Trump touts flexibility of acting cabinet officials — but lack of long-term leadership alarms critics

Vacancies in U.S. President Donald Trump's cabinet are raising concerns among critics about a leadership vacuum and a lack of permanent authority directing major government agencies, even as Trump says the temporary heads give him 'flexibility.'

Retired 4-star general says situation at the Pentagon 'a shameful mess'

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as Kirstjen Nielsen looks on at a signing ceremony in 2016. Nielsen, who recently left the top job at the Department of Homeland Security, will be replaced by Kevin McAleer, one of several acting secretaries now in charge of major government departments. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Some top-billed "acting" is rounding out U.S. President Donald Trump's cabinet these days: An acting Pentagon chief. An acting secretary in charge of the Department of the Interior. An acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And now, with the departure of Kirstjen Nielsen, a new acting secretary of Homeland Security.

Three agencies responsible for national security and controlling the border — the Department of Defence, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Homeland Security — are now overseen by people who were never confirmed by the Senate for the roles they now occupy.

The vacancies are raising concerns among critics about a leadership vacuum and a lack of permanent authority directing major government agencies, but the president sees an upside that comes with temporary appointments.

Asked about it last month on CBS's Face The Nation, Trump said he liked the "flexibility" of acting secretaries.

"It's easier to make moves when they're acting," Trump said. "I like 'acting' because I can move quickly. It gives me more flexibility."

Former U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, left, listens as Trump speaks to the media October 2018. Trump says asked Mattis to resign late last year, and an acting head of the Pentagon has been in place for more than three months. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

That may be true in the sense that, according to the Federal Vacancies Act, an interim official can step in without having to undergo the rigorous Senate confirmation required by the U.S. Constitution.

That being said, there's legal debate over whether there should be limits to how long an acting head can serve.

Consider, for example, the chief of the Pentagon. Trump effectively fired James Mattis from the post last year, with the president telling CBS in February, "He resigned because I asked him to resign."

Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan stepped in for Mattis officially at the beginning of January. That means the Pentagon — a department with a requested 2019 fiscal budget of nearly $700 billion and a personnel of 1.3 million active-duty service members — has been without a permanent, Senate-confirmed boss for more than three months.

'No rush' for permanent Pentagon successor

Trump told reporters in December he was in "no rush" to find a permanent replacement for Shanahan, who "could be there for a long time."

Retired Army four-star general Barry McCaffrey said in an interview that he thinks the situation at the Pentagon is "a shameful mess."

He noted that U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson resigned in March, leaving a top-level post at the Pentagon vacant.

"Every month that goes by where we have zero long-term stability in this leadership, and with decisions that are either not being made, or getting made by acting service chiefs, that's a huge problem."

Shanahan is a former Boeing executive who has no prior military experience and limited experience in government, serving for less than two years.

Barry McCaffrey, a retired 4-star army general seen in this 2014 picture, says Senate-confirmed leadership should be the norm for the U.S. military. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/Associated Press)

McCaffrey described how he imagined the men and women of the U.S. Armed forces would listen to Shanahan laying out a strategic vision, or budget guidance: "They're listening to him talking about strategy, technology, connecting the Armed Forces to the American people, connecting us to Congress, and they're thinking, 'This guy could be gone tomorrow.'"

That uncertainty can create turmoil at an agency, said Joshua Hurder, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

"It certainly limits the president's ability to pursue his ends with these agencies," Huder said.

Kevin McAleenan, who Trump says will step in as acting secretary of Homeland Security, for instance, previously headed Customs and Border Protection. He'll take on a larger portfolio with a larger budget, and that means a "learning curve" and getting up to speed on personnel challenges and nuances within a larger organizational structure, Huder said.

"You might go from managing a $12.5-billion agency to a $50-billion agency," he said. "It's just very different."

Meanwhile, the departures continue.

Patrick Shanahan, left, is serving as acting defence secretary. How long he'll stay in that role isn't clear. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Nielsen's announced departure came days before the reported ouster on Monday of Randolph Alles, head of the Secret Service. On Tuesday, acting deputy secretary at Homeland Security Claire Grady offered the president her resignation.

Multiple reports have also said that Lee Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration of Services, could be the next high-level official to go. Last week, the White House recently pulled Trump's nominee for the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

15th Cabinet-level official to leave

Tommy Binion, a congressional liaison at the Trump-aligned Heritage Foundation, disputed the characterization of acting secretaries as "substitute teachers" lacking full authority.

He blamed Democrats for politicizing the traditional "advice and consent" role of the Senate, forcing the president to "navigate things in a new way" via acting designations.

Brock Long, seen here briefing Trump about Hurricane Florence, resigned as FEMA administrator in February. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

"Democrats in the Senate are not willing to engage in that process in a constructive way, and we've got to get to a place where the president and Senate can work to get qualified, competent people in these positions."

Nielsen is the 15th member of Trump's cabinet to resign, according to this Brookings Institution's tracker.

"Given his business background, the president has a comfort level with turnover to get the right person in the right job that maybe Washington isn't used to," Binion said.

But McCaffrey, the retired four-star general, remains troubled by what he sees as the president making an end-run around the Senate in major U.S. departments.

U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph Alles recently said he would be stepping down. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

"I've been confirmed by the Senate, I think five times, and as a strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was not allowed to occupy, physically, the office designated for the strategic plan until I had been confirmed by the Senate."

That's as it should be, McCaffrey said. But he's dismayed by the extent to which Trump appears to have defied that norm. He gave another example — that of the doctrine of civilian control of the military, long a tenet of U.S. democracy.

Only two civilian officials can directly give orders to the U.S. Armed Forces for a possible nuclear attack.

"Now you've got one of them, an acting secretary of defence, who is not confirmed by the Senate for that responsibility over nuclear options," McCaffrey said, referring to Shanahan.

The other civilian, he said, would be the president.

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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