On February 8, President Trump announced the appointment of Elaine Duke to serve as deputy secretary of homeland security. It was the first nomination since the blizzard of initial picks ended on February 1, and unlike many of Trump’s choices, it was a very solid one. Duke is a career civil servant who was tapped as undersecretary of homeland security for management in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration and then served for a couple of years under Obama — exactly the sort of experienced deputy someone like John Kelly will need to help him run a large agency he's never worked in before.
And Kelly, for his part, has extensive federal government experience as a retired general. It’s the kind of experience that might lend him the wisdom and humility necessary to see that a veteran of the actual agency he is in charge of could be a useful person to have on hand.
In the week since Duke’s name was sent to the Senate, Trump hasn’t nominated anybody — whether well-qualified or awful — to any Senate-confirmable positions. Instead, he’s lost his nominees for both secretary of the Army and secretary of labor.
Then, of course, came National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation, creating a big new vacancy that needs to be filled and will probably require substantial restaffing of the National Security Council once Flynn’s replacement is in place. Which simply underscores that as time is lost to chaos and mismanagement, a continued lack of competent subordinates in key agencies will only increase the odds that new bouts of chaos and mismanagement will throw things off track.
America runs on deputies
One dirty secret of the American government is that most Cabinet departments are mostly run by their deputy secretaries, rather than by their nominal leaders. The secretary’s job is to be a public face of administration policy, to set broad priorities, and to advocate for his or her portfolio’s importance in the larger administration firmament.
This is why the Trump Cabinet secretaries who know what they’re doing, like Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, already have deputies lined up. James Mattis did them one better by persuading Trump to let him keep Obama’s deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work, on staff until a nominee, to be named later, is confirmed.
But of course it’s the nominees who don’t know what they’re doing who really need deputies. Rick Perry is no Steven Chu in many ways, but what Perry and Obama’s first secretary of energy have in common is an initial lack of experience with the Energy Department’s predominant role in dealing with nuclear security issues. Chu was backed by a strong deputy secretary, Daniel Poneman, who came to the department with years of nuclear weapons experience in both career and political roles on the National Security Council, spanning two administrations in the 1990s.
Perry will, presumably, get a deputy secretary one day. As will other secretaries like Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson who desperately need support. But it doesn’t seem to be a huge administration priority.
Policy experts needed
Beyond basic management capacity, a fully stocked set of executive agencies provides much-needed policy expertise. Even a fan of DeVos would concede that her knowledge and interest lies in the K-12 education domain. The federal government’s actual authority over education policy, however, is much bigger in the higher education domain due to its enormous influence on the federal student loan program.
This mismatch isn’t unusual — Arne Duncan was also a K-12 specialist who relied on others to handle the higher education portfolio — but that just goes to underscore the importance of a good team of sub-Cabinet appointees. By the same token, the expertise of the career tax policy specialists in the Treasury Department will be invaluable when the Trump administration considers tax reform. But to deploy those resources effectively, Steve Mnuchin — himself a government neophyte who certainly needs a strong deputy to run the Treasury — is going to want a solid assistant secretary for tax policy.
These factors are all coming to a head at the State Department, where former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson has impressed a lot of the staff, but vacancies are proliferating. Tillerson himself recognizes the need for a deputy with experience in the department, but can’t find a choice Trump will say yes to because Trump is vetoing anyone who subjected him to strong criticism during the campaign. Given the way Trump ran as an anti-Washington, anti-expertise, anti-party disruptor, however, it’s simply the case that a very large share of people with relevant expertise and experience have criticized him at one point or another. Banning them all from future service is going to make filling these jobs impossible.
This stuff won’t be urgent, until it is
It’s early days yet, and maybe Trump will muster a March surge of sub-Cabinet appointments after his sluggish February.
But better sooner than later. It’s easy for any organization to get bogged down in urgent problems and end up ignoring deeper but more important ones. Based on how Trump’s presidency has gone so far, there’s never going to be a day when rifling through potential names for a sub-Cabinet gig seems like the most urgent thing in the world.
There will be too many crises to deal with and fires to put out first — and this is because, realistically, sending Cabinet secretaries out to work in unfamiliar buildings without a strong supporting team is likely to only cause more fires. Gaffes, leaks, and other distractions are inevitable when you don’t have a strong, fully staffed team.
On the other hand, emergencies are inevitable, and so one day there will come a time when you really do have an urgent crisis on Assistant Secretary So-and-So’s beat, and you'll be glad you took the time to pick someone good for the job and get him or her confirmed. Unless you find yourself realizing that you didn't and wish you had.