The State Department has about 200 high-ranking positions left unfilled during President Trump's transition into power because those roles may soon be eliminated, said department representative R. C. Hammond in a New York Times report published Thursday.
The Trump administration has proposed a 31 percent cut to the State budget, and even a smaller restructuring would make it nonsensical to temporarily fill positions that require Senate confirmation, Hammond argued, employing a shipwreck exploration analogy. "The first step was to find out where the Titanic was, and then it was to map out where everything else is," he said. "I think we're still in the process of mapping out the entire ocean floor so that we understand the full picture."
The mapping process here is a listening tour by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in coming days will personally explore the State Department's current structure to determine what he would like to change. Critics from left and right alike have suggested this delay — which means the roles that are retained won't be filled until 2018 — is a dangerous decision that leaves diplomatic neophytes at the helm of one of the most important Cabinet agencies. Bonnie Kristian
President Trump has nominated only 42 of the 553 key leadership positions in his administration, and 18 of those 42 have been confirmed, mostly Cabinet secretaries, according to a tally of jobs requiring Senate confirmation by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post. Left unfilled are dozens of deputy and assistant secretary posts, chief financial officers (including at the Treasury Department), general counsels, and ambassadors. None of his Cabinet secretaries have deputies, and there are no such nominees yet for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Defense Secretary James Mattis.
"There's no question this is the slowest transition in decades," former State Department official R. Nicholas Burns, who has been involved in transitions since 1988, tells The New York Times. "It is a very, very big mistake. The world continues — it doesn't respect transitions." Trump seems unconcerned about the vacancies, telling Fox News in February that "a lot of those jobs, I don't want to appoint, because they're unnecessary to have." But White House spokeswoman Lindsay E. Walters says Trump actually intends to fill most of the vacancies, eventally.
Former Cabinet officials, federal agency administrators, and White House transition experts tell The New York Times that the vacant offices and resultant power vacuums will hinder Trump's policy goals, and weaken America's position in the world. America's ambassador to Chile, Carol Perez, will represent the U.S. at a meeting of Pacific Rim trade ministers this week, for example, because the U.S. trade representative job hasn't been filled. And a U.S.-Mexico sugar dispute flared up last week because Mexico did not have anyone to negotiate with at the Commerce Department.
Trump is about halfway to where former President Barack Obama was at this stage in his administration, and "months behind where experts in both parties, even some inside his administration, say he should be," The Times says. He is making up for lost time, but got off to a slow start in a tumultuous transition period and has compounded his staffing problems by narrowing down the pool of qualified applicants by imposing loyalty tests, a five-year lobbying ban, and a chaotic White House. You can read more about Trump's slow transition at The New York Times. Peter Weber
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday announced his request for the resignation of 46 federal prosecutors appointed by President Obama.
While it is routine for incoming administrations to replace these attorneys, who are political appointees, the Justice Department's public announcement reportedly came before many of the prosecutors had been privately informed of their dismissal. The lack of warning led an unnamed law enforcement source to tell CNN "this could not have been handled any worse," but a DOJ representative said the decision is simply part of "a uniform transition" of power.
Further complicating matters is a report that President Trump called at least two DOJ attorneys and declined to accept their resignations, asking them to remain at their posts. The Trump administration has not selected new nominees for all 46 positions. Bonnie Kristian
The National Security Council, nominally headed by embattled National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is the White House's central nervous system for foreign challenges and relationships, with staff drawn from the State Department, Pentagon, and other agencies. President Trump's NSC is "so far a very dysfunctional NSC," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, tells The New York Times, and "more than two dozen current and former council staff members and others throughout the government" corroborate his judgment. The Times draws from those accounts to explain how the day starts for many NCS staffers:
Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump's Twitter posts, and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump's top advisers are considering an "insider threat" program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks. [The New York Times]
Many of the Times' anonymous anecdotes involve Flynn — he was reportedly "surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers," and "was not familiar with how to call up the National Guard in an emergency." But there are also stylistic differences in presenting intelligence to Trump, who reportedly likes policy options presented on a single sheet of paper with lots of graphics and maps.
Partly because of Flynn's unexplained ties to Russia, the NSA and other agencies are "beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust," former NSA analyst John R. Schindler writes in the New York Observer. "What's going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that 'since Jan. 20, we've assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,' meaning the White House Situation Room," Schindler writes, quoting the unidentified official as warning: "There's not much the Russians don't know at this point."
Still, Flynn feels safe in his job for now, "people close to Flynn" tell The Washington Post, and "people in Trump's orbit" agree that Trump won't fire him because, as The Post paraphrases, "doing so would amount to an admission of guilt and misjudgment in the face of media scrutiny and would also demonstrate chaos early in his presidency." Peter Weber
Trump apparently signed Stephen Bannon's order putting Bannon on the National Security Council without reading it
After two weeks in office, President Trump is still settling into the White House and his new life as a public employee, and he is trying to bring more order to his relatively freewheeling West Wing operation, The New York Times reported Sunday, based on "interviews with dozens of government officials, congressional aides, former staff members, and other observers of the new administration." A man of routine, Trump typically retires to the residence at 6:30 p.m. to watch TV in his bathrobe or use his phone, the Times says, while his "aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the Cabinet room."
