As the federal government girds against threatened riots in Washington this weekend and possible violence at the inauguration and state capitals across the country, it’s dealing with an unprecedented gap at the top: All of the nation’s top Cabinet departments overseeing the nation’s security are run by acting officials who have been in the job just weeks—or even hours.
The acting Defense secretary has been on the job only since the week after the election; the head of the Justice Department just since Christmas; and the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security was the administrator of FEMA until midnight Tuesday morning.
That means, with President Donald Trump increasingly disengaged from even the basic responsibilities of running the government, that the U.S. government is entering what many officials are calling the most dangerous time since 9/11 with a leadership vacuum unlike anything in modern U.S. history. Since 9/11 and the creation of DHS, in fact, the U.S. has never faced a presidential transition without a Senate-confirmed attorney general, DHS secretary, and Defense secretary all in place — let alone all three vacant at once.
And below them, the vacancies, empty offices and acting officials only multiply, creating a dangerous vacuum in the nation’s security and intelligence apparatus that seems to be getting worse by the day. Since last Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol, nearly a dozen national security and intelligence personnel have departed in protest of the president’s actions inciting the mob. But the problem is just compounding a longstanding one: Throughout his presidency, Trump has relied on “actings” to an unequaled degree and to fill jobs for far longer than Congress intended — sometimes years.
The practice has left his agencies severely undermanned and, often, staffed by people who are seriously underqualified for the positions they occupy.
“We’re so far down the chain of people who wouldn’t normally be elevated to these positions, it brings greater questions about whether they’re being competently led at such a serious security situation,” said Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has carefully tracked the years of Trump administration personnel vacancies. “As a former counterterrorism person, I worked on al-Qaeda in the early 2000s, and this security situation feels as tense to me as it did during certain periods then when the U.S. government was mobilizing to prevent an event. It’s unnerving.”
Already, empty seats and paralysis at the DHS intelligence unit have been cited as a reason for the government’s lack of preparedness for last week’s rally. As ABC News reported, “Had the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis been operating at full capacity over the previous months, the officials said, U.S. Capitol Police would have had a clearer picture of the ‘specific and credible’ threats of violence posed by groups planning to attend Wednesday’s rally.” The intelligence unit is just one of many agency components — including four of the nation’s seven largest federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the Capitol Police itself, whose chief resigned following the department’s abysmal failure last Wednesday — that have been without a leader for months. DHS’s intelligence leadership ranks are so empty that it’s currently being led by the principal deputy general counsel.
The acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — who had been its principal legal advisor — resigned Wednesday night after less than two weeks in the role, meaning the nation’s third-largest federal law enforcement agency, which has never had a Senate-confirmed director during the Trump administration, will be starting Thursday with its fourth leader since August.
At the Pentagon, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper following the November election; at Justice, Attorney General Bill Barr quit at Christmastime, ceremoniously and courteously, after the president’s unhappiness with his resistance to weaponize investigations of Joe Biden’s family; most recently, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, who was never able to convince a court he was legally in the office to begin with, resigned oddly Monday night, catapulting FEMA Director Pete Gaynor into becoming the department’s sixth leader in just four years.
Below those top rungs, the leadership void at all three departments gets worse: DHS and Justice rank at the bottom of all the government’s Cabinet department in terms of top ranks filled; DHS has not even a quarter of its Senate-confirmed roles filled, Justice not even two out of five. The Pentagon, meanwhile, barely breaks 50 percent.
The Trump administration will finish without having had a Senate-confirmed leader at DHS for nearly all of its final two years; it has an acting deputy director, also apparently installed illegally, and with the departure of Wolf — whose actual job was as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans — all four of its undersecretary roles now stand vacant.
Its three main border and security agencies are all but gutted: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has had eight leaders in four years. When Trump toured the U.S.-Mexico border for a final time Tuesday, he was accompanied by Customs and Border Protection’s leader, Mark Morgan, who has been “filling in” at the job so long he’s not legally able to be “acting commissioner” anymore and is instead technically the agency’s chief operating officer while serving as the “Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner.”
CISA, the government’s main civilian cybersecurity agency, which had long been a rare corner of stability amid the revolving doors of DHS, has been gutted post-election as its leadership confronted the president’s baseless claims about the election. Its director, deputy director and assistant director for cybersecurity were all cashiered, and just in recent days, the White House removed its head of public affairs. (Given Twitter’s suspension of the president’s account, CISA Director Christopher Krebs will now forever be the final government official fired by @realdonaldtrump.) In recent weeks, CISA has been on the front lines of responding to the massive SolarWinds hack by Russia — without any of its normal leadership.
At the Justice Department, there’s an acting attorney general — the department’s No. 2, Jeffrey Rosen — and no one in the department’s third or fourth ranking positions. There’s no assistant attorney general leading the criminal division, even as FBI agents fan out across the nation to arrest people suspected in last week’s Capitol attack and task forces of prosecutors gear up for one of the department’s biggest efforts since tackling ISIS in 2015. (The assistant attorney for civil rights also resigned the morning after last week’s riot at the Capitol.) Two of the agencies pulled into the government’s post-Jan. 6 crisis response, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, will finish the Trump era next week never having had a Senate-confirmed leader. DEA blew through four acting leaders in the last five years; ATF hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader since the iPhone 6S was released in 2015.
The Pentagon, which is facing mounting criticism for its handling of last week’s pro-Trump protests in the capital and its delays in activating National Guard troops to rescue the besieged Capitol, has numerous key vacancies. Kash Patel, a Trump loyalist on the National Security Council, was installed as chief of staff following the Esper firing, a role where he’s attracted note for blocking the Biden transition efforts and attracted controversy for being so out-of-touch with the building’s history and mission that he uses an email signature that lists himself as “Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense and the War Department,” which hasn’t existed since 1947.
