Our empty executive branch

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.

20 Comments

  1. Et tu, Mattis?

    The latest report from the DOD…. “The Pentagon scrubbed its latest National Defense Strategy of all references to climate change, an Orwellian rhetorical shift away from a scientific reality at an agency that has long avoided the issue’s politics.

    A summary document released Friday morning makes no mention of “climate,” “warming,” “planet,” “sea levels” or even “temperature.” All 22 uses of the word “environment” refer to the strategic or security landscape. The 11-page memo, signed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, is the first update to the policy in a decade.”

    It really “does matter” who you appoint to positions of authority…

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pentagon-climate-trump_us_5a611feae4b01d91b254278d?

  2. Just finished reading Ellsberg’s Doomsday Machine. I am surprised we are all still here. Not certain I will be here to say that in a couple of years. The complexities of the nuclear war age seem astounding. And today without a leader, an intelligent person who may grasp these complexities is non existent. We’ve been lucky sofar. Not sure we can count on luck the next time.

  3. A couple things, one mundane, one “insane”.

    1. Chris, are you still blogging on Forbes?
    2. Strictly rhetorical and theoretical, but hands up how many people on this site now consider violence as a justifiable (albeit not viable) option for regime change as opposed to 13 months ago? (I expect no one answers). Apparently, the fascists have four CONVICTED criminals running for a congressional or senate seat. The dem’s have one, who has already been denounced by the party.

    I would suggest that a threshold has long been reached.

      1. I don’t advocate violence either but I also don’t plan to sit idly by if fascists try and take over. I’m not a gun person but my SO has a safe full of firearms and if push comes to shove I’m pretty sure I can pick off a few of the freaks.

        Oddly enough, I was watching a movie one night about a neighborhood that’s invaded by a secessionist movement and they are slaughtering people in the streets until the neighborhood citizens fight back. I think it was called Bushwick and it’s a “B” movie but the premise is interesting. Nothing like seeing Hasidic Jews kicking some fascist ass.

  4. Considering the recent demise of former loyal staff members, who in the hell would want to work for the Frump? Let’s see, really shitty boss, zero job security, and “does not look good on a resume”, who wants that. Best case is staying out of jail. Not a blueprint for attracting the best and brightest!

  5. My stance is it’s better he doesn’t nominate anyone. There are still functional, workhorse rank and file in the agencies that are getting shit done. They may not be able to deliver their results for the next three years, but they’re prepping them.

    One of the most effective companies of people I ever worked with was a group that survived eight months at a corporate chain retail job without a district manager, store manager, or store assistant manager. Individual department managers took up the slack for store administration while individual department workers took up the slack for department managers. The crew that survived the period were better, more effective, and knew a lot more about everything in the store.

    I wouldn’t sell up that process of attrition as an effective strategy; for one thing it was super demotivating to the crew and wasn’t worth it, financially or health wise. I stuck with it because I was in college and didn’t feel like any other shitty retail job would necessarily be more gratifying than that shitty retail job. Any corporate management that’s ever tried doing something like that on purpose has ended up destroying their company; cf. Eddie Lampert, CEO of Sears (not the retail job I’m mentioning.)

    But under the circumstances, the remaining people who work in our federal agencies are probably there because they believe in the work they are doing, and plan to stick with it come hell or high water. Who knows if they’ll make it, but if it turns out this administration only lasts four years, the next administration might inherit some of the most battle-hardened bureaucrats the world’s ever seen.

    Or our institutions will collapse and we’ll see actual blood in the second civil war yadda yadda yadda.

    1. Here’s a good article out today that speaks to the struggle and opportunity that career Washington bureaucrats have…a glass half-full but one that is so sad to have to drink. We each resist as we can….history is replete with examples of how little people disrupted evil – in factories, equipment sabotage, and so much more. Still – we thought we would never see a need for such in America, right?

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2018/01/16/trumps-disruption-of-government-could-aid-top-federal-employees-survey-says/?

    1. I don’t think he’s vetting them well. Remember the one judicial nominee who couldn’t answer basic legal questions? I don’t think Trump personally picked him, I think it was some religious conservative on staff (Pence?) but I could be wrong. I thought I read something awhile back that “unofficial” workers were showing up and working without being cleared. I wish I could remember where I read it though.

      http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/15/politics/judicial-nominee-questions-flub/index.html

    2. The judiciary is easier because:

      1) Mitch McConnell already stacked the open positions to be made available for ‘a conservative president’;

      2) so-called conservative ‘think tanks’ already wrote down their wish-lists and delivered them, via McConnell et al, to 45’s desk, meaning

      3) he doesn’t even have to research or think about them, he just asks “are they on my side?” and someone says “Yes, sure they are” and then

      4) each bench is relatively independent and hire their own crew, so they don’t have to deal with an entire agency the way other federal positions do.

      The judicial nominations are exactly like the tax bill: there’s no ‘plan’ or ‘thought’ behind it, with absence of anything other than the knowledge that they have a narrow window of time to get it done, Republicans are taking bullet point lists from their only remaining effective constituents (billionaire conservatives) and checking them off.

      It’s the only thing they are fundamentally capable of doing anymore, having lost sense of meaning or long term strategy a generation ago.

    3. That’s because there are still some smart people in the Republican Party who know that packing the judiciary with life-time appointees (that they are getting to pick mostly) is a good investment. When the pendulum swings left – and it will eventually – the only thing for the GOP will be having idiological federal justices supporting indefensible laws and policies. This appointment power is of great concern to me as I have witnessed the impressive strength of our current judiciary to block irrational regulations and laws.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/11/28/this-is-how-trump-is-changing-the-federal-courts/?utm_term=.cc0c077861da

      1. The courts are my biggest concern because they have a say in vital issues like voting rights. The tactics Republicans are deploying in the area of voting rights come from the old Jim Crow playbook. The racism is less overt but the intention is the same.

        Here in NC the federal courts have been voiding the district lines set by the Republican legislature. Now they are trying to politicize the state courts. It’s why we need to be careful about calling people stupid or ignorant, because they know exactly what they are doing.

  6. I’ve wondered if Trump has some end game with this, dare I say, strategy (though I don’t think he actually puts that much thought into it) of staffing important positions with incompetent or completely inexperienced people. I find it’s one of the more bizarre aspects of this administration.

    Part of it may be due to paranoia and his fear of being out of his comfort zone, so it’s easier to hire sycophants who suck his ass constantly. He hired a former family event planner for some HUD/NY job.

    While some are just laughably incompetent some are quite scary like Scott Pruitt and DeVos who are there for the seeming purpose of dismantling the very thing they have been put in charge of.

    1. Trump has no strategy, his behavior may be chaotic but it’s entirely predictable and should be so for anyone who was paying attention by June of 2015.

      The reason why he hires idiots and grifters is not because he has a plan to subvert the United States federal government with carefully placed chess pieces,

      the reason why he hires idiots and grifters is because they’re the only people who support him.

      If you took a rollcall of literally every single American citizen, and then removed anyone who isn’t able to say they pledge full allegiance to 45 and his agenda with a straight face, you get two groups of people: those he’s already nominated for federal positions, and those who can’t be nominated because they never graduated high school.

      Give it a year and the second group’ll start showing up hither tither in the Senate review committees. We already have justices nominated who couldn’t pass the bar exam.

      1. Sorry, a third and last group are wealthy white conservatives who wouldn’t touch federal governance with a ten foot pole, but they’re the ones making the wish-lists of nominees 45 is moving forward with and underwriting the campaigns for 2018 congressional races,

        cf. the Mercers and all that.

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