After the chaotic rollout of his executive orders, especially the one restricting immigration and banning all refugees — put on hold by a federal judge over the weekend — Trump had demanded that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus "begin to put in effect a much more conventional White House protocol that had been taken for granted in previous administrations," Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman report, including looping the president in on executive orders earlier in the process and instituting "a new set of checks on the previously unfettered power enjoyed by [chief political strategist Stephen] Bannon and the White House policy director, Stephen Miller." They continue:
But for the moment, Mr. Bannon remains the president's dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump's anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council, a greater source of frustration to the president than the fallout from the travel ban. It is partly because he is seen as having a clear vision on policy. But it is also because others who had been expected to fill major roles have been less confident in asserting their power. [The New York Times]
That last part was a reference to the gap expected to be filled by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a senior adviser, who is, the Times notes, "a father of young children who has taken to life in Washington, and, along with his wife, Ivanka Trump, has already been spotted at events around town." Bannon, for now, has filled that vacuum. For more details about Trump's first two weeks, including his keen interest in the Oval Office drapery, head over to The New York Times. Peter Weber
The first few days of the Trump administration have publicly played out in front of a behind-the-scenes power struggle involving the "Big Four" Trump advisers — Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and son-in-law Jared Kushner — though "at the center, as always, is Trump himself, whose ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism," The Washington Post reports, citing "interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants."
Many Trump campaign loyalists say that Kushner is trying to elbow aside anyone who might prevent him from being Trump's "chief consigliere," and that included trying to keep Conway out of the White House, The Post reports. Other insiders suggest Conway is trying to undermine Press Secretary Sean Spicer, an ally of Priebus from the Republican National Committee and not Trump's first choice for the job. The Post also has this tidbit:
Because Conway operates outside of the official communications department, some aides grumble that she can go rogue when she pleases, offering her own message and promoting herself as much as the president. One suggested that Conway's office on the second floor of the West Wing, as opposed to one closer to the Oval Office, was a sign of her diminished standing. Though Conway took over the workspace previously occupied by Valerie Jarrett, who had been Obama's closest adviser, the confidant dismissively predicted that Trump would rarely climb a flight of stairs. [The Washington Post]
Trump, however, is publicly effusive in his praise of Conway, and by all accounts privately values her dogged and skillfully befuddling defense of him. While "some Trump allies were unsettled by her performance" on Meet the Press Sunday, The Post reports, Trump "called Vice President Pence to rave about how she handled questions from [host Chuck] Todd... and called Conway to offer his congratulations," though he was "perturbed that the media focused on two words from Conway's interview: 'alternative facts.'" Still Conway's role as Trump's most visible aide has come at a cost. Due to "threats against her life," The Post reports, Conway "has been assigned a Secret Service detail, according to someone with detailed knowledge of the situation." You can read more at The Washington Post. Peter Weber
Staff at the Environmental Protection Agency has been told to freeze all grants and contracts until further notice, an unusual move that will likely affect everything from state-level efforts to improve air and water quality to toxic waste cleanup efforts, The Washington Post and ProPublica reported Monday night. The order went out to the EPA Office of Acquisition Management within hours of President Trump's inauguration, and EPA staff were ordered not to talk about the freeze, The Huffington Post reports, citing an email purportedly sent to EPA employees on Monday, the same day Trump issued a blanket hiring freeze.
"They're trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don't want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first," Myron Ebell, an EPA critic at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute who led Trump's EPA transition team, told ProPublica Monday night. "This may be a little wider than some previous administrations, but it's very similar to what others have done." EPA veterans and The Washington Post disagree, saying the blanket freeze was unprecedented in recent history.
The Senate has not yet voted on Trump's nominated EPA director, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has frequently sued the EPA, accusing it of regulatory overreach on everything from mercury pollution to carbon emissions from power plants and waterways. The memo to EPA staff obtained by The Huffington Post includes strictures such as "No press releases will be going out to external audiences"; "No social media will be going out. A Digital Strategist will be coming on board to oversee social media. Existing, individually controlled, social media accounts may become more centrally controlled"; and "If anyone on your staff receives a press inquiry of any kind, it must be referred to me so I can coordinate with the appropriate individuals in OPA," or the Office of Public Affairs. EPA officials did not respond to requests for comment from any of the news organizations. Peter Weber
President Trump got some ribbing for apparently borrowing a phrase from Batman villain Bane in his inaugural address — both promised to take power from the establishment and give it "back to you, the people." If the people want to make their voices heard with the new Trump administration, though, they have to use the White House email form or mail a paper-and-ink letter, because the White House comment line appears to be dead. If you call the comment line now, 202-456-1111, you get an automated message telling you to use the White House web form or Facebook messenger.
Using Facebook Messenger sounds like the most convenient option for many people, but "there's only one problem," says Variety's Janko Roettgers: "Neither the White House nor President Donald Trump seem to currently maintain an active Facebook Messenger account."
The comment line, staffed by White House volunteers, was reportedly mothballed in the final weeks of the Obama administration, and maybe the Trump White House just hasn't gotten around to staffing it yet — Trump still has to hire 659 of 690 key positions in his administration, the Partnership for Public Service's tally indicates, so maybe this isn't a high priority. Still, Trump also promised "the forgotten men and women of our country" in his inaugural address that "everyone is listening to you now." And according to Pew, 13 percent of Americans don't use the internet. For those who do, there's always Twitter.... Peter Weber