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.” [Continue reading…]