At Trump’s Pentagon, Empty Offices Are the New Normal

The problem has worsened since James Mattis left the U.S. Defense Department.

Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence listen while President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting in the Pentagon in Washington on Jan. 18, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence listen while President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting in the Pentagon in Washington on Jan. 18, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The resignation of two senior Pentagon officials last week brings the number of vacancies and posts filled on a temporary basis at the U.S. Department of Defense to a new high, a troubling state of affairs that some blame on the uncertainties surrounding former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s departure.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced her intent to step down on Friday, bringing to a close months of speculation over whether she would be nominated as President Donald Trump’s permanent secretary of defense or fired over what was seen as a campaign to slow roll the establishment of a separate Space Force.

Little noticed was the resignation the same day of another top female Pentagon official, Phyllis Bayer, the Navy civilian in charge of energy, environment, and installations—basing and housing.

The high number of empty posts at the Pentagon dates back to the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration, when the White House struggled to find and recruit candidates for top jobs across U.S. agencies. However, Mattis’ departure and questions about Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s management style, along with the administration’s delay in nominating a permanent secretary, has exacerbated the problem, experts say.

The number of empty posts is alarming veteran defense officials, who fear too many vacancies are grinding down the Pentagon’s effectiveness.

“The acting people, the most they can do is tread water,” said Jim Townsend, a former career Pentagon official. “When you’ve got problems to deal with initiatives you need to take, acting officials don’t do that. … It’s the full appointees who jump in and exercise leadership.”

In addition to the top two jobs at the Pentagon, two out of seven undersecretaries of defense and nearly half the assistant secretaries of defense—including the top civilian for international security affairs—are either acting or temporarily performing the job. Many deputy assistant secretary of defense slots also remain unfilled, as well as various other senior positions throughout the department. Townsend, now at the Center for a New American Security, said the number of empty posts appears to be “unprecedented.”

A certain amount of turnover is to be expected with a change in leadership, said Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon, stressing that the transition is not impacting normal operations.

“With any change in senior leadership, you would normally expect a large change in supporting personnel,” Pahon said. “It’s been a very short time since Mattis unexpectedly stepped down, but there has been no interruption in Pentagon operations under the acting secretary’s leadership.”

Still, the vacancies at the Defense Department highlight a broader concern about how many posts sit empty in the Trump administration, over two years after the president first entered the White House. Only 429 of 712 key senior posts in the U.S. government that require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation are filled to date, according to the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that analyzes governance issues.

Some observers tie the high number of vacancies, especially in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to Mattis’s resignation in December following Trump’s decision—which he has since partially reversed—to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Days later, his assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Dana White, one of few people of color in the ranks of the Pentagon, also stepped down.

Mattis’s departure left the top two jobs in the Pentagon filled in a temporary capacity after Patrick Shanahan was elevated from deputy secretary of defense to acting secretary of defense. Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist is filling the No. 2 job in addition to performing his permanent duties.

The White House appeared to hint this week that Shanahan may soon be tapped for the permanent job, but cautioned a final decision has not been made.

The absence of Mattis’s leadership also likely contributed to the recent exodus, said one former U.S. official. “At the DoD, most people joined to support the President and work for Mattis. No one came to work for Pat Shanahan,” the former official said, predicting that, “If he’s nominated and confirmed, you will likely see more departures.”

The former official added that Shanahan’s indecisive management style, lack of experience in Washington, and failure to understand the role of Congress may drive some Pentagon officials out the door. Shanahan worked at Boeing for more than 30 years before taking the deputy secretary of defense job in 2017.

“Secretary Mattis was the smartest man in any room, but he sought dissenting opinions and listened more than he talked. By contrast, Shanahan believes he’s an expert on everything and routinely dismisses divergent or contrary views,” said the former official.

Shanahan’s disagreements with Wilson, for example, contributed to her decision to step down, said one source with knowledge of the discussions around her departure.

“She has no desire to work for the current acting [secretary of defense],” the source said.

Diversity is also suffering at the Pentagon with the recent departures. Before they announced their resignations, Wilson and Bayer were two of just six Senate-confirmed women serving in top Pentagon positions, according to Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon official who researches national security and defense reform at the Center for a New American Security. With their departure, this number will dip by one-third. In addition, just one of six undersecretaries of defense is female.

“We are at a bad spot in terms of women’s representation in national security and at DoD in particular, but it is really unfortunately nothing new for this administration,” said DeJonge Schulman. “They have had a terrible record of appointing women overall.”

Still, overall, about two-thirds of Senate-confirmed DoD positions are filled right now, which is “actually not that bad,” said DeJonge Schulman, noting that officials tend to cycle out at the two-year mark. But the number of empty slots at the Office of the Secretary of Defense “is troubling” if not surprising at this point in an administration that had difficulty hiring people to begin with.

This reality puts the officials acting in a temporary capacity at a disadvantage in internal administration discussions, as well as sensitive negotiations with foreign leaders, DeJonge Schulman said.

“These people tend to be the workhorses of the political appointees,” she said. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

In addition, having a high number of civilian positions unfilled or filled temporarily also shifts the balance of power to the military, she said, noting that uniformed members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. armed services may step in to fill any gaps.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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