If it wasn’t clear before, there can be no doubt now: You can’t govern by tweet. Or executive order, for that matter.
On the ground, Hurricane Harvey has engulfed an entire swath of Texas, and it’s not done yet. On the other side of the globe, North Korea fired a missile over Japan, a your-move kind of provocation.
For a president and an administration that has spent much of its first seven months dealing with self-inflicted problems, these are actual crises that require actual governing. Whether President Trump is up to the task remains to be seen, although for a change, it’s not about him. Or rather, it’s not only about him.
It’s about the mostly anonymous federal officials and employees — all those deputy assistants to assistant deputies and the worker bees below them — who have to execute the policies that come from above, regardless of how well-thought-out they are or how clearly they’re articulated. No matter where you work, in or out of government, you know people like this: They know the billing codes, the work-arounds, the right requisition forms, the old-hand out in the field. They know whom to call, whether it’s the guy in Corpus Christi who knows where the supply of batteries are stored or the intelligence operative in Seoul with a back channel contact in Pyongyang.
But these twin challenges come at a time when key positions in federal agencies remain unfilled. There is no ambassador to South Korea at the moment, for example. Nor is there a Secretary of Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the previous one, retired Gen. John Kelly, having left for the chief of staff position at White House — home to no small amount of staffing chaos as well.
President Trump was hired in no small part because he ran against the government. Since taking office, he has all but declared war on intelligence agencies and the so-called “deep state,” the alleged permanent shadow government that works against elected officials. This overlaps with other Trump targets, from the swamp he pledged to drain to the Obama holdovers who supposedly are thwarting him. And it’s not been all talk: He’s fired or asked for resignations en masse, from attorneys general to ambassadors, and he’s overturned numerous federal regulations by executive order.
This is any new administration’s prerogative, to set a new course and select the team to carry it out. But if Trump has been decisive in clearing out the old, he’s been less quick to bring in the new. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: In his previous incarnation as the boss on “The Apprentice,” he was known for barking, “You’re fired,” not “You’re hired.”
He is lagging well behind his predecessors when it comes to filling government posts. According to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, there are more than 4,000 positions that Trump needs to fill by appointment, more than 1,200 of which the Senate has to confirm. As of Tuesday, according to the tracking the partnership is conducting with CNN, he had nominated 277 people, of whom 124 have been confirmed. At his point, President Obama had nominated 433, with 310 confirmed; President Bush had selected 414 and had 294 confirmed.
Trump has pointed to nominees that remain unconfirmed, saying Senate Democrats have obstructed and delayed hearings and votes. That is indeed a game that both sides tend to play, one of the few ways a minority party that feels powerless can create some mischief, however temporarily. (Or permanently, in the case of one Merrick Garland, the Obama Supreme Court nominee who was never given a hearing by the GOP-controlled Senate.)
The impact goes beyond presidential nominees, given that an agency or department can’t fully fill its ranks until whoever will be in charge is in place.
Already, critics are pointing to how staffing delays were thrust into the spotlight by Hurricane Harvey, given how extensive and expensive a response and recovery process it clearly requires. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham took to the normally Trump-friendly “Fox & Friends” show on Tuesday to note how “these horrific pictures” from Texas show how “a federal government does need staff.”
The president was watching, of course, and responded: “We are not looking to fill all of those positions. Don’t need many of them — reduce size of government,” he tweeted.
It’s a tried and true campaign slogan — no one ever runs promising to double the number of bureaucrats. But when the water rises or missiles are unleashed, who are you going to call?
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