The musical chairs of “acting” officials at the Defense Department has taken on a dizzying pace. Army Secretary Mark Esper became the acting defense secretary after Patrick Shanahan, the previous acting defense secretary withdrew his nomination for the permanent job. Esper’s move left a gap in Army leadership that needed to be filled, so Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy has been tapped as acting Army secretary, leaving his position open. And so, the Army general counsel will fill in for McCarthy. But, they’re not alone. The Pentagon, and the Trump administration more broadly, is littered with “acting” officials.
Cue the pundits, politicians and prior appointees, who have led the charge condemning President Donald Trump’s preference for “acting” officials. Each justifies their critique by arguing that having permanent presidential appointees in place would automatically lead to better governance, namely politically informed policy implementation and more opportunity for congressional oversight. This would be a logical measure in any typical administration. But in many aspects this administration is not typical, and emphasis on the growth and length of vacancies may detract from an assessment of the real failures of the Trump administration’s policy process and oversight gaps. Whether officials are acting or not is ultimately less important than if governance can proceed seamlessly, transparently and with accountability.
Reign of the Understudies
By his own admission, the president does not view the temporary permissions of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) as a modest back-up plan, but rather a preferable way of managing his leadership and senior adviser team. Still, some in and out of the administration assert that Trump’s vacancies in some areas are not as exceptional as the headlines portray, and that there are still “responsible adults” manning the empty organizational charts until permanent appointees are named.
And, by some measures, they are correct. While there are some standout vacancies—no defense secretary going on 6 months and nearly empty vertical organizational charts in defense components—in terms of statistics, only about 25 percent of confirmed roles at the Pentagon and the State Department are empty (in contrast to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) where a whopping 60 percent are open seats). As a snapshot, such a gap is not unduly alarming, particularly if acting officials and those identified to perform the duties of absent leaders are both identified and trusted with responsibilities. As a long term trend, with many of those vacancies remaining empty for over a year and the Trump administration experiencing historically high turnover in its Cabinet, it’s a possible national security risk (as Joshua Geltzer and Carrie Cordero wrote about here). However, with the glaring exception of skirting congressional advice and consent on appointees, the federal government can in concept function even with these gaps.
What is far more distressing is the possibility that the president and his closest advisers do not feel the absence of hundreds of senior appointees named by the White House because there is little role for them to play. If the commander-in-chief or national security adviser do not understand or value the statutory contributions of the defense secretary, who it is or how he got in the chair doesn’t matter much. Trump has long treated the actions–particularly the failures–of his Cabinet agencies as something beyond his responsibility. His posture as president is often one to whom governance happens, rather than the one leading the governing. To the president, the federal government has seemed as much a hindrance or even an enemy to him versus it being an adviser or partner to his agenda. This is both wasteful of the talent and experience that resides in the federal agencies, but, more importantly, it is also dangerous.
What all of these “acting” officials seem to indicate is a purposely chaotic policy process with few rules of the road, minimal access points of oversight, and vacuums of power filled without reference to democratic accountability. Without an insider’s view, it’s difficult to assert these problems definitively, but recent events suggest their reality. In one example, the spring purge of senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security seems to be the work of White House official Stephen Miller, who reportedly drove the president’s increasingly hardline immigration policy decisions with manipulative presentations of bad press rather than any policy deliberation with experts or responsible officials. In the absence of senior officials leading most key agencies at DHS, Miller has positioned himself to fill the space with an unvetted and unaccountable political agenda—and, of course, he’s without any congressional confirmation.
More recently, Trump’s decision to approve, then pull back, a military strike against Iran demonstrates a commander-in-chief highly uncomfortable with the sequence that brought him those options. Several public stories indicate that what should have been a thoughtful policy process, leading to a strike that could have resulted in more than 150 lives lost in Iran, was anything but. Nearly all reports suggest that National Security Adviser John Bolton played a dominant, even manipulative, voice in a process that’s meant to have definitive and representative roles from the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and intelligence community. Given Shanahan’s resignation happening that same week, it’s unclear what role senior civilian defense officials even played in the process. That Trump claims he did not learn of the risk of potential casualties until after approval of military strikes (or that they changed radically over time) is enormously shocking to anyone who has ever participated in such decisions. That he felt pressured and cornered by his National Security Council (NSC)—“it’s Bolton vs. Trump”–suggests a topsy-turvy NSC, where Bolton is running a competing policy to the elected president. That the Defense Department has made little effort to inform the public about Iranian threats, and U.S strategy against them, suggests a contempt for democratic accountability of military action. And perhaps most nerdy and alarming to process wonks, that Gina Haspel reportedly “voted” for military action, replacing her statutory intelligence role with policy advocacy, suggests a policy process where the perspectives necessary to advise the president on decisions only he can make does not exist.
