Will we have a functioning Executive Branch of the United States government at 12:01pm EST today?
The Donald Trump administration is hours away from assuming office. But with vast numbers of positions yet to be filled, the work of governing is far from assured to begin at the same time.
Many familiar with politics and government on both sides of the aisle are discussing among themselves, and even asking publicly, if we will have a fully functioning Executive Branch starting from the moment Donald Trump is sworn into office, raising the specter of unanswered phones and briefing memos on top of empty desks:
Will the United States have a functioning Executive Branch at 12:01pm EST on Friday, January 20th? pic.twitter.com/jt3AWbjzvN
— …she persisted. ? (@leahmcelrath) January 19, 2017
I've talked with several people involved on Trump's side of the NatSec transition. The word they all independently arrive at is "shitshow." https://t.co/4P7M9hkeB3
— Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) January 14, 2017
@dandrezner That's interesting, because the word that keeps coming up in the similar conversations I've had is "clusterfuck."
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) January 14, 2017
As Chair of the Trump transition team, Vice President-elect Mike Pence bragged in a press conference Thursday the transition team finished “on time and under budget.” Pence noted that the team has put forth 21 nominations for the cabinet-level positions, all of which need to be confirmed by the Senate prior to the appointees taking office. None have yet been confirmed.
In other words, President-elect Trump is being sworn in as President Trump today and taking office without even the rudiments of an official cabinet in place to support and advise him.
Pence also noted the team has put forth 27 total names for nominations for the positions to be filled that require Senate confirmation. That is 27 out of 670 total positions requiring Senate confirmation the Trump administration needs to fill, just 4 percent of those necessary. Pence further asserted they had 536 staffers — or what he described as “beachhead team members” — who do not require Senate confirmation and will be reporting to work “bright and early on Monday morning.”
Setting aside the strangely militaristic language Pence used to describe incoming civilian staffers and the fact that some staff need to be in place immediately rather than after the weekend, the reality is that 536 positions is still a small fragment of the necessary number. Overall, there are approximately 4,100 total politically appointed government positions which need to be filled, including more than 1,200 with key advisory and critical leadership responsibilities.
Since the day after the election, President Obama has repeatedly reiterated his intention to do everything in his power to assure there is a smooth and peaceful transition of power between his and Trump’s administrations. Belying Trump’s tweeting to the contrary and reports in both right-wing and Russian outlets saying otherwise, Pence affirmed the positive working relationship between the two administrations during the transition and went as far as to say “the cooperation that the outgoing administration has offered would make every American proud.”
Unfilled national security, defense, and foreign policy related positions are of particular concern given the volatility of current international relations and Trump’s actions throwing into question U.S. foreign policy on every major front. The Obama Administration has written 275 briefing papers — more than 1,000 pages of classified information on critical situations including everything from nuclear threats from North Korea to the efforts against ISIS — and they have no idea whether anyone on Trump’s team has read any of it. Other than Trump meeting and speaking with Obama directly, very few people from the incoming Trump team have reportedly liaisoned with their outgoing counterparts in the Obama Administration, costing them valuable time to get up to speed on the most complex security issues facing the United States and the world and placing our nation in a precarious position.
One of Trump’s few national security appointees, Monica Crowley, has been forced to withdraw following revelations about a long-term pattern of plagiarism within her written communications. She was put forth by Trump to serve as the senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council. Other than Crowley, only a handful of national security appointments have been made, most notably conspiracy-theorist-and fake-news-disseminator Lt. General Michael Flynn, who will serve as Trump’s national security advisor.
The Department of Defense is also facing unfilled critical positions, including approximately 50 key leadership roles requiring Senate confirmation and for which names have not been put forth. One possible reason for delays on appointments to defense related positions are reported disagreements between Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, General James N. Mattis, and members of the Trump transition team, including disagreements about who even gets to make the decisions about staffing.
For Secretary of State, Trump has nominated Exxon/Mobil CEO and Russia’s Order of Friendship medal recipient Rex Tillerson. The Department of State likewise has more than three dozen high level executive positions and approximately 200 ambassadorships all requiring Senate confirmation and lacking even appointees. Meanwhile, the Trump team is floating ideas about “restructuring” the entire department to focus more on terrorism and less on what the team views as “liberal priorities” like addressing climate change and fostering democracy abroad. (Yes, you read that right.)
Contrary to speculation, the “Never Trump” sentiment within the GOP does not appear to be acting as a barrier to fill these positions. Pence stated the transition team had received 86,000 resumes and 4,000 referrals. For comparison, the 2008 Obama transition team garnered a historic 300,000 “expressions of interest” to fill its positions, the 2000 Bush transition team had 44,000 applicants, and the 1992 Clinton transition team reviewed around 100,000 applications for substantially similar staffing needs. To make up for the staffing shortfalls, Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer announced Thursday that they were asking about 50 senior officials from the Obama administration to stay on to “ensure the continuity of government.” Some officials who have been asked last minute to stay on have declined.
In contrast to Obama’s actions as Chief Executive, Trump has an overtly non-diverse cabinet and has nominated white male candidates for 18 of the 23 positions, including multiple billionaires and large donors to his campaign. As the former Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Harry Reid noted via Twitter, Trump has broken several decades of precedent in not appointing even a single member of the opposing political party to his cabinet:
And none are Democrats.
First time in 30 years a president hasn't nominated a member of the opposite party to serve in his cabinet. https://t.co/OE6CKQooPr
— Adam Jentleson (@AJentleson) January 19, 2017
Whether we will have a functional Executive Branch after the inauguration remains an unanswered question. One thing we do know for sure is we will not have a President who is on the job. Trump has stated he plans to take Friday and the weekend off to enjoy the inaugural celebrations.