After 9/11, we swore to never let that happen again. “Never again” was the mantra handed down to the nation’s leaders by George W. Bush in the White House on September 12th. We devoted billions—trillions, even—of dollars after 2001 to fixing the intelligence and information-gathering problems identified by the 9/11 Commission, and Congress and George W. Bush worked through the biggest reorganization of the government since 1947 to create two entirely new entities to help prevent “the next 9/11”: The Department of Homeland Security, an attempt to bring together all the agencies tasked with protecting the country at home, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence, a coordinator for the nation’s 17 disparate intelligence agencies to ensure that the country better understood both the big picture and the small picture of what was happening around the world.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s routine, day-to-day mismanagement of the government has left both organizations—the very entities we tasked as a nation to prevent the next 9/11—riddled with vacancies and temporary officials as the novel coronavirus rapidly spread from a small blip in China to a global health and economic catastrophe. In fact, the four top jobs at DHS and ODNI have all been filled with temporary acting officials for literally every day that Covid-19 has been on the world stage.
While we often think of those jobs as focused on protecting against terrorism, both agencies have critical public health roles too; U.S. intelligence spent the winter racing to understand how serious a threat Covid-19 truly was and deciphering the extent of China’s cover-up of its epidemic. Just last week, news broke about a special report prepared by U.S. intelligence documenting China’s deception about the disease’s spread—information that, had it been more accurately captured and understood, might have caused a faster, harder response and lessened the economic and personal toll of the epidemic at home.
Yet Trump has churned through officials overseeing the very intelligence that might have helped understand the looming crisis. At Liberty Crossing, the headquarters of the Office of Director of National Intelligence, the government will have been without a Senate-confirmed director for eight months as of next week; last summer, Trump accepted the resignation of Dan Coats and forced out the career principal deputy of national intelligence, Sue Gordon. Coats’ temporary stand-in, career intelligence official Joseph Maguire, then served so long that he was coming close to timing out of his role—federal law usually only lets officials serve for 210 days before relinquishing the acting post—before Trump ousted him too, as well as the acting career principal deputy. In their place, at the end of February—weeks after the U.S. already recorded its first Covid-19 case—Trump installed German ambassador Richard Grenell as his latest acting director, the role that by law is meant to be the president’s top intelligence adviser. Grenell has the least intelligence experience of any official ever to occupy director’s suite.
This Friday, the role of homeland security secretary will have been vacant for an entire year, ever since Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out over Trump’s belief she wasn’t tough enough on border security. DHS has numerous critical roles in any domestic crisis, but its acting secretary, Chad Wolf, has fumbled through the epidemic; in February, Wolf couldn’t answer seemingly straightforward questions on Capitol Hill from Republican Senator John Kennedy (La.) about the nation’s preparedness—what models were predicting about the outbreak, how many respirators the government had stockpiled, even how Covid-19 was transmitted. “You’re supposed to keep us safe. And you need to know the answers to these questions,” Kennedy finally snapped at Wolf. Wolf has been notably absent ever since from the White House podium during briefings about the nation’s epidemic response.
“Actings” often struggle to be successful precisely because they’re temporary—their word carries less weight with their own workforce, with other government agencies or on Capitol Hill—and they rarely have the opportunity to set and drive their own agenda, push for broad organizational change, or even learn the ropes of how to be successful in the job given the usually brief period of their reign. Anyone who has ever changed jobs or companies knows how long it can take to feel like you understand a new organization, a new culture or shape a new role.
And yet up and down the org chart at DHS, there are people still learning the ropes. DHS is riddled with critical vacancies; according to the Washington Post’s appointment tracker, just 35 percent of its top roles are filled. Its chief of staff, executive secretary and general counsel are all acting officials, and there’s no Senate-confirmed deputy secretary, no under secretary for management, no chief financial office, no chief information officer, no under secretary for science and technology, nor a deputy under secretary for science and technology.
Even as we face a global crisis with complex travel restrictions and health guidelines, there are no Senate-confirmed leaders of any of DHS’s three border and immigration agencies—Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Nor is there a deputy administrator at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), as the airline industry faces an existential cutback to global travel.
