Shadow Government
A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Swiss Cheese Presidency: Why Trump’s Inability to Fill Key Positions Makes America Weak

The Trump administration's staffing gaps pose serious problems for the United States.


Those observing the Trump White House, in Washington and around the world, have been puzzling over the administration’s staffing gaps. The slow pace of appointments to key posts across the national security bureaucracy has been mystifying, fueling all manner of speculation about what’s going on. Is this the lingering aftermath of an unexpected and haphazard transition, the result of massive infighting, evidence of simple incompetence, or an elaborate scheme to destroy the “administrative state”?

Those observing the Trump White House, in Washington and around the world, have been puzzling over the administration’s staffing gaps. The slow pace of appointments to key posts across the national security bureaucracy has been mystifying, fueling all manner of speculation about what’s going on. Is this the lingering aftermath of an unexpected and haphazard transition, the result of massive infighting, evidence of simple incompetence, or an elaborate scheme to destroy the “administrative state”?

It is probably some combination of all of the above. Yet regardless of the cause, there are many reasons to be worried that, two months in, so many key national security and foreign policy positions still remain vacant. At the State and Defense departments, only two people have been nominated for Senate-confirmed policy positions below the Cabinet secretary level — and those two were nominated on Thursday.

You may be asking: So what? President Donald Trump probably feels that way, thinking he’ll get around to it eventually. And if some of those positions never get filled, then who cares? We decided to ask several Shadow Government contributors — who until recently held some of these jobs or worked closely with the people who did — to offer their perspectives on why these positions are important.

Deputy secretary of state and under secretary of state for political affairs

by Sheba Crocker

One of Rex Tillerson’s early losses as secretary of state came in his first week on the job, when Trump rejected Elliott Abrams, who had been Tillerson’s choice to serve as deputy secretary of state. For now, veteran Foreign Service officer Tom Shannon has moved into the “D Suite” and has been serving in an acting capacity as the department’s deputy, though this means that the position for which Shannon was confirmed (under President Barack Obama) — under secretary of state for political affairs — is itself now vacant. The lack of confirmed officials in both jobs poses serious challenges to the conduct of diplomacy and crisis management, as well as the day-to-day management of State’s tens of thousands of employees.

The deputy secretary of state serves multiple functions — he (they have, to date, all been men) is a top advisor to the secretary of state, directs the department in its management of breaking issues, steps in for the secretary of state in meetings with foreign diplomats, represents the United States at events and summits, and sits on the “Deputy Committee” of the National Security Council.

The deputy secretary also manages the department, a role a secretary of state can’t reasonably play given everything else he or she must cover. The Trump administration has decided it will not fill the second deputy slot at State — which during the eight years of Obama’s presidency served as the department’s top manager and budget guru — and gutted the entire management arm of the department during Trump’s first week in office. Thus, filling the deputy slot now becomes even more critical, as that position will serve as the top manager and budget official for State, including overseeing State’s implementation of Trump’s proposed budget cuts and possible staff reductions. Because Tillerson is new to the State Department, foreign policy, and Washington, a seasoned deputy would play many key functions: from serving as a conduit from the secretary to the department (and vice versa), to interpreting and massaging messages for the press and public, to effectively representing State in the interagency process, to helping guide Tillerson as he learns the nuances and sensitivities of the myriad foreign-policy issues he will need to manage.

Traditionally considered the department’s third in line, the under secretary for political affairs — known as “P” — has an official set of responsibilities that cannot be replicated by political advisors or by the secretary of state. P has direct counterparts (called political directors) in most other governments in the world. The political directors help manage the international system, especially among America’s traditional closest friends and allies. There are regular and well-used channels of communication among political directors — for early management of fast-breaking diplomatic crises below the level of foreign minister, and for preparation for major summits (such as the G7) and key bilateral, regional, and multilateral meetings. By the time issues reach the desks of foreign ministers, as much agreement as possible has been achieved.

