All six of them? In a little-noted tweet after his remarks on the travel ban, Donald Trump blasted Senate Democrats for holding up his nominees, including those for the diplomatic corps. Trump wants approvals — but he may need to supply nominees first:
.@foxandfriends Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors. They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017
As The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum pointed out, though, Trump has only nominated eleven people for diplomatic positions, five of whom have already been confirmed. Of the 67 remaining openings in the ambassadorial corps, only six have official appointments awaiting confirmation, at least according to the American Foreign Service Association:
— Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) June 5, 2017
It’s worth noting that four of the six pending nominations were made in the past four weeks. William Hagerty has waited the longest for confirmation, having been nominated on March 27th to serve in Japan, but he’s already had his hearing on May 18th and now just awaits a confirmation vote. Scott Brown’s appointment to New Zealand and Samoa came four weeks later on April 25th, and his nomination came out of committee on a voice vote two weeks ago. Not much obstruction going on there; the process generally takes a few weeks for Senators to review background material. Two of the remaining four nominations came within the last ten days: Callista Gingrich to the Vatican and Michael Raynor to Ethiopia, both submitted on May 25th. If Trump wants those expedited, it wouldn’t be a Senate Democrat issue; Trump would need to ask Republican Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The remaining 67 openings have no formal nominees. That includes some significant postings, such as national security partners like the United Kingdom, Germany, and the overall NATO envoy, or major trading partners like Canada and Mexico. (Trump’s envoy to China, former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, did get confirmed two weeks ago on an 82-13 vote.) Easier postings usually filled as political favors, such as Ireland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, and Norway (among others), have no nominees, although rumor has it that Reince Priebus might be looking at the Athens job. And for all Trump’s talk about building better relations with Russia, he has yet to choose an envoy for that job too — although that will undoubtedly be one of the most problematic for eventual confirmation.
The acute problem isn’t Democratic obstructionism, although that clearly existed with Trump’s Cabinet appointments. It’s a lack of nominees, and that’s not just in the State Department, either. McClatchy reported today that Trump has only named five of 53 potential appointments at the Pentagon as of now, the slowest in any administration in decades. There are a few reasons for the slow pace, but Democratic obstructionism isn’t a primary cause:
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.
These are critical gaps, and not just operationally speaking, either. Without political appointments in place to apply the administration’s policies, careerists take the lead in setting policy instead. That’s less of a problem in the diplomatic corps than it is elsewhere in the federal government, although a lack of trusted envoys in key postings has a definite and deleterious impact on the potential success of Trump’s foreign policy. In dozens of posts around the world, Trump’s relying on charges d’affaires appointed by his predecessor(s), and in dozens of others on ambassadors whose terms have been extended while the White House gets its organizational act together.
If Trump and his team want to defeat the bureaucratic inertia of the civil service — or the “deep state,” as they call it — they need to appoint people to all of these positions as soon as possible to ensure they take the reins. They can eliminate these posts later if needed, but for now, they’ve allowed the bureaucracy to run on auto-pilot. That’s not the fault of Senate Democrats, but a lack of effort on the part of Trump and his team to fulfill the basic task of any new executive team in proper staffing.
Addendum: As of May 20th, the Trump administration was the slowest off the mark in staffing key appointments, having filled less than a fifth of the most important slots in the executive branch. The length of time to confirmation was the worst, too, a result of Democratic obstruction on Trump’s initial Cabinet appointments, but the problem now is that nearly all of the hundreds of key positions have no nominations formally submitted to the Senate. And bear in mind that the Partnership for Public Service is tracking less than half of all presidential appointment slots (559 out of 1,242 Senate-confirmation-required slots).