Matthew Albence, the acting head of ICE, which faces a growing Covid-19 problem in its national network of detention facilities, has been “acting” for so long that he’s surpassed the 220-statutory limit for the role and instead is now technically the “senior official performing the duties of the director,” a legal term of art that’s become all too common around the federal government as vacancies linger in the Trump era. Ken Cuccinelli, the similarly-titled “senior official performing the duties of the USCIS director,” who is simultaneously also DHS’s temporary No. 2, the “senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary,” is currently appealing a court ruling that he’s not even legally serving at DHS.
When Trump turned to DHS’s FEMA last month to oversee the federal government’s coronavirus response, the agency lacked Senate-confirmed officials in either of its deputy roles—including its deputy overseeing preparedness and continuity of government planning, a function that may become all-too-important in the days ahead if the virus sickens government leaders, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already been hospitalized.
And the assistant secretary for countering WMD—the person who oversees DHS’s chief medical officer, the doctor designated to advise the DHS secretary and the head of FEMA? That job is vacant too. Meanwhile, in addition to its role serving the nation, DHS itself faces a growing number of Covid-19 infections in its own workforce—up to 600 cases as of Monday’s numbers, including 270 TSA employees and 160 CBP employees.
The effect of these vacancies ripple further than most people realize. Since vacant roles awaiting either an official appointment or a Senate-confirmed nominee are always filled by “acting” officials pulled from other parts of the organization or broader government, even more offices are understaffed as people do double-duty and as their own positions are filled with other “actings” behind them. Grenell, even as he fills in as director of national intelligence, continues to technically be the U.S. ambassador to Germany, meaning that amid the huge economic uncertainty around Covid-19 epidemic the U.S. is without a high-level envoy to the largest economy in Europe. For the 14 months he was “acting” White House chief of staff, up until March 31—another horse Trump changed mid-stream in the epidemic—Mick Mulvaney was still technically serving as the director of Office of Management and Budget, a normally critical role itself overseeing the nation’s spending. In Mulvaney’s absence, Russell Vought, OMB’s deputy, filled in as the acting director—leaving his own job, normally its own full-time role, to be filled in by others, and so on.
In government agencies, deputies are not like the vice president—a spare role kept around, if needed. Often, the “deputy” role is the most important figure in the day-to-day operations of the department or agency—the person who runs the bureaucracy and organization while the principal (the secretary or director) attends to the policy and the politics. Robbing an agency or department of a principal and forcing the deputy to fill in means the organization will be running at reduced effectiveness, with less guidance, direction and oversight.
The vacancies at DHS and ODNI are hardly the whole story of how Trump has hampered the very jobs meant to protect the nation in crisis. While much attention has been focused on Trump’s decision to shutter the National Security Council’s pandemic unit, less attention has focused on an even more critical change in the NSC’s structure. Another key post-9/11 reform was the creation of a White House homeland security advisor, a domestic equal to the national security advisor, a post created just days after 9/11 by President George W. Bush and filled at first with Tom Ridge, who would go on to be the first homeland security secretary. Presidents Bush and Obama for years had at their beck and call senior, sober homeland security advisors like Fran Townsend, Ken Wainstein, John Brennan and Lisa Monaco; Monaco helped oversee the nation’s response to Ebola and led the incoming Trump administration through a pandemic response exercise in the days before inauguration to highlight how critical such an incident could be.
Over the course of his administration, Trump effectively has done away with the role of homeland security advisor; when John Bolton took over as national security advisor, one of his first acts was to fire Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert and downgrade the role in rank. Ever since, the Trump NSC has sidelined the officials who filled the role. In February, as Covid-19 loomed domestically, Trump actually even shuffled the Coast Guard official then filling the post out to a new job, overseeing Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery.
Further afield from the homeland security roles, the empty holes in federal organization charts will continue to slow and hamper the government’s ability to respond at the speed and scale necessary to address a crisis of unprecedented complexity.
At the Treasury Department, Secretary Steve Mnuchin began confronting the crisis without a chief of staff or legislative director. As Bloomberg reported, “Of 20 Senate confirmed roles reporting to the secretary, seven aren’t filled, and four are occupied by acting officials. The domestic finance unit, which should be handling the brunt of the work related to the coronavirus outbreak, is particularly empty. It has no top boss and is missing three assistant secretaries, who are the next level down.”