During the Iran nuclear negotiations, Wendy Sherman (then-P) and her counterparts from the P5+1 (the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — plus Germany) and Iran met intensively and regularly, ironing out as many details as they could and leaving the really thorny and most difficult issues for ministers to tackle. In the department, P also plays the role of supervising the regional assistant secretaries, a responsibility that is directly tied to his or her function as political director — when issues cannot be sorted at the assistant secretary level at State (the director general level in other governments), they are bumped up to the political directors to manage, ideally minimizing the number of issues that must be sorted at the level of foreign minister.

A long vacancy in the under secretary for political affairs position deprives the secretary of state of the top advisor on bilateral and regional issues and a key layer that could help the secretary effectively access and utilize the expertise and advice of State’s regional bureaus.

Deputy secretary of defense and under secretary of defense for policy

by Christine Wormuth

If the secretary of defense is the CEO of the Defense Department, the deputy secretary is typically the chief operating officer. With the secretary frequently on the road conducting defense diplomacy, the deputy is the “inside man” (or woman) working to build the defense budget each year and tackle other important management challenges, which range from providing greater oversight of the nuclear-weapons enterprise to spearheading efforts to reform Defense Department business practices. The deputy often serves as the implementer for the secretary’s key priorities and works closely with the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the service chiefs and secretaries. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has asked Robert Work, a former Marine Corps officer who served as deputy secretary at the end of the Obama administration, to stay on until the confirmation of a replacement. On Thursday, Trump announced his intention to nominate Patrick Shanahan, the senior vice president for supply chain and operations at Boeing, to the position.

The under secretary for policy, or “USDP,” is the key adviser to the secretary of defense on all major foreign policy and national security issues discussed in the Situation Room. This individual and the 500 military and civilian personnel who staff the policy organization advise the secretary on military operations like the counter-Islamic State campaign and defense relationships with countries around the world; ensure that the defense budget reflects the broader defense strategy; and provide policy advice on nuclear weapons, missile defense, cybersecurity, and space capabilities. The USDP also oversees security cooperation activities, working closely with the State Department, on technology transfer and export control policy, and on efforts to account for missing personnel and prisoners of war from past conflicts.

Mattis pushed for Anne Patterson, a very distinguished senior career diplomat, for this position, but recently withdrew her name because the White House signaled that it wouldn’t fight for her nomination in the Senate. The Defense Department has been without a Senate-confirmed USDP since late June. On Thursday, Trump announced his intention to nominate David Trachtenberg to serve as the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. He will at least be able to hold down the fort until the Pentagon nominates, and the Senate confirms, the actual undersecretary.

The “regional” assistant secretaries of state

by Jon Finer

In the world of diplomacy, the United States is a bit like the New England Patriots — the most important engagement on every other country’s calendar. But the secretary of state cannot be everywhere at once: I know that because I worked for a secretary who sometimes seemed to try. Even as he traveled 1.4 million miles over four years in office, John Kerry, like all of his predecessors, relied on other senior diplomats to conduct critical business on one side of the world when he was on the other, and to do the day-in, day-out spadework necessary to maintain America’s most important international relationships. Enter the State Department’s “regional assistant secretaries,” seven seasoned experts responsible for and steeped in the details of their own major sections of the map. These road warriors all but live in their regions, building relationships not just with their direct counterparts, but often with other country’s foreign ministers and heads of state. Eventually, the best ones become not just proxies but principals in their own right.

Over the past four years, I saw firsthand how regional assistant secretaries and their teams made the United States safer and more prosperous. Nisha Biswal, as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, built the most constructive relationship America has ever had with India — a booming economy and the world’s most populous democracy. Danny Russel, as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, steeled the spines of America’s Southeast Asian partners in the face of relentless pressure from China in the South China Sea. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, helped reverse the former Gambian president’s rejection of a valid election, avoiding bloodshed and bucking a troubling trend by keeping democracy on track. Roberta Jacobson, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, negotiated the details of normalized relations with Cuba. Anne Patterson, as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, managed more crises in three years overseeing the Middle East than most diplomats claim in a career. My fellow Shadow Government contributor Sheba Crocker, as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, helped rally the world to advance Obama’s agenda on peacekeeping and the refugee and migration crisis. Victoria Nuland, as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was the strategic architect and executor of the U.S. response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond.

