The tweet seemed straightforward enough. President Trump, in the wake of an apparent terror attack on London, opened his Twitter app and sent out one of his signature screeds. He blamed Democrats for the lack of Ambassadors—such as the one in London—to represent Washington during times of crisis.
“Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors,” the President tweeted. “They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.”
Setting aside the fact that his fellow Republicans control the Senate, there remains a very large problem here: the White House has not nominated anyone for the job in London. Trump announced during a gala luncheon on Jan. 19 that New York Jets owners Woody Johnson would be his pick, but the White House has not referred the nomination to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s tough for anyone—Republicans or Democrats—to confirm a nominee who hasn’t been nominated. An ambassador-in-theory at the Court of Saint James does the United States no good.
But that’s the M.O. for this President: tweet first and ask questions later. As the terror attack was unfolding on Saturday, Trump shared a message from the conservative Drudge Report. The White House said the President was briefed, but his tweets indicated he was collecting (and sharing) plenty of unconfirmed material from social media, too. He picked a fight with London’s Muslim mayor and sought public support for an immigration gambit—the travel ban—that courts across the country have seen as problematic. (Perhaps complicating all of this: the U.K. was livid that American reporters were publishing British intelligence during an earlier attack; Prime Minister May was furious about leaks the police ordered the government to stop sharing reports so freely across the pond.)
On a broader level, the lack of Ambassador speaks to Trump’s slow and indifferent efforts to fill out the 559 government posts that require Senate confirmation. Only 39 of those have been confirmed in the Senate, and 442 have yet to have a name announced, according to a tally maintained by the Washington Post and the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service and updated Monday morning. And, as the Partnership notes in a memo to reporters, Trump actually has more Ambassadors confirmed than Barack Obama or George W. Bush. On the delay front, however, Trump is correct: the timeline for his ambassador nominees' confirmation is much longer than historical averages. Trump's have taken, so far, 85 days. Obama's took 32 days and Bush's took 11 days.
"If the President is looking for someone to blame on the slow pace of confirmations, he needs only to look in the mirror," Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer said of what he called Trump's "glacial pace in selecting nominees." Schumer noted that the Senate has confirmed Trump's Cabinet secretaries, the the President should "roll up his sleeves and get to work rather than pointing false fingers of blame."
The vast federal bureaucracy at this moment is, indeed, largely rudderless as it awaits the political appointees to arrive and start directing the power of the United States government. There’s only so much career government workers can do when told to run on autopilot.
As the events and London were unfolding, it’s worth considering the staffing situation at the State Department. There is no legal advisor, no undersecretary for public diplomacy, no assistant secretary for law enforcement and no assistant secretary to handle the Europe brief. There’s no head of diplomatic security to protect American embassies, a director for foreign missions, or a coordinator for counter-terrorism. Staff in the London embassy could phone the White House or the Deputy Secretary of State—quite the leapfrog over typical channels for cables.
The ambassadors who are confirmed? China, Israel and the United Nations. Those are key postings that have Trump’s direct attention. Nominated: New Zealand and Samoa, Japan, the Bahamas, the Vatican, Ethiopia and a deputy UN ambassador. The State Department has nominated and the Senate has confirmed career diplomats to posts in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, and the Republic of Congo. The White House has signaled the picks of Johnson to the United Kingdom, a deputy national security adviser to Singapore and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman for Russia. Their paperwork has yet to be sent to Capitol Hill for Senate consideration.
It’s little better throughout the rest of the federal government. The White House has pledged to mount a war on Washington, a fight with the Deep State whose bureaucrats are “no longer relevant.” There is talk of leaving many posts open for all four or eight years of a Trump Administration as a signal that there is little use for these government programs or roles.
These positions may seem trivial, especially for Trump’s supporters who see him as the wrecking ball they sent to Washington to destroy it. But these roles’ titles betray little of their power. After all, Cabinet Secretaries are the people you book on cable shows. The sub-Cabinet is where the actual power exists—and where things can go off the rails. It was the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel that reviewed domestic eavesdropping cases in George W. Bush’s Administration and concluded it ran afoul of the law, for instance. The White House nominee for that post is awaiting full Senate confirmation.
At the Pentagon, officials are waiting for the White House to nominate the pick for deputy secretary—the person who generally runs day-to-day operations for the behemoth. The Department of Defense lacks an internal watchdog, a general counsel, a policy or intelligence chief or secretaries of the Army or Navy.
Of the 13 Senate-confirmed positions at the Department of Agriculture, only the Secretary is confirmed. No one has been nominated to run food safety, civil rights or farm services. It’s just as dark at the Education Department, where a Secretary is confirmed, a general counsel has been announced—but not nominated—and crucial positions overseeing civil rights, K-12 education and policy development are all vacant. Don’t bother to look for nominees for the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Trade Commission, NASA or the Peace Corps.
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security appear to be the best positioned when it comes to filling out the top ranks, reflecting the White House’s interest in keeping America safe—and keeping out those it sees as dangerous, even as the nominees to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services and Customs and Border Patrol await Senate votes. (One upside: not having a Senate-confirmed leader means mid-level officials can’t be summoned to Capitol Hill to testify.)
As hurricane season comes closer, Trump’s nominee to lead FEMA is awaiting a committee hearing, and there is no nominee to run the government weather satellites at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But as the weekend in London showed, there’s really only so much a bare-bones government can do in response. Trump’s tweets that he wants the Supreme Court to take up, in his words, an immigration ban got attention. What he would do well to remember: his nominee to argue that case before the Supreme Court is awaiting Senate confirmation.