With many top-tier posts still empty in President Trump’s new government, cabinet secretaries are getting exasperated with the lack of senior-level staff in their agencies. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
The array of legal and political threats hanging over the Trump presidency has compounded the White House’s struggles to fill out the top ranks of the government.
Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey last month and the escalating probe into Russian interference in the presidential election have made hiring even more difficult, say former federal officials, party activists, lobbyists and candidates who Trump officials have tried to recruit.
Republicans say they are turning down job offers to work for a chief executive whose volatile temperament makes them nervous. They are asking head-hunters if their reputations could suffer permanent damage, according to 27 people The Washington Post interviewed to assess what is becoming a debilitating factor in recruiting political appointees.
The hiring challenge complicates the already slow pace at which Trump is filling senior leadership jobs across government.
President Trump has repeatedly lashed out with insults to defend himself as the Russia investigation unfolds. His latest attacks on Twitter appear to confirm he’s being investigated for obstruction of justice. (Video: Jenny Starrs/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
The White House disputed the notion that the administration has a hiring problem and noted that its candidates must be vetted by the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics before being announced publicly, which might contribute to the perception that there is a delay in filling key posts.
“I have people knocking down my door to talk to the presidential personnel office,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “There is a huge demand to join this administration.”
The White House picked up the hiring pace in May and the first half of June, particularly for positions needing confirmation. It has advanced 92 candidates for Senate confirmation, compared with 59 between Trump’s inauguration and the end of April.
But the Senate has just 25 working days until it breaks for the August recess. At this point, Trump has 43 confirmed appointees to senior posts, compared with the 151 top political appointees confirmed by mid-June in President Barack Obama’s first term and the 130 under President George W. Bush, according to data tracked by The Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition.
For Cabinet posts, the median wait between nomination and Senate vote for Trump was 25 days, according to data collected by The Post. By contrast, Obama’s nominees faced a median wait of two days, George W. Bush had a median wait of zero days and Bill Clinton had a median wait of one day.
A White House official said about 200 people are being vetted for senior-level posts.
Potential candidates are watching Trump’s behavior and monitoring his treatment of senior officials. “Trump is becoming radioactive, and it’s accelerating,” said Bill Valdez, a former senior Energy Department official who is now president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents 6,000 top federal leaders.
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“He just threw Jeff Sessions under the bus,” Valdez said, referring to recent reports that the president is furious at the attorney general for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. “If you’re working with a boss who doesn’t have your back, you have no confidence in working with that individual.”
Although Trump has blamed Senate Democrats for blocking his nominees, the personnel situation has many causes. After Trump’s November victory, hiring got off to a slow start during the transition, and some important positions have run into screening delays as names pass through several White House aides who must give approval. Some prominent private-sector recruits backed off because they would face a five-year post-employment ban on lobbying.
Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who was being considered for an assistant secretary position at the Department of Homeland Security, was the latest to withdraw his name from consideration on Saturday. A person close to the administration who is familiar with the matter said long delays contributed to Clarke’s decision.
The Trump team has not faced the same issues with mid- and entry-level jobs. It has hired hundreds of young Republican staffers into positions that are résumé-builders — and has filled some senior posts that do not require Senate approval.
Other candidates told The Post they would eagerly serve but are simply waiting for offers.
But as the president continues to sow doubts about his loyalty to those who work for him, most recently with his tweets on Friday that appeared to attack Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, a number of qualified candidates say they see little upside to joining government at this time. They include eight Republicans who said they turned down job offers out of concern that working for this administration could damage their reputation.
Republicans have become so alarmed by the personnel shortfall that in the past week a coalition of conservatives complained to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. “We remain very concerned over the lack of secondary and tertiary executive-level appointments,” they said in a letter signed by 25 prominent conservatives called the Coalitions for America, describing their concern that the leadership vacuum will create “mischief and malfeasance” by civil servants loyal to Obama.
The letter culminated weeks of private urging by top conservatives, said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, who helped lead the effort. “They’re sensitive about it, and they’re trying to do better.”
Fitton said that some candidates have faced inexplicable delays on job offers. “People are waiting to hear back. Promises are made but not kept. People are left stranded. Positions are implied, and people are left hanging.”
In a town where the long hours and financial sacrifice of working in government are outweighed by the prestige of a White House or agency job, the sacrifice is beginning to look less appealing.
Potential candidates question whether they could make a lasting contribution in an administration whose policies often change directions. They worry that anyone in the White House, even in a mid-level post, faces the possibility of sizable legal bills serving on a team that is under investigation. And then there are the tweets.
The attorney described an “equally incoherent and unclear leadership” at many agencies, in particular at the Justice Department, where the attorney characterized Sessions’s push for stricter sentences for drug crimes as “1982 thinking” that the Republican Party has largely abandoned.
Another person in line for a senior legal post who pulled out after Comey’s firing said, “I decided, ‘What am I doing this for?’ ”
He described a disorganized paperwork process that threatened to leave him unprepared for Senate confirmation, and said he was disgusted that Rosenstein was “hung out to dry” as the president claimed at first that the deputy attorney general orchestrated Comey’s firing.
“You sit on the tarmac for quite some time, you see smoke coming out of the engine and you say, ‘I’m going back to the gate,’ ” he said.
In recent weeks, several high-profile D.C. attorneys and law firms have turned down offers to represent Trump in the ongoing Russia probe, some of them citing a reluctance to work with a client who notoriously flouts his lawyers’ legal advice.
And the White House’s top communications job has been vacant since Mike Dubke resigned in May.
Lawyers and candidates for White House jobs are particularly wary now, several people said.
“What they’re running into now is, for any job near the White House, people are going to wonder,
‘Am I going to have to lawyer up right away?’ ” said Eliot Cohen, a top official in George W. Bush’s State Department and a leading voice of opposition to Trump among former Republican national security officials during the campaign.
“They’re saying, ‘Tell me about professional liability insurance.’ ”
A longtime GOP activist and former Bush appointee said he rejected offers for several Senate-confirmed jobs because of his policy differences with Trump.
“There are a number of people who are loyal Republicans but who don’t feel comfortable with either [the administration’s] trade positions, or the Muslim [travel] ban or the overall volatility of this administration. We just don’t feel it’s very professional.”
“Everybody’s trying to draw cosmic conclusions about the Trump administration, and my view is it’s still too soon to know what we’re working with,” said a former high-ranking Bush national security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. He said a chief executive such as Trump “who comes in as head of a political insurgency” needs time to hire at least some people to his team who have not served in government before.
Others, though, say they have already seen signs of change that make them uneasy.
“It’s much harder to recruit people now,” Abrams said.
A senior White House official suggested that some people might have been considered but never officially offered an administration job because of vetting concerns or simply because they were not a good fit for the position.”
“In some cases, it’s just sour grapes,” the official said.
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.