The Trump administration is no stranger to turnover. From the very start of the administration, personnel has been shuffled in and out of key positions, some like Anthony Scaramucci lasting only six days in their position. Although there are obvious downsides to such high variation in our top-level democracy, more concerning is the slow pace at which these vacancies, many of which requiring senate approval, are being filled. In an interview on January 9th of this year, President Trump stated that he was in “no hurry” to replace the ‘acting’ positions within his own administration, preferring instead to keep these temporary heads in place. According to data complied to the Washington Post, there exists now in Washington, 139 ‘key positions’ requiring Senate confirmation that as of yet have no nominee to fill them. With the recent resignation the secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Neilson, that number has increased by one, taking its place along the ranks of the Department of Defense, the FDA, ICE, and other positions in the highest level of governments without any permanent leadership.
While the existence of acting secretaries, even large numbers of them, is not unusual, Trump’s preference with leaving these positions empty is an alarming break from norms. What is more alarming is his support of the practice, stating in an interview to CBS that “I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility”. Perhaps in a way Trump is right, having acting heads, rather than confirmed positions, does allow for a type of flexibility. They sit in a tenuous position, at any moment they can be replaced or dismissed by the president and a new acting head brought in. They lack the ability or permanence to bring in a team or set in motion long term plans. In this way it seems Trump is able to exert a surprising level of pressure to his agency’s as there is no authoritative voice in the agency to stand in his way. Acting heads are put in place by, and are at the mercy of, the president, and have no alliances or bonds with those who work under them.
Nancy Bermeo refers to a term called Executive Aggrandizement in reference to an executives attempts to weaken checks on their power in order to hamper the ability of opponents to resist their efforts to chip away at democratic institutions and increase their hold on power . In many cases these efforts are far more severe, inflicting institutional damage onto democracies, such as constitutional changes, referendums, or changes to voting or legislation that make it harder for opposition to either gain seats in parliaments or block executive changes. In line with the term aggrandizement, these changes build upon one another, becoming more extreme as powers of oppositions are steadily decreased. While Trumps continued reliance on acting staffers has as of yet not altered any institutions of our democracy, it sets dangerous presidents and removes obstacles that these departments may put in place of his policies. The environment surrounding the resignation of Neilsen, for instance, is one of resisting Trump’s efforts to take extreme action on the borders. Reporting from multiple sources imply that the conflict that led to Neilsen’s resignation was her refusal to pursue actions demanded by Trump that have been ruled illegal by the courts, such as family separation and blocking asylum seekers. While Neilsen could rely on an established team, brought on and loyal to her leadership to delay or deny demands from the Trump administration, replacing that position with an acting secretary heading a temporary team to which they have no power to protect or hire, more personal loyalty and control of the people in these position are given to Trump.
Of course actions taken by these departments are not without oversight. As seen with family separation at the border, US courts still have the power to reign in actions taken by administration departments. Yet the ability for Trump to pressure his departments to take increasingly illegal or aggressive actions puts increased strain upon the courts and the legislative branches by forcing them to constantly curtail executive decisions. In a paper by co-authored by Robert Lieberman and a host of political scientists, an explanation for the strength of American democracy was “commonly held but often informal understandings that govern behavior even when formal rules do not delineate politicians behavior” . There exists little ability for any branch of government to force Trump to fill the vacancies. Only the incentive of a better functioning government fulfills that roll, and it has always been an expected norm of any president that those vacancies be quickly filled. But if Trump is perfectly willing to let several of these positions to remain vacant for extended periods of time, that signals a worrying disregard for these norms. The effort to bypass congressional approval to fill positions with temporary loyalists who only answer to the president is a dangerous precursor to aggrandizement, and has the ability to clear the path for more damaging actions by the president in the future. Nancy Bermeo. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed April 21, 2019). pp. 10  Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, and Richard Valelly. “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” Perspectives on Politics, n.d., 1–10. doi:10.1017/S1537592718003286.
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