How many ways are there to leave the Trump administration?

How many ways are there to leave the Trump administration?
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Singer-songwriter Paul Simon told us there were 50 ways to leave your lover: just slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan; hop on the bus, Gus: just drop off the key, Lee.

How many ways are there to leave the Trump administration? Fired for lying, for disagreeing or for resisting; resigned in scandal, in disgrace, over being ignored, or from fatigue and there are rumors of more to come.

What should we think of all this turmoil at as President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE enters his second year in office?

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First, let’s remind ourselves that, within the broad tolerance of Senate advice and consent, a president is constitutionally free to staff his administration as he sees fit. Most presidents come into office with a government-in-waiting — policy experts and seasoned administrators biding their time in places like think tanks and universities, waiting to be appointed to these positions — but this administration came into office without that pre-made infrastructure.

 

Trump’s unexpected election, the inexperience of his transition organization, the extensive list of never-Trump Republicans and other factors led to unconventional political appointments. Among them were Cabinet officers whom Trump barely knew, former political rivals, untested policy advocates, inexperienced White House staff, friends and family. It was not the GOP varsity team that might have been expected to inherit the government.

Now, Trump appears headed to remake his administration. It’s within his constitutional prerogative and it is not improper that new appointees share Trump’s worldview if that’s the kind of team he wants.

As the president reshapes his administration, we should expect greater care that those leaving are replaced by appointees with more experience, greater expertise and the ability to govern. For that we look to the president but also to the Senate confirmation process and close congressional oversight.

Yet, if Trump really wants a government that’s on his team, it is time to look beyond the Cabinet-level positions and fill out the rest of his political appointments. These appointees help develop the president’s policy priorities, provide policy direction to their agencies and are accountable for program performance throughout the government. They are rightly expected to be “loyal” to the president.

The Partnership for Public Service tracks the progress in filling 640 of the approximately 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions in the federal government. These are key policy and management jobs. Only 275 appointees have been confirmed and are on the job so far; 144 have been named or nominated, and 217 positions have no announced nominees.

Does this mean that 361 spots are empty? Not exactly. Most of these positions are filled temporarily by a senior career civil servant. That may be a source of friction, as higher political leaders might expect the same type of political loyalty from the career acting official as they would from a political appointee.

It’s common also for an incoming administration to be suspicious of career officials who worked with political appointees of the previous administration, especially if there has been a change in political party. In most cases, this discomfort evaporates as the career executive and political appointee go through a period of accommodation.

Nevertheless, a pair of high-ranking House Democrats have sought information about charges that Trump political appointees have targeted some career civil servants for being insufficiently “loyal.”

Career civil servants are rightly expected to be responsive to their political leaders in carrying out the policy direction of the president, but expectations of political loyalty are misplaced.

Loyalty, for senior career federal civil service executives, is a complicated issue, often the source of ethical dilemmas. Career executives may have multiple and sometimes conflicting loyalties to their agency, their mission, their profession and to their oaths of office. Many also feel a sense of duty to the Constitution, to public service, to professional standards, to the laws and to concepts of fairness, justice and equity.

Political appointees looking for simple blind obedience from career executives have misplaced expectations.

The Trump White House is paying the price for not fully dealing with that absence of a government-in-waiting. Effective leadership of the government comes with good team-building decisions and effective personnel management.

The White House needs to replace departed senior officials with capable successors, fill the key political positions that will help it lead and manage the government and grasp the proper relationship between political leaders and career administrators.

Douglas Brook is a visiting professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He worked on the outgoing transition teams for both Bush presidencies.