Half of 10 Biggest Federal Law Agencies Lack Permanent Chiefs

Number of acting heads produces a lack of leadership stability at agencies that enforce critical parts of Trump agenda

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.

Running a government with so many vacancies and “acting” leaders at high levels also bypasses the Senate’s constitutionally mandated “advice and consent” role in approving senior leadership at many agencies—and, similarly to Mr. Trump’s recent defiance of House subpoenas, shows little regard for Congress as a coequal branch of government.

“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.

“It is enormously important that the people that work for you in that agency view you, not as an ‘acting,’ but as somebody who is going to be around for a while,” said Mr. Bonner, who was confirmed to four separate positions by the U.S. Senate. “If you’re not a confirmed head of an agency … you’re not going to be able to command as much respect and attention from your own people and from other agencies whose cooperation is important.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ally of Mr. Trump and the chairman of the committee that considers nominees for the DEA and AFT, said he doesn’t approve of the long-term vacancies created by the Trump administration.

“It bothers me. Why aren’t they doing it? They should,” Mr. Graham said about nominating permanent heads for those agencies. The South Carolina Republican is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department and all its law-enforcement agencies—which include the FBI, DEA, AFT, U.S. Marshals Service and Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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 secretarybypassing 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.

Time for G.O.P. to Threaten to Fire Trump

Republican leaders need to mount an intervention.

Up to now I have not favored removing President Trump from office. I felt strongly that it would be best for the country that he leave the way he came in, through the ballot box. But last week was a watershed moment for me, and I think for many Americans, including some Republicans.

It was the moment when you had to ask whether we really can survive two more years of Trump as president, whether this man and his demented behavior — which will get only worse as the Mueller investigation concludes — are going to destabilize our country, our markets, our key institutions and, by extension, the world. And therefore his removal from office now has to be on the table.

I believe that the only responsible choice for the Republican Party today is an intervention with the president that makes clear that if there is not a radical change in how he conducts himself — and I think that is unlikely — the party’s leadership will have no choice but to press for his resignation or join calls for his impeachment.

It has to start with Republicans, given both the numbers needed in the Senate and political reality. Removing this president has to be an act of national unity as much as possibleotherwise it will tear the country apart even more. I know that such an action is very difficult for today’s G.O.P., but the time is long past for it to rise to confront this crisis of American leadership.

Trump’s behavior has become so erratic, his lying so persistent, his willingness to fulfill the basic functions of the presidency — like

  • reading briefing books,
  • consulting government experts before making major changes and
  • appointing a competent staff — so absent,

his readiness to accommodate Russia and spurn allies so disturbing and his obsession with himself and his ego over all other considerations so consistent, two more years of him in office could pose a real threat to our nation. Vice President Mike Pence could not possibly be worse.

The damage an out-of-control Trump can do goes well beyond our borders. America is the keystone of global stability. Our world is the way it is today — a place that, despite all its problems, still enjoys more peace and prosperity than at any time in history — because America is the way it is (or at least was). And that is a nation that at its best has always stood up for the universal values of freedom and human rights, has always paid extra to stabilize the global system from which we were the biggest beneficiary and has always nurtured and protected alliances with like-minded nations.

Donald Trump has proved time and again that he knows nothing of the history or importance of this America. That was made starkly clear in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation letter.

Trump is in the grip of a mad notion that the entire web of global institutions and alliances built after World War II — which, with all their imperfections, have provided the connective tissues that have created this unprecedented era of peace and prosperity — threatens American sovereignty and prosperity and that we are better off without them.

So Trump gloats at the troubles facing the European Union, urges Britain to exit and leaks that he’d consider quitting NATO. These are institutions that all need to be improved, but not scrapped. If America becomes a predator on all the treaties, multilateral institutions and alliances holding the world together; if America goes from being the world’s anchor of stability to an engine of instability; if America goes from a democracy built on the twin pillars of truth and trust to a country where it is acceptable for the president to attack truth and trust on a daily basis, watch out: Your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.

The last time America disengaged from the world remotely in this manner was in the 1930s, and you remember what followed: World War II.

