Empty Trump Cabinet Is a Good Thing

There’s obviously a risk that the understaffed Trump administration will drop the ball on something. We all remember how the Bush administration resisted taking the threat of al-Qaeda seriously, and also (though they had plenty of time to prepare for it) their horrible response to Hurricane Katrina. A government that isn’t prepared can cost lives. The Trump administration could also struggle to meet unexpected contingencies overseas. So, I don’t want to unhesitatingly say that it’s a good thing that Trump has so far only made nominations for about 28 of the 690 positions requiring Senate confirmation.

But it’s a good thing.

In particular, they’ve done a very bad job of identifying people to serve in the deputy and undersecretary positions, including at the State Department and the Pentagon. And these figures are the ones who do most of the work. If you think Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson are going to be guiding the pulse of their departments, you must not have watched any of their confirmation hearings. They know absolutely nothing about what their departments do. They’ll have a few big items on their get-done list, but they wouldn’t know how to shape legislation to name a post office.

Because the folks who will actually need to transform law and policy won’t be fully in place until late spring or early summer, the amount of damage the Trump administration can do in its first year will be reduced.

I suppose it’s possible that the reverse could happen in some select cases. In these cases, the skeleton crews might have been a moderating influence on a radical Congress if they had been staffed up and ready to engage. Overall, however, I think it will prevent the administration from translating The Leader’s will into action.

Try to remember, for example, the folks in the Obama administration who worked on passing the Affordable Care Act. It would never have happened without Nancy-Ann DeParle and her staff. The idea that you can unravel Obamacare and replace it with something new without people in the administration steering the effort? Let’s just say that that is the opposite of leadership.

There’s no Trump appointee for any of the top State Department jobs below secretary nominee Rex Tillerson. No Trump appointee for any of the top Department of Defense jobs below retired general James Mattis. Treasury? Same story. Justice? It is one of two departments (along with, bizarrely, Commerce) where Trump has selected a deputy secretary. But no solicitor general, no one at civil rights, no one in the civil division, no one for the national security division.

And the same is true in department after department. Not to mention agencies without anyone at all nominated by the president-elect.

Trump has silly-low approval numbers, but he still should expect a little bit of chance to get things done before people set up the left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party and demand to see his birth certificate. You’d think he’d have a little more urgency about using what little momentum he possesses to accomplish some stuff before everyone’s embarrassed to admit that they’ve ever been in the same room with him.

The Republican Party has a lot of power right now and a laundry list of evil deeds they want to carry out, but they’re much less united about what they’re fore than they are about what they want to repeal. So, any self-imposed delay is doubly problematic for them, because failing to move quickly will bring these divisions out and turn some things from doable to undoable.

As long as their incompetence doesn’t get us killed, it will actually mitigate the damage.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.