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An executive branch of dunces

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Four years ago, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump boasted to the media that his administration would overflow with only “the best and most serious people.” Now a statement this week from White House Personnel Director Sean Doocey shows that the Trump White House is having a whale of a time filling its vacant ranks with any people.

Trump’s most recent clashes with protocol come in the form of Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli – tapped by Trump to fill the hole left by Francis Cissna’s departure in May – and Acting CBP Director Mark Morgan, who took over the controversial border protection agency in July.

Neither are legally eligible for their jobs, Doocey told Trump. That fits a pattern policymakers have come to expect from Trump’s play-it-by-ear White House: With qualified Republican candidates increasingly unwilling to dirty their hands in Trump’s collapsing administration, the White House is stuck recycling the same third-string names into different roles.

Trump’s staffing decisions often run intentionally foul of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which requires acting cabinet-level officers to be next in line for the job — or at least confirmed by the Senate. If those are too difficult for the White House, there is a third, even easier option: The proposed acting director must have served at least 90 days under the secretary he or she is replacing. 

Cuccinelli and Morgan don’t even satisfy the bare minimum required by the law. But as Americans have learned over the past three years, the Trump administration has no qualms about shredding legal protocol to place politically valuable allies in powerful government roles. The result is a White House devoid of policy seriousness, led by a small clique of sycophants unwilling or unable to stand up to Trump’s unrealistic proposals and policy excesses.

The staffing crisis in the White House isn’t new: the Interior Department drew criticism from government ethics watchdogs and legal scholars for openly flouting the Federal Vacancies Reform Act by holding open jobs Trump sought to minimize. The calculus is intentional: Instead of governing, Trump is content to starve troublesome government departments of resources and leadership until they are functionally unable to perform their duties.

The Trump administration’s record 80 percent senior-level turnover rate has created one of the emptiest executive branches in American history, with more vacant and acting directors than at any time prior. That’s great if you’re a president interested in acting with unchecked authority. It’s bad for the rest of us.

Cuccinelli and Morgan landed their jobs after receiving praise from current Trump administration insiders. That elite group has dwindled in recent months to include Trump family members and key campaign-era hangers-on like Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Rudy Giuliani. Their positions owe much to loyalty and little to competence, as recent unforced errors from the West Wing have shown.

Kushner may be the most egregious example of a White House willing to skirt ethics and the law to keep power within Trump’s inner-circle. Kushner boasts a slew of amorphous, semi-official international roles including de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia, lead negotiator for Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace plan, lead author of White House on immigration policy, policy lead for criminal justice reform and Trump’s personal go-between to congressional Republicans.

Meanwhile, Kushner’s wife and presidential first daughter Ivanka Trump has largely replaced the State Department as a goodwill ambassador and negotiator, most prominently at last month’s United Nations General Assembly. Ivanka’s role in international relations has grown even as she continues to build a lucrative branding empire in countries with official business before the United States — and, by extension, before Ivanka and Jared Kushner.

Things aren’t working out as Trump hoped. Instead of creating a lean, easily-influenced coterie of senior insiders, Trump’s neglect of senior positions has created unprecedented stagnation in major departments and agencies. It also leads to Republican brain-drain as skilled conservative public servants avoid tainting their professional credibility by associating with Trump’s contaminated West Wing.

Far from granting Trump more authority to do as he pleases, the legal restrictions placed on his acting senior staffers further limit his ability to execute policy. Given recent proposals included an alligator-filled border moat, policy paralysis may be the best outcome for America.

That doesn’t mean legislators on Capitol Hill should accept the status quo. Trump’s (in)actions lay bare the shortcomings of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. Adding teeth to the weak and easily-subverted Vacancies Reform Act should be a top priority not only for Democrats, but also for Republican lawmakers who value effective, ethical government.

If not, we could always try the alligators. 

Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly makes appearances on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.

Tags Donald Trump executive branch Federal Vacancies Reform Act Ivanka Trump Ivanka Trump Jared Kushner Jared Kushner Kellyanne Conway Ken Cuccinelli Lee Francis Cissna Rudy Giuliani Stephen Miller

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