In addition to being world-class diplomats with no evident partisan leanings, these public servants have two more things in common: All have left their posts and none have been replaced. “Acting” replacements can hold down the fort for a while. But other countries pay attention to things like whether you’ve been selected by the president and confirmed by the senate. Over time, vacancies will weaken U.S. diplomacy and force more and more business onto the desk of either the secretary or the White House. One wonders if that may be the point.

The assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs

by Derek Chollet

These positions — known in Pentagonese as ISA and APSA — are the Defense Department’s regional portfolios, sitting at the crossroads of political-military affairs. Part of the job is to be a defense diplomat, working with foreign counterparts on everything from Syria and the South China Sea to defense planning and arms sales, often representing the secretary of defense around the world. Another part of the job is to serve as the key regional adviser to the Pentagon chief, helping the secretary of defense hammer out policies, deal with crises, and work with counterparts. They stay very busy leading the teams that help manage the secretary’s foreign engagements: For example, in 2014, my last year in ISA, our team alone managed over 50 bilateral meetings for then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and coordinated 10 of his foreign trips. And they often play important roles managing the most urgent national security issues — my successor in ISA, Elissa Slotkin, was one of the crucial behind-the-scenes players in organizing, cajoling, trouble-shooting, and leading the international military contributors to the counter-Islamic State campaign in Iraq and Syria.

For anyone in these jobs, there is a lot of time spent on the road (either staffing the secretary or alone), inside White House meetings, and on Capitol Hill. And importantly, these offices — the assistant secretaries and their deputies — are central to the concept of civilian control of the military, as they are the primary partners of the Joint Chiefs (and often the combatant commands) on all matters of regional defense policy and military planning. Right now, very capable career officials are performing these jobs. But the longer the positions remain vacant, the easier it will be for the military to dominate policymaking inside the Pentagon — a trend that was already growing at the end of the Obama administration, and many now worry is only getting worse.

The under secretary of state for arms control and international security

by Jon Wolfsthal

The under secretary of state for arms control and international security — known as “T” — is a critical link in managing the functional side of the State Department. This position oversees foreign military sales, export control licensing and alliance management, the blocking of illicit transfers of dangerous nuclear materials and technology, and the enforcement of compliance with arms control and security agreements. T often serves as a closer for tough negotiations on all manner of security, diplomatic, and military agreements. Predecessors have served on the diplomatic front lines, negotiating New START and confronting Russian arms control cheating, leading U.S. global efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation, and providing the secretary of state with the expertise he or she needs to keep America safe. The incumbent will likely lead the U.S. delegation to the 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review conference and be critical in ensuring that Iran complies with the nuclear deal.

The special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan

by Dan Feldman

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s first special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was fond of saying that General David Petraeus, then the International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan, was his “military wingman.” Of course, Petraeus was also fond of saying that Holbrooke was his “diplomatic wingman.” But regardless of who played the wingman role for the other, the thesis underlying the bantering remains the same today — any long-term Afghanistan resolution requires integrated and comprehensive military and diplomatic leadership from the United States. Simply put, as acknowledged by many military leaders over the years, and stated again just this week by the U.N.’s current special representative for Afghanistan, there is no sole military solution in Afghanistan. And if that was the case when international forces were at their apex in Afghanistan several years ago, with close to 150,000 foreign troops on the ground, that’s even more the case now, with 13,000 international troops remaining. Gen. John Nicholson recently called the situation a “stalemate.”

The only feasible, sustainable, cost-effective, long-term resolution for Afghanistan is a negotiated political settlement between all parties, including the Taliban — and this will unequivocally require sustained U.S. diplomatic leadership to achieve. In the interim, continued U.S. diplomatic leadership, as an equal counterpart to military leadership, is also urgently needed to maintain a range of ongoing initiatives in Afghanistan, which are fundamentally in America’s national security interest. These include engaging the key nations of the region, which will need to support any long-term resolution; liaising with America’s many NATO and other partners for their continued, much-needed military and economic assistance to Afghanistan; supporting the pro-United States, democratically elected Afghan government; nurturing commercial efforts to bring economic stability to the country so it can ultimately pay its own security costs; and seeking to safeguard the many advances in the lives of Afghan women and girls.

