Michael KreponVacancies

Quote of the week:

“The professional arsonist builds vacant lots for money.”– Jimmy Breslin

Lyric of the week:

“We all must feel heartache sometimes
Right now, right now I’m feelin’ mine” — “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” For the real deal, hear the original  Holland–Dozier–Holland Motown version by Kim Weston

Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing adds yet another, deeper dimension to this plague year. When Republicans rule the roost in the White House and the Senate, vacancies in the judiciary have to be filled as soon as possible. Not so for vacancies in the executive branch that have hollowed out the Pentagon, the State Department, and elsewhere.

Vacancies in the executive branch reflect vacuity at the top. Trump’s deficiencies can sometimes be buffered by those who work for him, but they can’t be remedied. The most independent-minded of Trump’s top appointments came first: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Those with the most sterling resumes didn’t suffer fools gladly, so their tenures were attenuated.

Mattis lasted the longest, staying almost two years. After he left, Trump did not have a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense for 202 days — the longest period of time in U.S. history without a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense. Having an acting Secretary didn’t properly serve the Pentagon or U.S. friends and allies, but Trump feels more comfortable when those working for him do so in an acting capacity.

The Trump administration has failed the most basic test of competency: It hasn’t filled important national security and diplomatic posts with qualified individuals. What does a vacant administration look like? The numbers don’t lie. A total of fourteen individuals have served temporarily or have been appointed to the three most important jobs dealing with national security in the Trump administration.

That’s right: fourteen people have been the acting, appointed, or confirmed Secretaries of State and Defense and National Security Adviser. It’s hard to stay after Trump looses patience with you, denigrates your service, and chooses not to follow your advice. The worst of the lot quickly ran afoul of the law or stayed on despite disrespecting Trump to pursue personal agendas. The rest have been in for a dime, in for a dollar.

The rate of unfilled, Senate-confirmed, high-level positions has reached an all-time high for any administration in its fourth year in office. More than a third of all Senate-confirmed civilian positions at the Defense Department are vacant or are filled with “acting” officials. Out of 60 senior positions, 21 lacked permanent appointees. The situation is no better at the State Department where eleven Assistant Secretary or Under Secretary posts—more than one-third—are vacant or filled by “acting” officials.

This problem cannot be blamed on the Republican-controlled Senate, which has been very kind to Trump’s nominees. The problem is that Trump’s Cabinet officers — acting or otherwise — have had a very hard time recruiting capable people to fill openings and to replace those who have left with someone more qualified.  

In normal circumstances, Trump would have been able to draw from those who served in previous Republican administrations. But many of these former officials signed letters during the 2016 presidential election declaring Trump to be unfit to make sound national security decisions. The signers of these letters were right. Most of them couldn’t work in good conscience for Trump, and most of the rest were blackballed from serving in the Trump administration. Loyalty overrides competence when it comes to public service in the Trump administration.

Because of this, and because turnover is so great, it is hard to find new hires that are worthy of the positions to which they have been nominated. A case in point is Anthony Tata, a retired Brigadier General and Fox News commentator, who was nominated to become the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Tata would have been the sixth person in the Trump administration to hold this crucial Pentagon position in an acting or confirmed capacity. 

Tata, whose tweets included calling Islam “the most oppressive, violent religion” and President Barack Obama as a “terrorist leader,” couldn’t make it through the Senate Armed Services Committee’s confirmation process. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper then saluted the White House’s wishes and appointed Tata as the Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Policy.  

Trump is a thoroughly known commodity. Highly qualified individuals who wish to serve their country know what they will be in for. My hat is off to those who have stayed in place trying to steer a steady course and to limit the damage. It’s still possible to hold the fort with dignity on issues that Trump doesn’t attend too. Those who couldn’t bear to stay, or who have changed jobs to avoid carrying out unwise or illegal orders from unqualified bosses also have my respect and gratitude.

In rare instances, it’s still possible to succeed despite Trump’s vacuities and vacancies. Let’s give credit where credit is due: The Trump administration did well by fostering the recognition of Israel by two Gulf states in return for arms sales and a pause in further annexation of Palestinian land. This falls short of a peace process, but it is nonetheless useful transactional diplomacy.

Elsewhere, the cupboard is bare. Trump doesn’t deserve credit for hyping the China threat after failing to secure Xi Jinping’s help for his re-election. As a result of Beijing’s military build-up, its actions along the disputed border with India, its disregard for promises to respect Hong Kong’s system of governance, and its mass incarceration of Muslims, U.S. politicians of most every stripe recognize the severity of China’s challenge. Domestic debates will be over the most effective ways to respond.

Trump’s responses will be deeply suspect because he is so mercurial and self-centered. An administration’s national security policies can be no better than the President’s judgement and instincts. Donald Trump’s judgment and instincts are poor.

What remains is Trump’s equation of accomplishments with teardowns. One tear-down was the Iran nuclear deal. Those who railed against it got what they wanted from Trump. What then followed took no great gift of prophecy. Tehran selectively exceeded the deal’s limits. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo worked the phones to extend an arms embargo on Iran, but to no avail. The vote in the United Nations Security Council was two in favor (the United States and the Dominican Republic), two against (Russia and China), and twelve abstentions, including U.S. allies. This vote was a mirror of how diminished U.S. influence has become under the judgment and instincts of Donald Trump. 

This situation is not sustainable and can only get worse. People with poor judgment and instincts, starting at the top, have greatly diminished America’s standing in the world and weakened U.S. ties with allies. Trump’s vacuousness is a permanent feature of his being, along with other traits that keep talented people away from his orbit. He is an affront to the ideals that make America great. A second Trump administration would add velocity to free-fall.


  1. Mitchel Wallerstein (History)

    I couldn’t agree more with Michael’s essay. As someone who served for five years in a senior policy making role in the Department of Defense, this decimation of the national security community is a travesty. He MUST be defeated, or we will be in very serious jeopardy.

  2. J. Kara (History)

    “fourteen people have been the acting, appointed, or confirmed”

    I am looking forward to the day that Kamala is Acting President…

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