A disruptive policy trend that has a longer history than Trump’s “acting” officials and broken NSC process is the predictable, but still impactful, shift away from civilians advising the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the uniformed Joint Staff performing that role. Such swings are typical in transitions, as political appointments are slow to fill and the vacuum of policy advice opens up, but in Trump’s Pentagon, where the civilian positions are sitting open for longer, the change in roles has become worryingly permanent. As I wrote for War on the Rocks earlier this year:
All senior leaders shift bureaucratic patterns by selecting key actors to rely on and ones to remove from the circle….It’s no surprise that in making his stamp, Mattis chose to rely far more heavily on uniformed voices, including giving the Joint Staff the lead pen on key memos and preparatory documents and relegating his civilian staff to a distant also-ran….The civilian policy apparatus exists for a reason and was meant to offer perspective distinct from their Joint Staff counterparts; to weaken it destroys the seed corn of future successors and to ignore it is a deliberate blind spot. Mattis’ successor should take a hard look at how his policy advice is developed before it lands on his desk, whether he feels comfortable exercising civilian control with his decision support arrangements, and what major elements of his job description may merit more attention than Mattis chose to or was able to give them.
The Show Must Go On
These trends are not inevitable or irreversible, and new senior officials–acting or confirmed–have the ability to strengthen the hand of responsible governance with due attention. It is possible–even likely—that, given the dynamics of the Trump administration, and the flexibility of the Federal Vacancy Reform Act, fewer senior leadership roles will be filled permanently, or filled in a timely manner. This means “acting” or “performing the duties of” officials from political or career backgrounds will continue to dominate the landscape. But, this dynamic does not have to be a death knell to responsible policy leaders at other levels. While politics, culture and access can theoretically hinder the effectiveness of short-term officials, many come from experienced career ranks and can be relied on to oversee complex agendas with skills and diplomacy. Likewise, political acting officials can rise to the occasion of new opportunities, and though Congress has no say in their appointment, it does not lack the ability access them via oversight. While obviously not preferable, these appointment gaps do not need to remain indicators of an unloved and unwanted policy deliberation process.
Incoming officials, such as defense secretary nominee-to-be Mark Esper, might use the following checklist to determine if their subordinate leadership teams are capable of executing the functions of government regardless of their status, and if not, focus time effort on getting them there:
- Do all of my subordinate leaders and staff have an understanding of the president and secretary’s individual priorities?
- Is there a representative and deliberative policy development process internally, with experts participating at all levels and responsible for developing and providing the advice of their component? Within it, do experts have a mechanism to voice dissent?
- Are there agreed-on standards, understood processes, and known approvers for cost analysis, program evaluation, legal vetting, budgetary exceptions, and human capital management? DOD specific processes such as contingency planning and military deployments?
- Does the interagency policy process involve my agency’s experts at all levels of deliberation; are their voices heard and responded to regardless of their status; do they have mechanisms to highlight key differences to senior officials; are they seen as representing their department?
- Are internal decisions shared through the building to all leaders and stakeholders, regardless of status?
- Are internal proposals vetted by all stakeholders regardless of status?
- When national or agency policies are developed and announced, are they connected to implementing teams at my agency?
- Are components/component leaders executing their statutory or agency-directed roles and missions, and if not, what is missing and is someone else doing it? Have FVRA requirements mandated shifting any responsibilities and where? Is there new duplication of effort or shifting of portfolios across traditional boundaries (e.g., is the White House performing a function once done by a Defense Department official; is a military official performing a function once performed by a civilian), and is it suitable, transparent, and preferable?
- When the Hill, allies and partners, or external non-government stakeholders reach out to my agency, are they seeking access to traditional experts and counterparts, and do they trust them to represent the agency?
- When Congress requests information or testimony, is my agency responsive?
- When the White House requests information, planning, or actions, are they accessing the appropriate experts? Are they aware of chain-of-command sensitivities? Are they transparent? Do they seek military and civilian advice appropriately?
- When spokespeople and public affairs officers engage with the press, are they trusted as representing the agency? Do they have access to policy decisions?
- Are necessary experts and leaders able to be hired into the appropriate roles at required speeds, or are there roadblocks to staffing due to leadership gaps (e.g., SES appointments).
One Man Show?
Whether any well-intentioned bureaucratic management makes a difference under a president who chooses to ignore or abuse it is worth questioning. In the headlines, Trump governs by instinct: by tweet, by press conference aside or based on the morning Fox and Friends. But there is more to the business of government than his whims accommodate. As we move deeper into year three of the Trump administration, expect it to become more difficult to fill spots both in the Senate-confirmed and appointee ranks in the national security world. The “Never Trump” letter continues to blacklist a large portion of the Republican foreign policy establishment. Those who could not add their names–the defense industry, serving military, Hill staff–have in many cases already been tapped or have their own reasons for staying away from Trump senior appointments. And the Senate has not made it easy for nominees to get through even when they are named. With the dynamics, current leaders of any stripe owe the American people a better shot at a thoughtful policy process than vacancy metrics indicate. Trump may have little interest in the mechanisms and movements of governance, but his appointees are charged with both overseeing the national security labor force and taking care of its mechanics. America will suffer if they leave it worse off than they found it.
Image: Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrives at the Pentagon in the morning of June 24. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images