jets owner Woody Johnson (Britain); K.T. McFarland (Singapore); and San Diego developer Doug Manchester for the Bahamas.
For Jett, the appointments Trump has made thus far cause more concern than the vacancies themselves.
“Trump has got this mantra that he’s going to drain the swamp but all he’s done is change the alligators,” Jett said.
Perennial Debate Over Political Appointees
Criticism over Trump’s staffing has largely centered around his Cabinet picks, which include a number of billionaires and Goldman Sachs alumni. But as Trump reveals more of his picks for cushy overseas postings in Western Europe and the Caribbean, which typically go to wealthy campaign contributors, he is sure to resurrect the debate over awarding ambassadorships to the highest bidder.
Jett says that for the last 50 years, there’s been an unwritten rule that 70 percent of all overseas ambassadorships go to career Foreign Service people, while political appointees comprise the other 30 percent. A paper that Jett co-authored called “What Price the Court of St. James’s? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America” estimated that plum postings to places like Luxembourg cost $3.1 million in political donations, while London goes for roughly $1.1 million (also see “In U.S., Selling Ambassadors to Highest Bidder Has Long History” in the March 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
CNN’s Theodore Schleifer reported that Trump is already being besieged by rich, impatient fundraisers hoping to be rewarded for their largesse, especially because donors with extensive business connections may need time to resolve conflicts of interest during the vetting process. Among the names that have been floated around: fundraiser Kelly Knight for Canada; fundraiser Lewis Eisenberg for Italy; Florida investor Duke Buchan for Spain; and former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman for Russia.
Huntsman is widely seen as a shrewd choice, but a few of Trump’s selections have raised eyebrows. Last month, reports surfaced that Trump chose Callista Gingrich, wife of former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to be U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Callista Gingrich is a devout Catholic who converted her husband Newt to Catholicism, although their alleged affair in the 1990s led him to divorce his second wife, making them a somewhat odd choice to send to the Holy See.
Meanwhile, in early May, the Associated Press reported that Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was being considered for a senior State Department role. The role had yet to be determined, but one possibility was for her to serve as an ambassador-at-large focusing on a specific issue such as human trafficking.
Such an appointment would be “an obvious attempt at political cooption” of Sen. McCain, Jett said. McCain was an outspoken critic of Trump during the presidential campaign and recently called the president’s national security team “dysfunctional.”
Another appointment that drew some reproach was that of former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), an early Trump ally during the campaign, to serve as ambassador to New Zealand.
“I don’t mind the idea that career politicians are named ambassadors,” said former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, now a professor at the George Washington University.
Diplomats have to “say things in public and then do the heavy lifting behind closed doors” — not unlike politicians, Crowley told us. The political dimension is important to the job and understanding politics will help Brown in a place like New Zealand, he added.
Indeed, while political appointees are often criticized for their lack of diplomatic experience, they may bring other attributes to the table, including business savvy and access to the president. Moreover, political appointees are assigned to non-sensitive posts where career diplomats working behind the scenes can often make up for an incompetent ambassador at the helm.
But some analysts say that diplomatic expertise is more important than ever given Trump’s dearth of foreign policy knowledge — and that sometimes even the most skilled deputy cannot save an ambassador from ineptitude or scandal.
On that note, Obama was also criticized for making diplomatic appointments driven by political patronage. For example, his nominee for ambassador to Norway, campaign bundler George Tsunis, never made it past his confirmation hearing because he failed to answer basic questions about Norway. Cynthia Stroum, Obama’s ambassador to Luxembourg, was kicked out after scathing reports emerged about her abrasive management style. Obama also raised hackles when he named Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan, a sensitive post as tensions rose between Japan and China over disputed islands. Kennedy had given Obama a boost of political credibility with her endorsement during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary but had no connections to Japan or Asia.
But most of Obama’s political picks — including Michael McFaul for Russia, Jon Huntsman for China, Charles Rivkin for France and Kennedy for Japan — were generally respected and praised. Jett, whose recent book “American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats” critiques the practice of giving ambassadorships to campaign donors or political allies, argues that this phenomenon “clearly” did not get worse under Obama.
Obama’s appointments were probably more qualified than any recent administration, he told us.
In contrast, Jett said, the Trump administration “is going to go down as the most corrupt and incompetent administration in the last century.”
Filling the Vacuum
Jett conceded that previous administrations also had a lot of vacancies by this date in their presidencies. But while it is customary for diplomats around the world to tender their resignations at the start of a new administration, these resignations are not usually accepted until replacements have been named.
Trump not only accepted the resignations, but ordered all political appointees to quit their posts immediately — resulting in a mass exodus of U.S. diplomats around the world.
While some criticized the move as unprecedented — forcing diplomats to yank children out of school and leaving critical posts in countries like Germany and Canada empty — Trump’s supporters said the media overhyped the departures and pointed out that almost all political appointees vacate their positions once a new president takes office.
Some foreign diplomats have privately groused that the vacancies have left them without a point of contact at the State Department, although others have said they’ve been fine working with the career diplomats acting as temporary fill-ins.
But any temporary leader speaks with less authority than a permanent one. And with the significant lag time in vetting potential candidates, Trump may not have his people in place for months, if not longer.
Fewer people may lead to more gaffes and blunders. Crowley argued that Tillerson “has made a series of rookie mistakes.” Among these, he said, is that Tillerson has not been visible inside the State Department, which dampens morale. He took only one journalist — a sympathetic one, from the Independent Journal Review — on his important trip to Asia in March.
And he has refused to maintain the State Department’s customary daily press briefings — including skipping the release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world, which has traditionally been accompanied by a press conference from the secretary of state.
But Crowley did not discount the possibility that Tillerson made the conscious decision to be less visible.
Tillerson is “still working out the difference” between being the CEO of an international corporation and being a public servant, Crowley said, and he is still learning how government operates.
He may also still be learning how his boss operates. Trump’s erratic policy swings have left many of his surrogates with whiplash. Tillerson has had a series of embarrassing flip-flops, from suggesting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be able to stay in power — days before Trump ordered a strike on Assad’s airfield — to declaring that the nuclear deal with Iran was dead, only to concede that Tehran was complying with its terms. Remaining behind the scenes while Trump formulates a more cohesive foreign policy may be to Tillerson’s benefit.
However, experts say the Trump administration’s adversarial relationship with the media makes foreign policymaking — and selling that policy — more difficult.
“The president, for the first time since the Nixon administration, has gone to war with the media,” said Crowley. “That has an adverse effect on our standing in the world.”
For instance, foreign governments regularly rely on the State Department’s daily press briefings to glean insights into U.S. policy. Diplomacy cannot all be done behind closed doors, Crowley pointed out. When the administration fails to communicate, it lets others define the narrative of what is happening.
That phenomenon was laid bare in early May when Trump brought Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak into the Oval Office and barred U.S. media from entering the room.
But a photographer from a state-run Russian media outlet was allowed in and published photos of the meeting afterward. That led to some strange optics considering that a day earlier, Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Media outlets also reported that Trump revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State plot that was received from a confidential ally during his White House meeting with the two Russian officials. While the disclosure did not appear to break any laws, the New York Times called it a “major breach of espionage etiquette” that “could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship.”
Experts say that’s why a seasoned diplomatic staff is essential to preventing slip-ups, both large and small. Even the simple mistake of unwittingly inviting a Russian photographer (while excluding American media) might have been avoided with a stronger staff in place. “We go around the world criticizing this in other countries,” Crowley said.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews), managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, contributed to this report.