There are 549 key positions in President Donald Trump’s administration that require Senate confirmation. Trump has yet to nominate anyone to 515 of them. According to Max Stier, the CEO of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, when it comes to political appointments, Trump is lagging behind almost every recent president — and he has a long way to go.
Of course, presidential transition is always a difficult process. There are upward of 4,000 positions that can be filled by presidential appointment, and no administration has handled this perfectly. But some transitions have been smoother than others.
Currently, only 14 of Trump’s Cabinet appointees have been confirmed. He has 20 more appointments awaiting Senate confirmation. To date, one of his appointments, Michael Flynn, has resigned amid scandal over a call with Russia. Another, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination for labor secretary.
Trump is known for operating with a small team; his campaign operated with a staff of fewer than a dozen for much of the election cycle and long touted the efficiency of vetting ideas through a two- to five-person chain. But despite Trump’s claims of a great and speedy transition, the reality is that his small team has hit a lot of roadblocks and has many holes in key positions.
To understand how the Trump administration fell behind and the risks of a slow appointment process, I called Stier, whose group worked with the Trump administration to plan for the transition. Stier warns that the White House should not be run like Trump ran his campaign, and that during a time of global unrest, a need for an efficient and strategic government is paramount.
“It’s not good to just meet what others have done — you need to do better,” Stier tells me. “Because things move faster, the world is more dangerous, and you need to be operating more effectively, faster, to meet your obligations as the head of our government.”
Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
There seems to be a large number of empty desks in Trump’s administration. How behind is this administration?
President Trump is behind prior precedent. He is not behind in large numbers. If you think about the denominators, the differences are relatively small, but they are consequential and important in that these are critical spots. President Trump has submitted 34 nominations, and he has gotten 14 confirmed. At this stage in the game, President Obama had submitted 42 and had 28 confirmed — so double the number of confirmed folks. President Trump is certainly behind where Obama was at this stage, and he lags basically all recent presidents.
There is a tendency for people to compare to prior administrations. But that’s not giving the real context.
There is no other democracy on the planet that has as many senior leaders turn over when there is a new administration as we do in this country. And not just by a little bit — by a lot. So the truth is that no prior administration has done well. It typically takes in excess of a year for a new president to bring on board their core leadership group. In fact, oftentimes there are senior people leaving by the time the new administration is still filling key spots for the first time.
That’s just important to recognize.
History is not a good benchmark, because the world is a lot more of a dangerous place [now]. Therefore, it’s not good to just meet what others have done; you need to do better. Because things move faster, the world is more dangerous, and you need to be operating more effectively, faster, to meet your obligations as the head of our government.
So they are behind.
For me, this is like the equivalent [of] playing a pickup basketball game versus playing the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The jobs are not empty. They have people in the jobs. They are largely career people who are acting in the positions — some holdovers from the Obama era, but not many. They are phenomenally capable people, but being in-acting is not the same thing as the long-term holder. When you are in-acting, you don’t have the perceived or actual authority to work in the long term. You are much less likely to make the tough calls.
That’s the metaphor of pickup versus the Cavaliers — you don’t develop the operating rhythm with your peers across the government to manage complex decision-making. It is a big difference that is fundamental to perform at the highest level. You can do it, and people can do their best, but you are not going to have as effective an operation.
That’s what is at risk here: You will have some kind of crisis that requires coordinated response, and the difference between doing something and doing it well is the difference between the public being taken care of and not.
On one hand, I understand this is a huge limitation — a lot of problems arise when you don’t have key positions in the administrations filled. But it doesn’t seem like this is slowing down Trump’s policy rollout. Can he run the government like he ran his campaign — with an unusually small team?
I would argue that issuing an executive order isn’t the same thing as getting it done. The execution deficit in government is profound, and as a result, the public doesn’t actually get what it’s told it was going to get, and government doesn’t work as well as it needs to.
[Trump] can issue executive orders, he can do all sorts of stuff — but to actually make it happen as effectively as possible [in a] crisis, that doesn’t happen without expertise.
You can’t run it all through the White House. That’s a small pipe, and you create a lot of problems if you do it just from there.
You can certainly do it; the question is how well you can do it. It’s important to distinguish between running the government and both effectively getting your policy done as well as dealing with challenges that are going to arise when the world throws curveballs.
Your organization worked with the campaigns to get a jump start on the transition. How did Trump’s team approach political appointments?
