White House

Hiring gridlock: Trump has only one fifth the people in personnel that Bill Clinton had

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., listen.  (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP)

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., listen. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP)

President Trump says he wants to “drain the swamp.” His strategist Stephen Bannon calls for “deconstructing the administrative state.” They face fierce opposition. But their biggest obstacle may end up being of their own making. There are nearly 2,000 political vacancies within the Trump administration, most of which did not require Senate confirmation, according to the tracking service Leadership Directories.

“There is no consensus inside the White House on how to make senior appointments in this administration,” a longtime participant in presidential transitions told me. “Secondly, the administration doesn’t have a well-staffed, well led Office of Presidential Personnel. The result is you have only 35 officials named so far, and another three have had to withdraw.”

The White House won’t respond to inquiries about its Presidential Personnel Office, and there may be a good reason. It is headed by John DeStefano, who served as former House Speaker John Boehner’s political director and senior adviser. At age 38 his only major personnel experience has been advising newly elected 2010 Tea Party members on who to hire.

DeStefano is captaining what amounts to a ghost ship when compared to previous presidents. I’m reliably told that only 18 people are currently working in his office. An official who has helped guide several presidential transitions told me that at this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton had nearly 100 people handling résumés inside the White House. “There were desks spilling out into the hallways of the Old Executive Office Building,” he recalls. Of course, Clinton's early White House wasn't always a model of efficiency.

“Personnel are policy, and if you don’t have key personnel and enough of them the home team of Washington bureaucrats will wear you down and win every time,” a key Trump appointee awaiting confirmation told me.

The bottleneck inside the Trump White House has gotten so bad that some jobs such as who should serve as general counsels in agencies are being effectively handled by the White House Counsel’s office.

President Trump says critics misunderstand what he is doing in staffing his administration, because he doesn’t plan to fill every vacancy. “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint someone because they’re unnecessary to have,” he told Fox News last week. “In government, we have too many people.”

While admirable on some level, in practice such a stance amounts to being penny wise and pound foolish. The Washington Examiner reports that “the White House has not submitted any names to fill the 10 jobs below Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin that will require confirmation. There’s no way President Trump can fulfill his promise to improve veterans’ health care without those officials.

At the Justice Department, an Obama appointee is still the deputy Attorney General and presiding over the investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. More than two dozen Justice positions haven’t been filled, including the Office of Civil Rights and the National Security Division.

“I wish I had more of my staff on board,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions plaintively said Thursday, as he recused himself from the Russia probe.

The “Home Alone” status of many Cabinet officials has attracted the attention of key Trump campaign donors. “I know the president is proud that he won last November with only 130 people on his payroll versus 800 for Hillary,” one told me. “He’s proud of doing more with less, but in government you need your people in place or some interim Obama holdover stays on and influences the day-to-day operations. And that doesn’t begin to address the issue of leaks.”

As Kori Schake, a research fellow in government management at the conservative Hoover Institution, told the Washington Post: “The president risks looking like he appointed an admirable Cabinet he intends to make ineffective by denying them staff.”

And in some cases, the Cabinet department itself still lacks a head -- apart from any possible stalling tactics by Democratic senators. Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, was tapped to be Agriculture Secretary over six weeks ago. But his paperwork hasn’t yet been formally turned over so Senate confirmation can begin.

"I don't know yet," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, told the Associated Press on Wednesday when asked about Perdue's paperwork. "I wish to hell I did. We need a champion for agriculture, we need him on board."

In interviewing people throughout the Trump administration, I heard a variation of Senator Roberts’ lament over and over. Sources certainly didn’t want to be quoted for fear of being viewed as off-message by the White House, but their critique was consistent.

“Personnel are policy, and if you don’t have key personnel and enough of them the home team of Washington bureaucrats will wear you down and win every time,” a key Trump appointee awaiting confirmation told me.

A leading House Republican says the confusion over the administration’s tax reform stems in part from the White House having no chain of command over its drafting and not enough staff to evaluate proposals.

“If something is broken, you fix it,” Donald Trump frequently said on the campaign trail.

Just before his speech to a joint session of Congress, he graded himself as having done only a “C” or “C-plus” job of communicating his message. He then delivered what even critics said was an effective speech.

If President Trump wants to have the last laugh on his critics, again, he needs to address an appointments process that is clogged, if not downright broken.

John Fund is a columnist for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFund.

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