One of the most frightening prospects of a Trump administration was the outlandish characters he would place in powerful positions. That worry has evolved in some strange directions.
In rare moments when he’s focused enough to act, Trump has delivered on this threat. He named a talk-radio host to the post of “chief scientist” at the USDA. He nominated Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy. One of Trump’s judicial picks couldn’t answer the kind legal questions covered in the first week of law school. For a while, Steve Bannon was sitting on the National Security Council. Trump has consistently hired the worst human beings he could find.
However, Trump has mostly failed to nominate anyone at all for federal posts. More than a third of the key positions in the executive branch still have no nominee. Of the positions for which he’s named a nominee, only a third have made their way through confirmation. An unprecedented percentage of his nominees have been rejected or dropped out, including that moron he selected for the USDA’s science advisory position. The pace of action on filling executive branch openings has slowed to a halt.
What’s worse, federal agencies packed with bizarre or corrupt Trump sycophants or federal agencies devoid of any leadership at all? It’s a difficult question to answer.
Almost all of the Trump administration’s appointees for federal positions fall into two categories, idiots and grifters. A handful of figures like James Mattis and John Kelly seem relatively capable and public-minded. Their presence in this administration is a rare blessing, but don’t forget that they would never win the authority they hold today under the leadership of a remotely competent President. They shouldn’t be in those roles. They’re refreshing only for their status as relatively normal figures in what is otherwise a carnival freak show.
This is a pattern that has played out across the Trump era. The danger that Trump might carry out his plans for America has bogged down into a new, entirely unique form of public harm. Some of this administration’s most disastrous outcomes might stem more from the Trumpsters’ inattention and incompetence than from their terrible policy ambitions. Competent, professional bureaucrats are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs thanks to the absence of key decision-makers in leadership roles. Trump’s own plans for projects like tighter immigration controls and a border wall have been stymied in part by the lack of leadership figures who can carry out the most basic requirements. It is impossible for the State Department to fill positions created by its flood of career departures without a major push, and this administration cannot generate a major push for anything. This problem will get worse if Congress ever takes action on a potential infrastructure bill.
Failing to fill hundreds of leadership positions in the executive branch has a crippling effect on government likely to extend far beyond this administration. Is that damage preferable to the havoc Trump might unleash if he had the attention span to get this task done? Historians may be debating this question for decades. For now, we should perhaps be grateful that the Trump administration is so incompetent. In the short term, their failures feel like a gift.