Doing all this effectively requires not just diplomacy, but an empowered, credible, experienced U.S. diplomat. The key parties to a reconciliation process will need to be assured that this diplomat is speaking for the president and can keep interagency commitments. International partners will only continue to provide assistance if it is seen as a priority of the White House, and only an emissary of the secretary of state or the White House will have credibility to engage the many Afghan factions necessary for political and economic stability.

Hence, Holbrooke’s request to designate the role as not just an envoy (sent to undertake a particular task), but as a special representative, who would oversee and manage all civilian operations of American policy, staffed by an interagency team and outside experts, and with direct reporting to the secretary of state and the president. While there are plenty of different models this administration could utilize for its Afghanistan lead, assigning this role to a mid-level diplomat with other regional responsibilities would be a mistake. It’s therefore of great urgency to leverage all facets of American power to optimize the chances of success in Afghanistan — and appointing a permanent and empowered special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (with the added benefit of that position not requiring Senate confirmation) is of paramount importance.

The USAID administrator

by Reuben Brigety

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is the primary foreign and humanitarian assistance arm of the U.S. government. With almost 10,000 employees deployed in 100 countries around the world, USAID delivered over $17 billion in assistance last year — far less than 1 percent of the federal budget. USAID advances America’s foreign-policy interests by strengthening the governing capacity of partner countries, improving the ability of people to provide for their economic livelihood, and responding to critical humanitarian emergencies. In recent years, USAID personnel have staffed Disaster Assistance Response Teams to fight Ebola in West Africa, have deployed alongside the U.S. military in Afghanistan to support counterinsurgency efforts, and supported youth programs to fight gang violence in El Salvador, to name just a few of its initiatives.

The failure to nominate a USAID administrator undermines the ability of the agency to determine appropriate assistance strategies to support many of the president’s foreign policy priorities, such as defeating the Islamic State — at a time when pressing humanitarian emergencies, such as a famine in South Sudan, demand attention.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Correction, March 16, 2017: President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate David Trachtenberg to serve as the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. A previous version of the article misstated this job title.

Christine Wormuth is director of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council. She served as the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2014 to 2016. In that role, she was the principal advisor to the secretary of defense in the formulation of national security and defense policy, oversight of military operations, and in National Security Council deliberations. Wormuth also served as a deputy undersecretary of defense and as a senior director at the NSC. Twitter: @cwormuth
Dan Feldman spent more than six years at the State Department in the Barack Obama administration helping to lead civilian efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan, including serving as special representative for those two countries, with the rank of ambassador, from 2014 to 2015. His prior government positions included serving on the National Security Council staff for multilateral affairs in the Bill Clinton administration and on the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He is currently a partner at the law firm Akin Gump, a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Twitter: @FeldmanDF
Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @derekchollet
Jon Finer was the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry and director of policy planning at the State Department. He also spent four years in the Barack Obama White House, serving as a senior advisor in the offices of the national security advisor and the middle east advisor, as a foreign-policy speechwriter in the office of Vice President Joe Biden, and as a White House fellow in the office of the chief of staff. Before serving in government, Finer was a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, and Gaza. Twitter: @jonfiner

Jon B. Wolfsthal is the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a senior advisor at Global Zero. He was U.S. President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He serves on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and helps set the time of the doomsday clock. Twitter: @JBWolfsthal

Reuben E. Brigety II is a former U.S. representative to the African Union, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, all under the Obama administration. Twitter: @ReubenBrigety

Bathsheba ("Sheba") Crocker was the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 2014 to 2017. Earlier in the Barack Obama administration, she was the principal deputy director in the State Department’s office of policy planning and chief of staff to the deputy secretary. Prior to this, Crocker was a senior policy and advocacy officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, senior advisor in the U.N.’s peacebuilding support office, and deputy chief of staff to the U.N. special envoy for tsunami recovery. She also worked on post-conflict issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow. Previously, Crocker was an attorney and deputy U.S. special representative for Southeast Europe affairs at the State Department; she also served as executive assistant to the deputy national security advisor. Twitter: @shebacrocker

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