If President Trump were to call a meeting of his Cabinet today, he wouldn’t need a very big table. Or, he’d have to invite a bunch of Obama administration holdovers serving temporarily in acting roles.
With the Senate’s confirmation this week of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Trump now has just six members of his Cabinet confirmed. By this point in 2009, President Obama had 12 Cabinet members in place and President George W. Bush had his entire 14-member Cabinet. Even with the expected confirmation of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price by Friday, Trump would still be behind.
The Senate confirmation process has been unusually slow. According to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, Trump has the fewest Cabinet secretaries confirmed at this point in his presidency than any other president at least since World War II.
“You can’t play in the Super Bowl if you don’t have your team on the field,” said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that is tracking the Trump administration’s progress in getting staffed up.
“They are in the Super Bowl,” Stier said of the Trump administration. “They are running the most important organization on the planet, and they don’t have their team on the field. They don’t have their critical people in place and that’s vital to being able to do their jobs appropriately.”
The Trump administration would like to place the blame firmly on Democrats in the Senate.
“It would help if the Democrats weren’t working overtime to unnecessarily block our very qualified nominees so that we could put leadership in place at each of the agencies,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in an email.
But that is only part of the story. Facing pressure from an activated based, Democrats have slow-walked Trump’s nominees.
In remarks on the Senate floor, Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York described Trump’s nominees as “a historically unqualified Cabinet.”
Trump went with a number of picks who had little or no experience in the agencies they would be tasked to run. In some cases the nominees actively worked against the missions of the agencies.
Another thing that slowed down the process: Candidates for Cabinet posts are typically pre-vetted, working with the Office of Government Ethics to identify and unwind potential conflicts of interest before their names are even announced. But that didn’t happen this time. Two Cabinet-level picks still haven’t completed that process.
And that’s only talking about the very top level.
“There are an extraordinary number of appointed positions that require Senate confirmation that the Trump administration has yet to even name somebody on,” said University of Akron political science professor David B. Cohen. “I mean, we’re talking about almost 700 key positions.”
So far just 35 have been named, says Stier of the Partnership for Public Service.
“If they don’t focus on getting great people in place that understand how to use government effectively,” he says, “they won’t get done what they say they want to do and they won’t respond well to the crises that will inevitably come up on their watch.”
But Trump is about on pace with Obama in terms of naming people for those spots, and even ahead of other previous presidents.
Stier says vacancies near the top of agencies are undesirable but certainly aren’t unheard of. In 2009, he says, the Treasury Department didn’t get its No. 2 official confirmed until May — which he wants to make clear was a very bad thing, in the midst of the financial crisis.
A White House official tells NPR they aren’t behind on picking under-secretaries and deputies, pointing to the past two administrations where many second-tier appointments didn’t happen until late February or March.