Six months into his administration, President Donald Trump has far fewer political appointees in place than his four predecessors, stoking discontent among senior members of his administration and those seeking action with the federal government.
Trump’s four predecessors were at least three times faster than the current president at getting their nominees into their desks. Some 49 of Trump’s key nominees have been confirmed as of Thursday, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan group that tracks more than 500 key appointments. That’s compared to 201 for Barack Obama, 185 for George W. Bush, 196 for Bill Clinton and 148 or George H.W. Bush.
What that means is entire wings of the government are largely devoid of Trump appointees — with few of the president’s aides setting policies, reviewing regulations, overseeing the bureaucracy or being available for meetings with advocates, lobbyists or others. On some key policy pushes like health care and taxes, policymaking is being run largely from the West Wing, partially because are few people at the agencies.
"I don’t believe any prior president has done this fast enough, but this administration is far lagging every other administration," said Max Stier, who has advised transitions of both parties and runs the Partnership. "You’re not exaggerating to say this is a big problem for them."
The White House has pinned much of the blame on Senate Democrats, accusing them of obstructing Trump’s nominees as part of a broader attempt to thwart the president’s agenda. Democrats, however, point out that Trump’s pace of nominating political appointees has been slower than his predecessors.
Trump’s team says there is a renewed effort in place to nominate picks more quickly, noting the administration now has 150 nominations in the queue waiting for a Senate hearing. "And there are a lot more in the pipeline," said Marc Short, the administration’s legislative affairs director.
Short blamed Democrats for slowing many of the nominees with cloture votes — or forcing 30 hours of debate and an up-and-down vote — for nominees that are not controversial, including a judge this week who was eventually confirmed 100-0. Another pick was confirmed 97-3 after a cloture vote was called.
The administration has already faced 30 cloture votes. That’s more than any Congress since 1949 other than in 2013, after Obama was re-elected, according to the Pew Research Center.
"They are trying to delay the legislative agenda," Short said of the Democrats. "Would it matter if we had 250 in a backlog instead of 150?"
Short said the administration planned to do a better job of reminding the American people that such jobs were important for the administration as they put together a policy agenda, cut regulations and oversee the vast federal government.
A different senior administration official said the White House would consider recess appointments "if necessary." This person said it took several months for some White House officials to realize "that appointments are such a big deal."
Democrats, for their part, are feeling little pressure to speed up any of Trump’s nominees.
A senior Democratic aide said the party was deliberately delaying nominees because of the president’s approach and policy agenda and would also continue to invoke the "two-hour rule," which keeps committees from meeting longer than two hours. This person said there was no benefit to having more of Trump’s people in place.
"We are not going to consent to time agreements while Republicans are trying to jam through a health care bill," the aide said.
Matt House, a spokesman for Schumer, scoffed at Short’s claims that the slowing of the picks would hurt the administration’s broader agenda. "What legislative agenda?" he said.
Among close observers of Washington government and the lobbying community, Trump’s nomination process has been perplexing and frustrating. It has been dominated by fights between cabinet secretaries and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, divided by the White House factions and slowed by nominees with complicated ethics forms, which have led some to withdraw.
Schumer said on the floor last week that Trump had nominated picks slower than his predecessors, which is accurate, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Trump has named 206 nominees, while Obama had named 355, George W. Bush had named 313, Clinton had named 267 and George H.W. Bush had named 243.
"There has been a huge swath of federal policy where there were no political appointees at all," said Barry Bennett, a lobbyist and former Trump campaign aide. "There are finally some deputies to have meetings with, and it’s getting better by the day."
A different lobbyist said the hiring slowdown had led to more headaches for West Wing aides, who receive the brunt of calls when agency officials aren’t in place. "You go to these departments, and there literally is no one to talk to," this person said. "You call the White House, and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any of our people for you.’"
Matt Schlapp, a conservative activist close to the White House, said many Republicans are increasingly concerned about the openings — and that many of the bureaucrats overwhelmingly oppose the president.
"Politically, they’re doing a very good job of hobbling the president," Schlapp said of Democrats and the nominating process. "One of the reasons they’ve had all these leaks is they don’t have appropriate control of their agencies, who feel like the parents have left and there is no babysitter."
Stier said the administration, in recent weeks, had piled up more nominees than the Senate can quickly handle. "Falling behind makes it really hard to catch up," he said.