As President Trump seeks a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a new trade pact with South Korea, he has yet to name an ambassador to the Korean peninsula. Nearly every major Mideast capital has no U.S. ambassador. Amid a national gun debate, he has not chosen a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. His budget director is doing double duty as chief of a consumer agency.
Empty desks throughout the executive branch have heightened the sense of chaos in Trump’s administration and put the president on the defensive. Believing as he does that the best defense is a good offense, the president is striking out — blaming Democrats.
He is increasingly targeting the minority party in public comments and on Twitter, where he uses his full arsenal of hyperbole and exclamation marks for emphasis.
“Hundreds of good people, including very important Ambassadors and Judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate,” Trump tweeted one morning at mid-month. “Many important positions in Government are unfilled because of this obstruction. Worst in U.S. history!”
It is true that Presidents Obama and George W. Bush had far more high-level nominees confirmed by the Senate at this point in their terms. And Democrats in the Senate have thrown a fair amount of sand in the gears to lengthen an already grueling confirmation process.
Yet nonpartisan specialists who track the process give Trump most of the blame, both because he has been slow to submit nominations and because of the high turnover in senior administration positions, which creates new vacancies faster than the president is filling them.
More turnover could be coming. On Sunday, Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy told ABC’s “This Week” that the president told him the day before that “one or two major changes” could happen “very soon.”
According to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, Trump has yet to nominate anyone for about one-third of the 640 jobs that the group has identified as “key positions” in the executive branch, not counting judicial and military posts.
“I’m not sure that anyone can call it ‘obstruction,’ ” said Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project, another group that documents the pace at which a new administration fills out appointments.
“What is clear,” Sullivan added, is that each stage of the confirmation process, from picking and vetting nominees to final votes, “has lengthened since the Reagan administration, and that the executive is responsible for most of the delay in filling positions.”
Senate Democrats do bear some responsibility, even some of them would acknowledge.
They approach the confirmation process still bitter over Senate Republicans’ move during the 2016 campaign, denying Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, even a hearing for nearly 10 months — successfully gambling that a Republican would be elected president to put a conservative on the court. Garland had been considered a consensus choice, previously praised by Republican senators.
Also, as Democrats argue, an uncommon number of Trump nominees pose questions of competence, conflicts of interest or both.
The nonpartisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact concluded that Trump’s claim that Democrats’ obstruction is the reason for the high-level vacancies is just “half true.” It gave the White House “low marks for its approach to executive appointments.”
In many cases, including the ambassadorships in Seoul and the Mideast, Trump has yet to announce a nomination. In other instances, he has fired people or they’ve resigned, which adds to the backlog. Also, Trump’s talent pool is smaller than usual, reflecting both his resistance to hiring Republican establishment figures who disparaged his candidacy and some Republicans’ unwillingness to work for him.
Trump’s director of the powerful Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, has been moonlighting since November as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
At first, some Trump allies saw the empty chairs in top jobs as a virtue, a sign that Trump was thinning a bloated bureaucracy and taming what they call the “deep state” of unelected officeholders. Only now, as the chaos in the West Wing and Cabinet agencies escalates, are they having regrets.
“Drain at your own risk,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a Brookings Institution student of White House staffing, referring to the reality that Trump allies are facing. “A staff that lacks expertise and experience may not be the best-performing.”
Turnover in top jobs, which Brookings has found to be a record level, exacerbates Trump’s hiring challenges. For example, the dismissal of Rex Tillerson as secretary of State this month has had something of a domino effect: Trump tapped his director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to replace Tillerson, which in turn left a void atop the CIA; Trump proposed to elevate Pompeo’s CIA deputy, Gina Haspel, leaving her current job empty if she is confirmed.
“Turnover in and of itself is very disruptive and inefficient,” Tenpas said. “Every administration has it, but the amount here is just off the charts. It’s not just getting rid of a few bad apples, not just a matter of streamlining.”
The majority of Trump’s key nominees have won Senate approval. Of the 424 key nominations he has sent to the Senate, nearly a third await confirmation.
As of March 23, after 14 months in office, Trump had sent 177 nominations to the Senate that were awaiting confirmation. At the same point in his presidency, Obama had 173 pending, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which has been tracking the figures in collaboration with the Washington Post. But Obama had made more nominations overall, and gotten more confirmed.
Another factor working against Trump: The Senate is taking longer to deal with his nominations. As of March 23, Trump nominees on average took 84 days to win confirmation, while Obama nominees on average got through in 65 days.
The system is a mess regardless of who’s president, said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. The executive branch has roughly 1,200 positions for political appointees that require Senate approval, far more than any other democracy — a “vestige of the spoils system,” Stier said.
“It’s an unmanageable number,” he added, “and every president has had trouble trying to get their leadership in real time because of the volume of folks you’re talking about.”
During the Obama administration, Senate Democrats became so fed up with Republicans’ obstructions that in 2013, they changed Senate rules, reducing the number of votes needed to bring up a nomination for debate and confirmation from 60 to 51.
While that change helped sweep in a number of Obama appointees, it provoked Republicans — then the minority party — to use other procedural options to at least delay nominees if they couldn’t block them. Democrats are doing the same now.
Yet Senate Republicans are complicit as well in holding up Trump nominees, literally. Any senator can secretly put a “hold” on a nominee to stop action, and Republicans have done so — to oppose the individual, extract some unrelated concession from the president or retaliate for some perceived wrong.
“It’s not strictly a partisan issue,” Stier said. “For many of them, the holds have been placed by Republicans, not by Democrats. The longer you wait, the more this becomes a bargaining chip for senators of either party to get something they want.”
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, earlier this year used a hold to temporarily block all Justice Department nominations. He said that Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions had broken an agreement over federal treatment of Colorado’s legal marijuana businesses.
Marc Short, Trump’s legislative director, accused the Senate Democratic minority leader, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, of “weaponizing” holds. He pointed to Pat Pizzella, whose nomination to the No. 2 job at the Department of Labor has sat for nearly 300 days, though Pizzella previously won confirmation to a Bush administration job by a voice vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the mastermind of Republicans’ obstruction during the Obama years, now complains about Democrats’ tactics. Even for judicial nominees that both parties support, he groused last fall, “Democrats throw up partisan procedural roadblocks. For what reason? To change an outcome? No.
“They’re just wasting more of the Senate’s time because they can,” McConnell said.
Democrats, however, have long memories of Republicans’ confirmation obstructions, and not just against Garland.
In 2014, Obama appointed Cassandra Butts, a classmate at Harvard Law School and a close friend, who was widely popular among Democrats, to be ambassador to the Bahamas. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee took more than a year to send her nomination to the Senate, and then Republicans blocked a vote, to express their opposition to Obama on other matters.
In May 2016, more than two years after she had been nominated, Butts died, still unconfirmed.
Times staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this report.