To President Trump’s credit, he had a very aggressive and forward thinking pre-election transition effort. What ended up happening is that early effort got derailed. In part, that was due to the change in leadership when Chris Christie was removed from a leadership spot in the transition.
Trump’s team suffered from having very little understanding about the governmental process in his core leadership group. The very small handful of people he appears to be relying on, none of them had any consequential executive management experience — it was all new to them. They suffered from that — from not understanding the vetting requirements and some of the trade-offs you make when you pick individuals who have highly complex financial holdings. That all slows things down.
The Trump team has made choices that no one has made before. They challenged the orthodoxy. Time will tell whether some of those challenges were to the benefit. They certainly have gotten people through [who] would have sunk in previous times and previous administrations. But there are costs.
The norm is to pre-vet people before you put them out publicly. This administration moved faster by not having a pre-vet and not going through the Office of [Government] Ethics on the front end. But that ended up not saving them time. [If they had pre-vetted, there would have been] some choices that they ultimately would not have chosen to move forward with — or the nominees themselves would have chosen not to accept if they had understood what the process would actually involve.
What are some of the obstacles for the Trump administration going forward?
First, just the scale is phenomenally large. You can’t have the president of the United States and the small group of individuals around him conducting job interviews. That doesn’t work. That means they have to build the infrastructure inside government to be able to conduct this process effectively.
There is a question about expertise. They need people who understand the system to change the system. It’s not an oxymoron to be a change agent and familiar with the system. In fact, it is vital that you have people around you that are both.
For the Senate-confirmed spots, it’s also their relationship with the Senate — that includes both Republicans and Democrats. They need to build relationships.
When you think about operating business versus operating a government, Congress is one of the most distinctive differences. In business, your board of directors is rarely hostile and generally speaks with one voice and is clear about what it is they are supposed to do.
Trump is also letting people go —
There are a number of people that have failed their background checks. That’s indicative of a process that is not as effectively used as it should [be]. You are always going to have some mistakes.
Look, they did something incredible running a campaign with such a small number of people, but I don’t think that translates into successfully running the government. The scaling is so much larger. It’s just not possible. If you run a bed-and-breakfast, it doesn’t mean you can run the National Harbor.
Is it common for policy development to happen in the White House before senior appointments are made?
The goal is to build your team. What is unusual on the policy side is that every other prior president has come into office with a much more robust set of policy people than this one did. [Trump] didn’t even have a policy shop during the campaign.
The mistake is to believe that you can come in and do everything by yourself. You see that in some of the executive orders. The hiring freeze is a great example. There are all kinds of confusion and delay and cost that have happened because the hiring freeze wasn’t thought through sufficiently. So it wasn’t clear who would be exempted, the process for deciding that.
[In] the ordinary course, you would run an executive order through the government apparatus. You would consult with the different agencies, flag the issues that are going to come up. That wasn’t done. You get stories about a Defense Department school who had a teacher who resigns and leaves, and now they can’t hire a replacement teacher. That means those kids don’t have a teacher. It’s like, Really? Is that what you want? I don’t think so. It’s just not thought through.
You need to integrate with the career expertise that exists across government. But you have to understand the process to do that.
So what does the administration have to do, in your opinion?
It’s the tyranny of the urgent — everything seems like a crisis; you stop doing important things because other things are breathing down your neck. You have to be able to focus on the important in the midst of the urgent. That’s a very hard thing to build capability to do.
The only person who has come into government who actually ran a bigger organization in the private sector prior to coming into the government was Rex Tillerson at Exxon Mobil. You really have to understand that you can’t run everything out of the White House.
You can’t drain the swamp without engineers — you need people who understand the swamp.
You can’t run to the shiny object of policy. You have to focus on execution.
And the career civil servants are where people make mistakes. People are skeptical of the loyalty of the civil servant, and they create all kinds of problems without recognizing that they don’t get stuff done if they don’t get the career people working with them.
When Sean Spicer says “our way or the highway” — whether at Exxon or in the US government, it’s a foolish thing to squelch your employees’ voice.
You have argued that there need to be fewer political appointees altogether. How would that happen?
They don’t have to fill jobs. There are different flavors of jobs. They are permitted to have up to 10 percent of the senior executive service be non-career political appointees. They could put career servants in some of these jobs. That would make for better leadership.
In the longer term, some of this stuff is statutorily created. There are too many that have to go through Senate confirmation. The Senate doesn’t have the time.
In 2012, we were helpful in getting legislation passed that reduced the number of Senate confirmation positions by about 169 spots.
It’s possible, and we just need more of it.