Trump’s National Security Team Is Missing in Action
Trump’s train wreck of a transition stumbles into office with key vacancies in top positions and wracked by infighting.
President-elect Donald Trump will enter the White House Friday with most national security positions still vacant, after a disorganized transition that has stunned and disheartened career government officials.
Instead of hitting the ground running, the Trump team emerged from the election ill-prepared for the daunting task of assembling a new administration and has yet to fill an array of crucial top jobs overseeing the country’s national security and diplomacy, fueling uncertainty across the federal government.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” one career government official told Foreign Policy.
The delays and dysfunction threaten to cripple the incoming administration from the outset and raise the risk the White House will present confused or contradictory policies to the outside world. Without his team in place, the new president will likely be unprepared should an early-term crisis erupt abroad, or an adversary test the new administration’s mettle, said former officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The positions still to be filled include senior management and policy posts that oversee diplomacy, military budgets, nuclear weapons, counterterrorism, and media relations, said Obama administration officials, congressional staffers and people familiar with the transition.
The Trump team has not yet named senior deputies for the State or Homeland Security departments. Meanwhile, dozens of important posts at the Defense Department remain vacant in part because of a growing feud between Trump’s advisors and James Mattis, the retired general picked to serve as the next defense secretary. As for the White House, the Trump team has yet to name a national security advisor for Vice President-elect Mike Pence and other key posts, officials told FP.
The absence of a national security advisor for Pence is all the more significant given the prominent role he appears to be playing in the new administration, including receiving a highly classified daily presidential intelligence briefing. Trump has chosen to receive the briefing about once a week.
The Trump team has either failed to fill key jobs or put forward people who lack the experience or appropriate expertise to do the job. More than one administration official called the transition effort “anemic.” Previous administrations, including Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s, were much further along this close to the inauguration.
The troubled transition has stunned career civil servants and former officials who say no previous administration in recent decades has proceeded in such an incoherent way.
A recent poll found that more than half of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the presidential transition. His team, however, said the process is moving with remarkable efficiency.
“This will become the gold standard going forward,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Wednesday. He added that the Trump team was poised to announce a slew of senior deputy positions at various departments but declined to give a timeline.
At the State Department, senior diplomats said there is little clarity on whether several top career officials will be expected to stay in their positions beyond Friday, when Trump will be sworn in as president. That’s a contrast to the Pentagon, where at least six senior officials have been asked to remain during the Trump administration’s opening weeks.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and if the transition team has a plan for maintaining continuity in key roles, they haven’t made that widely known,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The key officials whose roles remain unclear include Tom Shannon, the undersecretary for political affairs and the No. 3 official at the department; Pat Kennedy, the undersecretary for management and resources; Tom Countryman, the undersecretary for arms control; Kristie Kenney, the department’s counselor; and Joe Macmanus, the executive secretary.
“People are assuming that Tom Shannon will carry on and be the senior official for the department as the transition continues, but, again, that’s an assumption,” said the official.
Trump’s choice for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has handpicked some former associates for White House and other administration positions who share his background in military intelligence and special operations forces but who are not versed in the essence of the job: formulating policy inside the White House out of a host of competing government agencies and agendas.
“They don’t understand the basics of how decision-making works at this level,” another senior administration official said. The outgoing Obama administration officials refer to the new arrivals as “Flynnstones” for their connection to the next national security advisor.
Underlying much of the delay and confusion in the transition is a persistent question about who truly speaks for the president-elect.
In a number of cases, one transition “landing team” at a department has arrived asking for briefings, often on sensitive topics involving classified information, only to be followed by an entirely different transition team asking for the same briefings again.
“It’s difficult to know how much connection or communication they have with New York,” said the senior administration official.
And as different transition “landing teams” have come and gone, the president-elect has alarmed European and Asian allies with provocative tweets while his own cabinet nominees repeatedly contradicted his positions on Russia and other issues at Senate confirmation hearings. On Wednesday, Trump’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, broke ranks with the president-elect on a litany of topics, backing sanctions on Moscow and defending the importance of the NATO alliance.
Foreign diplomats from friendly capitals have come away confused by the transition and puzzled about who they should speak to. “We are never sure whether we are meeting with the right people,” one Western diplomat said.
At the Defense Department, a struggle for power and influence has virtually halted the transition in its tracks, former officials and congressional staffers said. Mattis, the pick for defense secretary, was confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee by a 26-1 vote Wednesday afternoon and is expected to be easily confirmed within days by the full Senate. But he has been at loggerheads with Trump’s advisors over who should be appointed to senior policy jobs at the Pentagon.
Mattis has opposed prospective appointees pushed by Trump’s inner circle in New York, which includes Steve Bannon, named as a senior White House strategist, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and prospective White House advisor. At the same time, candidates the general wants for Pentagon posts — including Republican experts who signed “Never Trump” letters last year — have been rejected or obstructed. As a result, not a single second-tier position has been named, and concern is growing among Mattis’s Republican supporters in Congress, who see him as a seasoned and moderating influence in a White House led by an inexperienced commander in chief.
The Trump team also apparently has given little or no priority to how it will communicate the administration’s policies and stances to the public. The incoming team has not held any handover briefings with press secretaries at the State, Defense, or Homeland Security departments or at the media office of the White House National Security Council (NSC), officials said.
And the Trump team has yet to name anyone to serve as spokesperson for those departments, which typically answer media queries virtually around the clock. Monica Crowley was selected to oversee communications at the NSC, but she withdrew her name amid revelations she had plagiarized numerous passages in her book and her Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University.
Even the confirmation process for Trump’s cabinet picks has run into trouble, with some nominees failing to file necessary paperwork for ethics reviews and background checks. Trump looks poised to begin his term with the lowest number of confirmed cabinet members of any president in more than a quarter century.
Polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of how Trump is managing his move to the White House, a response that stands in sharp contrast to previous presidents — including Obama — who all received high marks for how they managed their transition. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 54 percent disapproved of Trump’s handling of the transition. About eight in 10 Americans approved of the way Obama managed his transition.
Former officials and civil servants say Trump appears to take little interest in following the established model for White House decision-making that evolved over decades under presidents from both parties.
“Unlike State, which can rely on its bureaucracy, the NSC has to be ready on day one as most of its old team leaves,” said Philip Gordon, who served on the NSC in Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations. “In a normal world, even before a single presidential phone call or meeting or decision, the NSC team would prepare background, points, facts, etc. They will not have a team ready to do that,” Gordon told Politico.
“But it’s not clear Trump operates that way or would use any of the stuff anyway.”
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce