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.
Five hundred years before Jesus, Taoists taught passive resistance, a crucial element of world-changing modern spiritual activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The ancient masters revealed how to be steadfast and supple, like water—flowing rather than fixed, rigid, or static—which is of great benefit, for water is stronger than even stone: water’s constant flow will eventually wear anything down and carry everything away. Like the underlying continuum of reality, the great Tao is groundless and boundless; it is flowing, dynamic, yet unmoved amidst infinite change. “Yield and overcome, and you cannot be broken,” they taught.
- On a daily schedule: “I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”
- On flexibility: “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”
- On the press: “One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It’s in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.
- On exaggeration: “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.”
- On fighting back: “[W]hen people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is you’ll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don’t recommend this approach to everyone. But my experience is that if you’re fighting for something you believe in — even if it means alienating some people along the way — things usually work out for the best in the end.”
- On results: “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
- On competing: “I’m the first to admit that I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”
The GOP senators insisted that the tens of billions in cuts to federal health spending proposed in the bill would not result in coverage losses because, they said, the states would have more flexibility.
.. The GOP senators insisted that the tens of billions in cuts to federal health spending proposed in the bill would not result in coverage losses because, they said, the states would have more flexibility.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS):
“If we do nothing, it has a tremendous impact on the 2018 elections”
.. as a general rule the states do things better than the federal government does [things]. And that is essentially what the bill is
.. I think the efficiencies that come with transferring the funding to the states can very well make up the difference between what the federal thing would be.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX):
“It lets states innovate and adopt creative solutions”
the heart of the legislation takes the policymaking role of Washington and sends it to the states. It lets states innovate and adopt creative solutions to local problems, which vary state by state.
But it’s not just devolving power from the federal government to the state. It also involves a 16 percent cut in federal spending [upfront] and a 34 percent cut over the next 10 years.
.. Ted Cruz
CBO’s analysis throughout this process has been ridiculously slow, unreliable, and based on policy assumptions that are demonstrably false.
You really believe that cutting federal spending by 34 percent will not result in any other people losing their insurance?
What federal spending is cut?
Well, the Medicaid expansion would be sunset, for one, is my understanding.
The decrease in future rates of growth is not a cut. And it is only in the bizarre world of Washington that billions more money is characterized in the press as a cut rather than an increase, which is in fact what it is.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA)
.. I have sent four amendments to Lindsey [Graham] and Bill [Cassidy] that I think will strengthen the bill. The one I feel most strongly about is that I want the Medicaid work requirement — I don’t want it to be optional; I want it to be a requirement. Just like we did with welfare reform.
.. number two, I want to get us to give guardrails to the states to say, “You cannot use these moneys to set up a state-run single-payer system.” I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a mistake.
[Guardian reporter] Lauren Gambino
Do you think that kind of goes against the idea of states’ rights and being able to use this money [as the states want to]?
No, no. We have plenty of federal rules that apply to every state, but we still agree with states’ rights.
I think it spends scarce resources in a more rational manner. It will control costs. I like the idea that it encourages states to innovate.
How does it do that? Any of those things?
Well, you need to read the bill.
Well, you’re voting for it, right? So what is the explanation for how it does those things?
I am. Because it gives states added flexibility. Read the bill and you’ll understand.
The bill would cut federal funding to states by 34 percent over the next —
But it wouldn’t cut Alabama, though.
Well, do you think the other states should deal with —
Well, you see some of our states, four of our states, are getting a disproportionate amount of money from health care now. You know which ones.
.. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
What is the policy explanation for the Graham-Cassidy health care bill?
Policy explanation? I’m not into policy, so I don’t really know. I’m into facts.
[In a follow-up interview hours later on Tuesday] You were joking earlier, but what is the health policy in the Graham-Cassidy proposal that you like?
More state innovation. More input from the states.
.. Johnny Isakson
The governors — I’m from a state that didn’t expand Medicaid, and the way we were going in health care looked like those states would actually be hurt worse than other states.
By going to block grants, back to the states, the control of money stays with the states, and you have less [un]predictability and external deviation in terms of funding.
.. Jeff Stein
So just a follow-up on that. It’s one thing to say the bill gives the states power — that’s one thing.
But it doesn’t just do that. It also cuts the money they have — some estimates say around 16 percent of federal funding.
I’m not going to confirm that statement one way or another. I don’t know what the numbers are going to end up looking like.
Right, but if it does cut federal spending overall, would you support it?
You know, those are dangerous questions. I’m waiting until I see the totality of the legislation to say whether I support the whole thing or not, anyway.
I’m not a no, but I’m not a yes either — and I’m waiting for my governor to respond to me with their input as well. It’s really key what they’re doing.
.. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY):
“The governors who decided to expand [Medicaid] knew that they were going to lose federal funding”
I want to ask, in a big-picture way: What is the policy explanation for how this bill makes people’s lives better?
It gets the money out of Washington, lets people at home make the decision, and gets state legislatures involved, and governors involved. It moves money out of Washington. It’s away from socialism.
CBPP says it will also reduce federal health spending on Medicaid and the exchanges by about  percent.
I’d love to reduce federal spending on health insurance.
Right, but so it’s not just about moving power to the states — it’s also about cutting funding.
It’s about moving power to the states, where money can be spent much more effectively.
How does it do that?
Well, you have to read the formula and read the bill, and it will tell you how it moves money to the states and how much they get and how much they don’t get. …
There’s a concern from Republican governors who have come out and said, “This is too dramatic a cut in spending; we won’t have enough money to insure everyone.”
You have to interview them on that.
Do you think they’re wrong?
Well, it depends on if they’re states that expanded Medicaid or not. …
In the Medicaid expansion states, they still have a lot of people who rely on Medicaid expansion for health insurance.
I opposed Medicaid expansion. I think the Supreme Court got it wrong [when it ruled in 2012 that Congress did have the constitutional authority to implement most of Obamacare].
The governors who decided to expand [Medicaid] knew that they were going to lose federal funding over time, and they’re objecting to that — but they knew it. You could say, “Some of them didn’t understand it, and so-and-so wasn’t there, and he wasn’t governor yet,” but they understood that this would be part of the process. So if they used the money poorly —
And my concern with Medicaid is that the people who Medicaid was designed for originally have been cut out of the process, because they’re still on the waiting list to get on Medicaid. I don’t know how much you understand about Medicaid, but this whole expansion of Medicaid went for healthy, working-age individuals — it did not go for the people who [Medicaid] was designed for, which was low-income women, children, and the disabled.
.. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA):
“This is the last attempt to do what we promised in the election”
.. Chuck Grassley
Let me give you a political answer, and then I’ll give you a substance answer.
The political answer is that Republicans have promised for seven years that we were going to correct all the things that were wrong with Obamacare, and we failed the first eight months. This is the last attempt to do what we promised in the election.
The substance answer is that Obamacare starts with the principle that all knowledge about health care, and all decisions on health care, ought to rest in Washington, DC. The complete opposite of that is Graham-Cassidy, that Washington doesn’t know best and we’ll let each of the 50 states [decide what’s best].