You have no idea how quickly institutions like NATO and the E.U. and the World Trade Organization and just basic global norms — like thou shalt not kill and dismember a journalist in your own consulate — can unravel when America goes AWOL or haywire under a shameless isolated president.

But this is not just about the world, it’s about the minimum decorum and stability we expect from our president. If the C.E.O. of any public company in America behaved like Trump has over the past two years —

  • constantly lying,
  • tossing out aides like they were Kleenex,
  • tweeting endlessly like a teenager,
  • ignoring the advice of experts —

he or she would have been fired by the board of directors long ago. Should we expect less for our president?

That’s what the financial markets are now asking. For the first two years of the Trump presidency the markets treated his dishonesty and craziness as background noise to all the soaring corporate profits and stocks. But that is no longer the case. Trump has markets worried.

.. The instability Trump is generating — including his attacks on the chairman of the Federal Reserve — is causing investors to wonder where the economic and geopolitical management will come from as the economy slows down.

  • What if we’re plunged into an economic crisis and we have a president whose first instinct is always to blame others and
  • who’s already purged from his side the most sober adults willing to tell him that his vaunted “gut instincts” have no grounding in economics or in law or in common sense. Mattis was the last one.

We are now left with the B team — all the people who were ready to take the jobs that Trump’s first team either resigned from — because they could not countenance his lying, chaos and ignorance — or were fired from for the same reasons.

I seriously doubt that any of these B-players would have been hired by any other administration. Not only do they not inspire confidence in a crisis, but they are all walking around knowing that Trump would stab every one of them in the back with his Twitter knife, at any moment, if it served him. This makes them even less effective.

Indeed, Trump’s biggest disruption has been to undermine the norms and values we associate with a U.S. president and U.S. leadership. And now that Trump has freed himself of all restraints from within his White House staff, his cabinet and his party — so that “Trump can be Trump,” we are told — he is freer than ever to remake America in his image.

And what is that image? According to The Washington Post’s latest tally, Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day, through Dec. 20, the 700th day of his term in office. And all that was supposedly before “we let Trump be Trump.”

If America starts to behave as a selfish, shameless, lying grifter like Trump, you simply cannot imagine how unstable — how disruptive —world markets and geopolitics may become.

We cannot afford to find out.

What Can We Expect of Vladimir Putin When He Is Scared?

After nineteen years of Putinism, during which power has been concentrated in the federal executive branch, none of these elections can have measurable policy consequences, but they serve as a barometer of the popular mood. In four regions, members of the ruling United Russia party failed to get fifty per cent of the vote and will face runoff elections. This is not exactly a trouncing—in the end, Kremlin-approved candidates are virtually guaranteed all of the ostensibly contested seats—but it is a significant sign of dissatisfaction.

.. During his first two terms as President, he enjoyed extreme economic luck: thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Russia was more prosperous than ever in its history. This kept the population satisfied and distracted, and when a crisis did arise, as it did the last time the government attempted pension reform, in 2005, the Kremlin was able to pour money on the fire. Now this is no longer an option: the Russian governmenthas used up its currency reserves, which is part of the impetus for the current attempt at pension reform.

.. Putin’s other tool of distraction has been war. Less than a year after taking office for the third time, in 2012, he launched a war with Ukraine, occupying Crimea. This fostered a sense of triumph and national unity that kept his popularity safely in the stratosphere for four years.

.. Russians are more worried than they used to be about almost everything, from rising inequality to environmental pollution and decaying morals. There is no war to take their minds off their concerns

.. When Putin is scared, which he undoubtedly is now, he reacts by attacking. This is a personality trait that he has owned in his autobiographical storytelling, and one that he exhibited in 2012, when, faced with mass protests, he launched a crackdown that created a population of political prisoners in Russia. There is nothing to stop him from doubling down now:

.. The suppression of dissent in Russia will probably intensify in the wake of last weekend’s protests, but that will not satisfy him fully. It may secure his power, but it will not repair his numbers. Only war can do that. All he needs is a worthy enemy, and a fitting propaganda campaign, to take people’s minds off their worries and make them feel a part of something great. Expect Russia’s neighbors, once again, to pay for the Kremlin’s instability.