Four months into his presidency, Donald Trump has filled only five of the 53 top jobs at the Pentagon – the slowest pace for nominations and confirmations in over half a century.
Several of his high-profile picks, including Navy and Army secretary nominees, have had to withdraw because of their business entanglements. In other cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has clashed with the White House, which has blacklisted national security and defense leaders who publicly disagreed with Trump during the 2016 campaign, according to several current and former defense officials.
“In the vetting process there is a lot of scrutiny of social media accounts, Twitter . . . any hint of something negative about Trump as a candidate can be disqualifying, and a lot of people haven’t made it through that filter,” said Christine Wormuth, who served as the Pentagon’s top policy official from 2014 to 2016, under former President Barack Obama’s administration.
The investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials is also scaring off people who had been on the fence about joining the administration. Even the opportunity to work under Mattis, who many of the potential picks know and respect, may not be enough.
“With, frankly, the chaos that is happening, people who might have been open to it are asking themselves ‘Do I want to join this administration? How much of an impact will I have? Will I have to get a lawyer?’” Wormuth said.
Trump’s nominees for top Pentagon posts have taken an average of 38 days to be confirmed, compared to 22 days under Obama, 23 during George W. Bush’s administration and 17 during Bill Clinton’s tenure, according to an analysis provided to McClatchy by the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan nonprofit that runs programs aimed at improving government hiring.
By this point in Obama’s presidency, 16 appointees had been confirmed and 24 nominated. By June 2, 2001, Bush had 12 confirmed and nominated 17. Trump has seen five confirmed after nominating 12.
The problem isn’t that the Senate isn’t confirming Trump’s picks, but that dozens of national security posts still don’t have nominees. In the meantime, a skeleton crew of holdovers from the Obama administration and career civil servants are doing the day-to-day work at the Defense Department.
“It’s not as if these jobs are in fact vacant, but it’s the equivalent of a substitute teacher,” said Max Stier, who leads the Partnership for Public Service. “Since they are not perceived as having long-term authority, they don’t view their role as addressing those long-term issues and this leads to important decisions being kicked down the road.”
The same issue is mirrored at the State Department, which has eight confirmed appointees out of 120 positions to fill. With the vacancies there and at the Pentagon, policy roles are in limbo at a time when the U.S. faces challenges on multiple fronts, from the Islamic State to Russia, North Korea and China. Trump has filled two of the 16 top jobs at the Department of Homeland Security.
Until early May, Mattis was the the only Pentagon appointee who had been confirmed. Since then, the Senate has confirmed four other appointees: former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson as secretary of the Air Force, David Norquist to be comptroller, Robert Story Karem as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Kari Bingen as principal deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence.
Even if the White House picks up the pace, there will be a significant backlog.
“The Senate can only review so many people at any given time,” Stier said. “It has to deal with competing priorities, healthcare, tax reform . . . Part of the challenge is that by not moving quickly at the beginning you wind up blocking the tracks.”
Trump’s loyalty snag is widely discussed within the national security community, but few defense and security experts will talk about it on the record. Privately, they say the White House is working with a much shorter list of candidates than usual, given that a large number of senior Republican national security officials signed the so-called “Never Trump” letters before the election.
Dozens of experienced national security officials who would have been natural fits for leadership posts, many of them former cabinet members or top aides to Bush, signed a public letter last August saying they would not vote for Trump.
“We are convinced that he would be a dangerous president and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being,” they wrote in the letter.
Between them and the more than 120 national security leaders who had signed another letter a few months earlier, there are roughly 150 top Republican national security and defense officials that the Trump administration won’t consider.
Mattis wanted Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense under Obama, to consider becoming his deputy. When she was interviewed by Trump aides, she was asked “What would it take for you to resign?” she told the New Yorker in an interview. She told Mattis she couldn’t take the job.
Trump ended up tapping Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan for the No. 2 spot in the Pentagon, but two months after his appointment was announced his nomination still has not been submitted formally to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As with other leaders Trump has tapped from the private sector, the stringent scrutiny of their finances causes a delay. Nominees who go through the process with the Defense Department and the Senate Armed Services Committee have to adhere to strict guidelines that bar them from owning stock and bonds in companies that have Pentagon contracts.
Army secretary nominee Vincent Viola and Navy secretary nominee Philip Bilden withdrew their names after citing difficulties disentangling from their businesses. The second Army secretary nominee, Tennessee state senator Mark Green, withdrew after a fierce backlash because of anti-gay and anti-Muslim remarks he had made.
“Even if you have all your paperwork in order, it’s a really lengthy, substantial process, especially coming from the business community,” said Katherine Kidder, a military personnel expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Given that so many nominees are experienced professionals between the ages of 50 and 65 “if you are facing down retirement it can also be risky to divest,” said Kidder, who served on the defense policy team for Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign.
When it comes to the military, Trump “has said with his budget it’s a priority, he’s said with his rhetoric it’s a priority, but he has not gone about making [these appointments] a priority,” Kidder said.
This has resulted in several communications mishaps on the international stage. In one case cited by defense officials that could easily have been prevented by effective communication, Trump announced that the U.S. was sending a naval “armada” as a powerful deterrent to North Korea. Meanwhile, the USS Carl Vinson was actually on its way to participate in military exercises 3,500 miles in the opposite direction.
In another, Mattis was taken by surprise when Gen. John Nicholson, the Army general commanding forces in Afghanistan, decided to drop the largest nonnuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal on Islamic State targets.
More seriously, the near-standstill in filling the empty positions is hampering the Pentagon’s ability to plan long-term policy. The National Defense Strategy review, which attempts a cohesive U.S. defense strategy and policy, would usually be led at the undersecretary or assistant secretary level. It’s a complicated process in the best of circumstances, and not having a full team in place will hinder Mattis’ ability to lay out strategic guidance early on.