At the Pentagon, the Navy faced last week’s Covid-19 crisis about the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt without a Senate-confirmed navy secretary; Richard Spencer departed last fall amid the controversy of Trump’s pardoning of a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes. Now that Spencer’s successor as acting Navy secretary has himself resigned amid the carrier fiasco, the under secretary of the Army—the only one of the three service under secretaries now filled and a post he only took up two weeks ago—will apparently be filling as acting Navy secretary. To say that it’s less-than-ideal for all of those roles—which serve as each military service’s chief management officer—to be vacant in the midst of an unprecedented, global crisis is an understatement. Across the building, roughly a third of the Pentagon’s top jobs are vacant or filled with acting officials—an administration-high. The under secretary for personnel and readiness, Matthew Donovan, has only been on the job for about two weeks—the job sat vacant since July 2018—and there’s currently no undersecretary for policy.
Last year, the top job at the Food and Drug Administration, the role overseeing the nation’s pharmaceuticals, sat vacant for nearly eight months; the latest occupant, Stephen Hahn, took over in December, nearly a month after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees a massive health care network and legally serves to supplement the civilian health care system in an emergency like the current epidemic, there’s no deputy secretary, general counsel or under secretary for health.
Meanwhile, there’s an acting director over at the Office of Personnel Management—the federal government’s equivalent of an HR department—even as the U.S. government’s two million civilian employees face the massive challenge of working from home and carrying on essential duties amid the Covid-19 crisis. Oh, and that acting director of OPM, Michael Rigas, who himself just took over in late March when the OPM director, who had been there for all of six months, quit just as the epidemic boiled over? He’s also serving as the acting deputy director at OMB. Confused? You’d hardly be alone. Wondering how someone can effectively lead one mission-critical organization while simultaneously working as the deputy of another? The answer is you can’t.
All of these vacancies are simple statements. They say nothing about the competence or longevity of the officials actually in any of the key roles, both of which deserve separate indictments: Trump is already on his fourth White House chief of staff, his fifth homeland security secretary and his fourth defense secretary—though the current occupant, Mark Esper, actually is technically the fifth person to occupy the role, since he was also “acting” secretary for 21 days before handing over the reins to Richard Spencer for eight days last summer while he was officially nominated for the permanent position.
Similarly, the experience of the officials who are in charge of many key departments and agencies is troublesome; Grenell, as acting DNI, has never worked in the intelligence community before, whereas his predecessors have been admirals, generals and the heads of various intelligence agencies themselves. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the few leaders who do exist badly lack experience in crisis response, as the department’s inspector general reported in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. As the New York Times wrote, “At the Department of Veterans Affairs, workers are scrambling to order medical supplies on Amazon after its leaders, lacking experience in disaster responses, failed to prepare for the onslaught of patients at its medical centers.” The new head of the Office of Presidential Personnel, which is in charge of choosing appointees across the government, was fired earlier in the administration over allegations of financial crimes, and one of its top deputies is still a college student.
All of these revolving doors, empty offices and “temps” is precisely by design. Trump has spoken regularly about his preference for “acting” officials, saying they give him “flexibility.”
Someday, reports will be written about how the U.S. government failed in its response to the Covid-19 epidemic—failures that will surely have cost additional thousands of lives, additional millions of lost jobs, and additional billions (perhaps even trillions) in economic damages by the time this virus is behind us. And yet while those reports will surely point out specific management failures and lost opportunities to arrest the spread of Covid-19, the most basic conclusion of those future reports could already be written: Donald Trump’s Apprentice-style staffing bake-offs and his oft-voiced predilection for acting officials kept the U.S. government distracted, off-kilter and understaffed.
Trump is obviously not responsible for the appearance of the novel coronavirus—but he is responsible for the government’s spiraling failure to respond appropriately in a timely manner. He has ignored the hiring practices, protocols, norms and expertise that would have given him and the federal government a better shot at defeating Covid-19. Three years into his administration and with a Republican-controlled Senate ready to move nominees through to confirmation, he didn’t build the national leadership we needed. That inescapable fact is Donald Trump’s fault.
The “next 9/11” is happening right now because Trump ignored the lessons of the last one.