Another key Pentagon role is currently being filled by controversial Trump staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the 34-year-old who was installed in November as the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence, which oversees the Pentagon’s three intel agencies: the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
These short- and long-term “actings” are problematic on multiple levels, not least of all because they cause cascading reshuffling to back-fill empty positions. Within government, a “deputy” is not analogous to a “spare” vice president taking over for the president; in fact, the “deputy” role is actually often the most important in the org chart, the person responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the Cabinet department, while the secretary attends to politics and policy. By forcing a “deputy” to stand in as “acting,” it often comes at a real cost to the organization’s operations and effectiveness.
In other cases, the “acting” heads appear just plain unqualified. In firing Esper, Trump confoundingly passed over the Pentagon’s Senate-confirmed deputy to install Christopher Miller, who worked as a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon last year until he was installed as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center in August. Not only did Miller just catapult over nearly a half-dozen ranks of more senior officials to lead the nation’s military, but his old position, coordinating the nation’s terrorist threat intelligence, is being backfilled by a temporary acting director amid one of the most worrisome terrorism windows in the U.S. since the campaign by ISIS in 2015.
“The fact that the vacancies are so bad is exacerbated by how he’s fired so many layers of the leaders that he’s at the ‘D-team,’” said Cordero. “Every administration has actings — what is unusual is the quality of the people is so much lower than you’d normally expect, because you’re now into the fourth or fifth tier.”
Across government, leaders trying simultaneously to confront the threat ahead, manage the response to last week’s violence, and investigate and arrest its instigators — as well as brief and hand over their work to people who will be responsible for the nation’s safety starting at noon on Jan. 20 — find themselves short-staffed, under-manned, and perhaps, most worryingly, trying to navigate these new interagency and command relationships with little understanding or background.
None of this is to mention how Trump’s incitement of last week’s riots has left the country vulnerable to external threats, as well. At the White House National Security Council, a raft of resignations have swept through the office since last week’s storming of the Capitol: Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger was one of the first officials in government to quit in protest, and was followed by a half-dozen others, including the senior officials overseeing Africa, Europe, Russia, defense policy, and its effort to track weapons of mass destruction.
It’s not just the vacancies and the acting leadership that is a problem. In many cases, even the Senate-confirmed leadership is the weakest it ever has been: The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, is so obviously unqualified that the Trump administration had to withdraw his nomination the first time he was put up for the job. The bench of talent willing to serve such positions is stunningly bare, too: One of Ratcliffe’s top advisors is Cliff Sims, an aide who already earlier quit a job at the White House, published a tell-all bestseller, Team of Vipers, about the awfulness of Trump and his circles, then sued Trump for retaliating against him. And yet Sims is now back working in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence because there are so few people willing to do so.
Biden, meanwhile, will be sworn in at the Capitol itself, on the same scaffolding and platform overrun by protesters last week. While the Secret Service will have control over the event, all three of Capitol Hill’s top security positions, the chief of its police and the sergeants-at-arms of the House and Senate were fired or resigned in the hours after last week’s attack.
Yet the revolving doors atop government might not stop anytime soon. Traditionally, career “actings” or even politically appointed office holders stay over awaiting the new administration’s nominees’ Senate confirmation — recall Obama Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates was filling in as acting attorney general awaiting the arrival of Rod Rosenstein or Jeff Sessions in the first days of the Trump administration when she refused to defend the Trump administration’s travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, which was ruled unconstitutional. But it seems clear that the Biden team will place immediate acting officials in key roles itself to ensure a clean break from the Trump administration, not trusting either the loyalty, politics, competency, goodwill or commitment to democracy of the current officeholders.
The move by Biden to install temporary actings across government is necessary, in part, because due to odd delays and foot-dragging by Senate committees overseeing Cabinet nominations, Biden is likely to have historically few Cabinet officials — perhaps even none — ready on Jan. 20 itself. That means top U.S. national security posts may see as many as three different leadership teams rotate through over the coming weeks — as Trump’s team finishes, a Biden team of acting leaders take over at noon on Jan. 20, and finally the Senate-confirmed nominees slide into the roles in the days and weeks ahead.
The Biden transition released a statement Wednesday afternoon on the looming inaugural security concerns, saying, “The team is engaging with the current administration to gain as much information as possible on the threat picture, and on the preparations being put in place to deter and defend against violent disruptions or attacks. The incoming team is also focused on laying the groundwork for a smooth handoff in power that will ensure continuous command and control across the homeland security and law enforcement components of the U.S. government.”
Presidential transitions are, under the best of circumstances, tense and often subject to serious threats; even for “normal” inaugurations, thousands of law enforcement and military descend on the capital to secure the events, walking the city sewers underneath and flying in the skies overhead. During Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural, authorities dealt with a threat from Islamic extremists so serious that one suspect in the plot was chased through the Heathrow Airport by police officers, and another was subjected to a tense polygraph examination in Africa hours ahead of the inauguration. Incoming administration officials wargamed how to respond and the president-elect was handed a statement to read if bombs went off or an attack unfolded on the National Mall during his inaugural address.
For Biden’s inaugural, D.C. officials are now so worried about the potential for violence that they have now gone one step further: Given the twin threats of Covid and armed insurrectionists, they’re asking people to stay home entirely. That’ll be easy advice for Biden’s nominees to follow, since they won’t be allowed to show up for work yet.
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