Washington — Donald Trump should be on a major hiring binge right now. His government is uniquely underpopulated, with only 123 out of 558 key positions requiring Senate confirmation either nominated or confirmed. Some departments are almost entirely vacant below the cabinet-level positions.
On top of that, Mr. Trump has actually shed a number of staffers, with a series of resignations and firings sweeping up his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn (Russia); his communications director, Michael Dubke (failed to spin coverage-dross into gold); and, most infamously, his F.B.I. director, James Comey, who as he reminded everyone in testimony on Thursday, learned the reasons for his firing on TV.
Even as summer approaches and the window shrinks for getting new confirmations through the Senate before its long August recess, the administration has announced just a trickle of new hires. Part of this is incompetence — a number of high-profile candidates have stumbled in the vetting process — and the undeniable fact that Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to fill those positions. But people are also clearly put off by the fact that Mr. Trump, who ran on hostility to D.C.’s “swamp,” now seems like the worst boss in Washington.
As stories leak out about the president’s erratic and abusive behavior toward his staff, as his legal issues intensify, as the number of cautionary tales mounts (Comey, Sean Spicer, H. R. McMaster, Jeff Sessions), a new wariness has become apparent. Many candidates have refused to be considered for positions that would at any other time be highly coveted, including at least four candidates for Mr. Comey’s job before Christopher Wray was announced as the pick for F.B.I. director Wednesday; four law firms asked to represent the president in the investigation in Russia’s influence over last year’s elections; and the husband of Mr. Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, who recently pulled himself off the shortlist to head the Justice Department’s civil division, responsible for defending the government.
At this point, the question may be, who would take any of those jobs? Talking to people who’ve held them in the past, the answer seems to be: just about nobody.
Perhaps you might wish to be White House communications director, filling Mr. Dubke’s vacancy?
“Anybody who would go in now is nuts,” said Jennifer Palmieri, on the job she held under President Barack Obama and on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. The position, she said, is always difficult: extremely high profile, “the job with the highest risk and the least amount of control.” Under Mr. Trump, the position is where “truth — because the press demand that you live in reality — comes into conflict with Donald Trump’s version of the truth.”
In the Justice Department, potential appointees are watching Jeff Sessions’s striking trajectory as attorney general, entering the job as Mr. Trump’s ideological twin and nonetheless being harassed nearly into resigning after he recused himself from the department’s Russia investigation. Mr. Wray’s job as F.B.I. director — assuming he makes it past the confirmation process — is viewed as surprisingly secure. Another former Justice Department official pointed out, firing one F.B.I. director has been enough of a headache that Mr. Trump would likely avoid firing a second.Continue reading the main story
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But in other Justice positions, there’s the challenge of having to defend in court a president who seems bent on tweeting away his own defense. “I would’ve thought until just recently that one would be willing to take the job of solicitor general even in a Trump administration,” said Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general. (Mr. Trump has announced a candidate for his solicitor general, but it is not officially filled.) Having watched Mr. Sessions struggle, “I would think a solicitor general today might worry about being asked to say all kinds of things and take all kinds of positions which are essentially unprofessional.”
There’s the State Department, where you’d have the opportunity to perform diplomacy under a president categorically uninterested in the practice. As Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia under President Obama put it, “Why would you want to go be the assistant secretary over there when a) it doesn’t look like you’re going to have much power or responsibility, and b) you do so at a tremendous cost to your reputation moving forward?”
Then there’s the national security team, whose leader, Mr. McMaster, was forced to defend the White House after Mr. Trump leaked sensitive intelligence to the Russian ambassador and then, it was recently reported in Politico, left stunned as Mr. Trump took crucial language about NATO out of a speech he’d labored over. “People I know, they look at what’s happening with McMaster and they think, well, if you’re the national security adviser and you can’t even get in that sentence, just an obviously low-hanging-fruit achievement, why should anybody assume you’ll have any control over major foreign policy decisions?” Mr. McFaul said.
Earlier on in the administration, there was a level of plausible deniability: You could tell yourself Mr. Trump had just been mouthing off during the campaign, but that he was likely to run like a normal business-friendly Republican. And there were many who felt a strong duty to serve, perhaps even more so if they had doubts about President Trump. Five months in, though, those people — both already hired and in the group that might be invited to be — are clearly feeling far more anxious.
Because of this, the field of potential job candidates — already restricted to those Republicans who hadn’t explicitly declared their opposition to Mr. Trump during the campaign — has severely shrunk. In terms of who might want her old job, Ms. Palmieri said, the most likely candidate now would be someone from Breitbart or Infowars, “a propaganda artist that you would normally not see in America at the very important position of the White House communications director.”
The people still willing to take political positions are likely to be more careerist, and in many jobs more ideological. They’re also likely to be older, Mr. McFaul said. Younger people are more likely to wait out the administration altogether and not get branded with a scarlet “T.” That may be overly optimistic — entirely avoiding the effects of President Trump’s bad management is not really an option for any of us.
Britt Peterson is a contributing editor at Washingtonian magazine.
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