Officials Blame Election Drama for Biden’s Slow Staffing
Lawmakers want Biden to speed up filling senior diplomatic posts.
Lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with delays in reviewing U.S. President Joe Biden’s slate of nominees for senior foreign-policy posts, a trend that administration officials attribute to rigorous security background checks and knock-on effects from former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the election results.
Nearly two months into office, Biden has yet to formally name nominees for many senior posts at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other federal agencies. In several cases, he announced nominees in January, but the White House either hasn’t yet formally submitted the names to Congress to kick-start the confirmation process or didn’t do so until the past week.
During the Trump administration, Congress routinely criticized the president for leaving senior positions at the State Department vacant for months or years on end, saying the empty posts hampered effective U.S. foreign policy and sapped morale in the ranks. Biden and his team vowed to reverse those trends, announcing efforts to restore morale at the State Department and elsewhere, but if senior posts remain empty for long, those efforts could hit a snag.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said investing in the State Department workforce is a top priority. “As Secretary [Antony] Blinken has said, his first task will be to invest in the Department’s greatest asset: our people,” he told Foreign Policy in an email response. “Under Secretary Blinken’s leadership, career experts will always be at the center of our diplomacy, and he is committed to ensuring that they will help to lead it by serving in many of the Department’s most senior positions.”
The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, sees moving on qualified Biden nominees as quickly as possible as a top priority, according to a committee spokesperson.
It’s not unusual for State Department posts to sit unfilled early in an administration’s transition. Every new administration has a raft of high-profile priorities both domestically and abroad, let alone amid a raging global pandemic. But the grace period might be coming to a close: Four congressional aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said their bosses are irked with the delays and are eager for the administration to roll out more nominees to begin moving quickly on the Senate confirmation process.
For example, Biden announced on Jan. 16 Uzra Zeya as his nominee to be the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights—a key senior State Department post. But the White House didn’t formally send her nomination to the Senate until March 9. Biden’s pick to be the State Department’s third-ranking official, Victoria Nuland, was formally nominated on Feb. 13, but all of her paperwork was not submitted to the Senate until March 11, according to a Senate aide. Blinken, meanwhile, took about two months to submit his paperwork to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Biden announced his name in November, one Senate aide said. (By comparison, the aide noted, it took Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former secretary of state, about three days to get all his paperwork in order.)
So what accounts for the delays?
According to several administration officials, one major problem comes from the former president himself. Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 presidential election results kept pushing back the timeline on when Biden could name nominees for senior posts and begin the paperwork for their confirmation process—including extensive background checks to obtain top-level security clearances.
Obtaining a security clearance for a government job requires onerous background checks by the FBI and, in the case of the State Department, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The background checks for Biden’s top nominees couldn’t begin until a government agency signed off on Biden’s formal victory to greenlight the transition—a process delayed because of Trump’s claims that he won the election and baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.
“From there, it’s just had a cascading effect,” said one official familiar with the matter.
Administration officials also point to new, stricter measures for security clearances that were rolled out in 2017, meaning background checks could take weeks or even months to complete for Biden nominees—particularly former diplomats like Nuland, who has worked in numerous foreign countries and interacted with countless foreign officials across her decades-long career.
Administration officials say they share some of the same frustrations as Congress and are working to get the administration fully staffed. “The delay this has had on the security clearance process has frankly become a national security issue,” said one senior administration official, adding that the Biden team was working to direct more resources to deal with the backlog.
Senate aides say their bosses don’t want to see a repeat of the past under the new administration. Republicans say the delay in election ascertainment and background checks only account for part of the problem and want to see the nominees who have already been named get their paperwork in order faster.
“The administration has been very slow to announce State Department nominees and provide us with complete files to move them forward,” said a spokesperson for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican minority, led by Idaho Sen. James Risch. “We have not even heard a name for legal adviser at the Department, which is of particular concern amid recent developments with Nord Stream 2 and the airstrikes conducted in Syria,” the spokesperson added, referring to a controversial Russian pipeline project in Europe and Biden’s recent strikes targeting Iranian militias in Syria. “We are trying to help expedite the consideration of State nominees, but we can only do so much if we don’t have names or paperwork to do due diligence.”
Menendez sees getting the U.S. foreign-policy shop up to speed as a high priority, his spokesperson said. “Chairman Menendez believes that the State Department and USAID need to be fully staffed with qualified nominees regardless of administration,” said Juan Pachón, the communications director for the Democratic chair. “He and his staff are committed to moving Biden administration nominees as quickly as possible and in a manner consistent with the advice and consent responsibilities of the Committee.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees nominations for the State Department and USAID, does not begin formally reviewing a nominee until the nominee’s full file is complete. That file includes financial disclosure forms, ethics agreements, questionnaires where nominees outline their work experience and past articles they’ve written or speeches they’ve given, and notifications from the FBI or Bureau of Diplomatic Security that their background checks are complete.
Potential nominees undergo a vetting process before they are named, led by the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office. The Biden administration as a matter of practice won’t formally name new nominees before background checks are wrapped up, officials said, meaning there are a raft of potential nominees for the State Department and other federal agencies on deck, waiting for the bureaucratic backlogs and bottlenecks to clear. Administration officials also said they are taking time to scrutinize potential nominees’ backgrounds before they are chosen to avoid sending nominees to the Senate without adequate experience or checkered pasts—something that became a major problem under Trump.
Trump’s personnel office came under scrutiny for what critics saw as a lax vetting of candidates for senior administration posts, including ambassador positions. (In February 2020, Politico reported that Trump had hired a college senior to be one of the top officials in the influential office.) Some of Trump’s ambassador nominees failed to disclose lawsuits, sexual harassment claims, past controversial public statements, and, in the case of one ambassador nominee, a 2008 restraining order filed against her for “placing a bullet-riddled target sheet” in the office of her ex-husband’s doctor.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer