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These federal jobs are crucial to U.S. policy on Iran — and remain unfilled by Trump’s team

By January 11, 2020Print

As published by the Washington Post Kattie Mattler

Speaking from the White House this week amid stoked tensions with Iran, President Trump was flanked by nearly a dozen men involved in our nation’s defense — a move meant to convey U.S. military might.

“Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” Trump said.

But three years into President Trump’s first term in the White House, and a week after a targeted airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, hundreds of positions in the administration remain empty or filled with temporary personnel — including at least 88 jobs within the Defense Department, State Department and Department of Homeland Security, according to a database from The Washington Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

No administration in recent memory has had this many vacancies this far into a term, and there is likewise no precedent in modern times for widespread defense openings in “a crisis moment like this,” said Sam Brannen, who leads the Risk and Foresight Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Graphic: Tracking how many key positions Trump has filled so far

Not all of those open jobs are directly relevant to Iran-related national security issues, but a handful of the vacant positions would be considered crucial to any traditional administration’s ability to make strategic decisions in the region, according to three experts who spoke with The Washington Post.

There is no permanent director or deputy director of national intelligence, or secretary of the Navy, or deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, or assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, or assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, all positions with responsibilities that relate to national security and political, diplomatic or security risk assessment in the region where the Soleimani strike took place. The top three jobs in the Department of Homeland Security — the secretary, deputy secretary and undersecretary for management — are filled with acting personnel who have not faced the scrutiny of the confirmation process.

“There is a reason why these jobs exist,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “They really matter. ”

Filling these vacancies has been an ongoing challenge for Trump throughout his time in office. The Senate confirmation process for political appointees has been lethargic, a swath of #NeverTrump defense officials removed themselves from the eligibility pool long ago, and it’s difficult to convince anyone to take on a new administration job in the final year of a presidential term.

More than half of Trump’s key national security advisers started their jobs in the past year

Even in peacetime, it would be unwise to have this many key jobs vacant or filled with temporary people, said Brannen, who is also a senior fellow in the CSIS International Security Program. The discussion is more robust and sophisticated when more minds are generating a buffet of ideas, he said, but just having bodies in the positions isn’t always enough either. The power of acting personnel is undermined by the very idea that they are only temporary, and consistent turnover within the Trump administration has made it difficult for those working on defense and national security to find a cohesive rhythm.

“In a crisis environment, all of these things compound,” Brannen said.