President Donald Trump’s Cabinet is increasingly stocked with temporary stand-ins and Washington insiders with deep ties to the industries they regulate, complicating Trump’s ability to govern as he approaches the most perilous period of his presidency and opening up his advisers to conflict-of-interest investigations by resurgent Democrats.
As of Thursday, at least four agencies — the Defense Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department — are being led by former corporate executives or industry lobbyists.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Cabinet is more unsettled than any time since he took office two years ago. The heads of the EPA and the Interior and Defense departments, as well as the attorney general and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are all serving in an acting capacity while Trump seeks permanent replacements or waits for the Senate to confirm his picks. That’s not to mention Mick Mulvaney, who is serving as acting White House chief of staff while running the Office of Management and Budget.
“This is unprecedented,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advised the Trump transition team as it set up the government. “Fundamentally, permanent leadership is required to be able to run the government effectively.”
Lawyers, government watchdogs and veterans of past administrations warn that Trump’s reliance on acting officials and former lobbyists could lead to a litany of problems.
Controversial decisions made by acting secretaries could be challenged in court by injured parties who dispute the legitimacy of the appointed department head, as has already happened with acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. Temporary leaders may not be equipped to respond to a major crisis like a terrorist attack or take the lead in implementing crucial policy directives.
And House Democrats have signaled that they intend to investigate Cabinet secretaries’ potential conflicts of interest, likely subjecting agency leaders to contentious oversight hearings and an explosion of document requests.
“I definitely see this as the swamp times 10,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group. “I have been doing this for 30 years, and I can’t remember a time when we’ve had so many agencies being run by people who are coming from the industries they regulate or are recipients of multibillion-dollar contracts.”
Facing a new Democratic majority in the House and the looming conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the Trump administration has often had difficulty recruiting top-tier candidates for high-level jobs, according to people familiar with the matter.
One lawyer who represents people seeking jobs in the government said a client recently turned down an administration job because the person “was not eager to be constantly sitting in a House hearing room.”
Trump, for his part, has signaled that he isn’t concerned about being surrounded by so many acting Cabinet secretaries. Late last month, the president said acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan might stay on for a “long time,” though an administration official confirmed to POLITICO on Thursday that the administration was considering former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, among others, for the job. The New York Times first reported that Webb was in contention for the position.
Trump’s decision to force Defense Secretary James Mattis to depart at the beginning of this month, instead of allowing him to stay on until the end of February as he originally planned, created a leadership gap at the department unlike any seen since the George H.W. Bush administration.
The Defense Department has not had an acting secretary since 1989, according to Anne Joseph O’Connell, a law professor at Stanford University who tracks federal vacancies. Even when they are pushed out, departing defense secretaries traditionally stay on until their successors are confirmed by the Senate, in order to ensure the department has a permanent leader who can manage high-stakes global and domestic conflicts.
“It’s part of a pattern of either conscious or negligent inattention to staffing top positions in the government,” O’Connell said.
Even though he has regularly expressed frustration with key members of his Cabinet, from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Mattis, Trump has also praised his current crop of top advisers, arguing that he has assembled a great team. The president is particularly high on current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom he views as a loyal defender.
Yet White House officials have privately expressed deep annoyance with the ethical lapses of some in Trump’s Cabinet, including now-former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose last day was Wednesday. Aides believed that the constant negative stories about Zinke, as well as former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and former HHS Secretary Tom Price, became a distraction, and they pushed for Trump to fire them.
But for now, at least, aides said they expected the wave of departures to slow.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has lost favor with the president and faced a slew of allegations about financial conflicts of interest, had been seen as the next Cabinet secretary to go. However, the sheer number of high-level vacancies is seen as making Ross’ future in the administration more secure for the time being.
Still, the loose network of outside groups who probe conflict-of-interest and ethics concerns see Ross as a case study for how they might conduct oversight of other top Trump administration officials. One person closely tracking the issue, for example, called the Campaign Legal Center’s aggressive investigations into problems with Ross’ financial disclosures a “roadmap” for House Democrats.
In addition to Ross, House Democrats are expected to keep a close eye on the potential conflicts of interest of at least four other agency leaders: HHS Secretary Alex Azar, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Shanahan, the acting defense secretary.
Azar is the former president of drug giant Eli Lilly’s U.S. operations. Wheeler, who Trump announced last year would be his nominee as full-time head of the EPA, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for the oil and natural gas industries. He took over for Zinke in an acting …read more
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