Five of the nation’s 10 largest federal law-enforcement agencies are currently operating with only interim heads amid an unprecedented long-term leadership vacuum that even some of the president’s congressional allies say is untenable.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons all lack permanent heads.
Several of the agencies—ATF, DEA and ICE—have been without Senate-approved leadership for the entirety of Donald Trump’s term in office. That is the case despite unified Republican control of the Senate and presidency during that period, which typically leads to easier confirmation scenarios.
Because of opposition by some gun-rights groups, presidents of both parties have struggled to get ATF nominees through the Senate—but Mr. Trump has never even tapped anyone for the job. The leader of the Bureau of Prisons need not be Senate-confirmed, but even so it has only an acting director.
CBP has been run by an interim leader since mid-April because its current commissioner was tapped to run the entire Department of Homeland Security—as an acting secretary.
In part, the situation reflects Mr. Trump’s management style. He has said he prefers keeping people in “acting” roles rather than going through the Senate nominating process.
“I sort of like ‘acting,’” Mr. Trump said earlier this year. “It gives me more flexibility.”
He is giving himself plenty of that. While vacancies are common toward the end of a presidential administration, the sheer number of them across the Trump administration as well as the turnover in crucial jobs, particularly at prestigious law-enforcement agencies, is without precedent, according to Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.
Of the roughly 700 key positions requiring Senate approval that his organization tracks, only about 400 of them have been filled with a Senate-confirmed official. Some are extremely high profile, like the secretaries of defense and DHS.
But the result is a lack of leadership stability at several agencies that enforce critical parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda. The Drug Enforcement Administration has a prominent role in curbing opioid abuse, a priority of the Trump administration. ATF is a central player in combating gang violence and illegal firearms trafficking, other law-enforcement priorities of the president.
And CBP and ICE both play major roles in enforcing immigration law, the centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s domestic agenda. The president often talks of what he says is a “crisis at the border.”
Steadiness in leadership at government agencies with police powers may be especially crucial. “A law-enforcement organization is dealing with some of the most serious powers of the state and that is the power that involves people’s liberty,” said Mr. Stier.
“One of the purposes of the constitutional system we have is the checks and balances. The Senate, one of their critical roles, is to be able to in essence vet the senior leadership of our government—choices that the president is making,” Mr. Stier said. “That absolutely is a challenge to the system of government that we have.”
Veterans of government service note that it is difficult to be an effective manager with “acting” in your title.
“To effectively lead an agency, you need as much authority and gravitas as you can muster. These are difficult jobs. Senate confirmation definitely helps,” said Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and prosecutor who was successfully nominated to lead both the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency under two Republican presidents.
The lack of any nominees has created a messy situation at the top of several agencies—requiring tricky legal maneuvering to even name an acting successor.
ATF is currently being led by Reggie Lombardo, who holds the title of “acting deputy director.” Ms. Lombardo, who took office earlier this month after the departure of her predecessor, cannot hold the title of acting director because of a quirk in federal law caused by the lengthy vacancy and the lack of a nominee.
The current acting head of the DEA, Uttam Dhillon, had to be transferred from his White House job into a Justice Department post first—to qualify for the appointment as acting administrator because of another requirement in the agency secession rules. Mr. Dhillon was involved in the search for a DEA head while he was at the White House.
And Mr. Trump purged the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security last month in a clash over the direction of the agency. He named CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan as the acting DHS secretary—bypassing a law that required the acting job to go to the undersecretary for Management, Claire Grady. Ms. Grady eventually resigned to resolve the issue—clearing the path for Mr. McAleenan to become acting DHS secretary.