A little more than a year ago, moments after he fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet, President Donald Trump looked ahead optimistically to reshaping his Cabinet.
Standing on the White House driveway, the president told reporters, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Instead, Trump has a Cabinet-by-default, many of whose members were simply the last man — or woman — standing after others pulled out of the running, declined the president’s job offers or couldn’t get through their nomination hearings.
In just the latest instance of a Trump official going down amid the harsh glare of an invigorated Washington press corps, acting defense secretary Pat Shanahan withdrew from consideration for the top Pentagon job on Tuesday as news outlets published lurid accounts of his divorce.
Shanahan was never even formally nominated by the White House, but at least he managed to serve in his post for several months.
Others made it slightly farther before being ground up by Trump’s Washington. Labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder saw his support evaporate in the Senate when POLITICO published allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wife, and threw in the towel before he even sat for a hearing. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician Trump picked to run the VA, withdrew after accusations of misconduct on the job.
If there’s a thread running through them all, it’s a president with a penchant for choosing many top appointees based on instinct — and without regard to prior government experience — plus a White House whose vetting operation is far from thorough and a thin Republican Senate majority with little room for error. The result is that the Trump administration’s senior ranks are comprised largely of individuals who were not, in many cases, the president’s first or even second choice to fill the post, but instead became the only logical choice after the competition evaporated.
They include the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who accepted his position after several others bowed out, including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; the president’s pick to be the ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Knight Craft, who was tapped after the former State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, quietly pulled herself out of the running; and Attorney General Bill Barr, who turned down the White House before finally accepting the job after other candidates he himself had recommended said no.
Add to these woes an administration with abnormally high turnover, as well as the usual churn in Washington, and Trump is presiding over a government run in many cases by acting officials from the Cabinet level on down.
The president on Tuesday brushed aside those concerns, telling reporters before boarding Air Force One en route to Orlando, where he was set to kick off his 2020 re-election campaign, that he was pleased with the composition of his Cabinet.
“We have a very good vetting process. You take a look at our Cabinet and our secretary it’s very good,” Trump said. “But we have a great vetting process.” And he reiterated his oft-stated preference for appointing acting Cabinet chiefs and avoiding the Senate confirmation process.
“As you know Pat was acting,” he said. “Acting gives you much greater flexibility, a lot easier to do things.”
Others, however, said the composition of Trump’s Cabinet was the logical result of the president’s haphazard management style.
“There are a lot of qualified people out there but not a lot who would want to work in this administration given the brevity of tenure that most of these folks face,” said Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “It’s always a gamble when you select people for very senior jobs who have zero experience in government.”
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, had not previously served in government before being tapped to run the Pentagon, a sprawling and notoriously difficult agency to manage.
“Government service tends to weed out those who are unqualified and those who cannot pass vetting,” Bash added. “When you reach for people who have no government service you are taking a huge risk.”
Trump, who likewise had no government experience before assuming the most powerful job in the world, gravitates toward nontraditional hires, compounding the risks.
One Cabinet official, former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, resigned in protest. Several — Tom Price, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke — were effectively forced out amid scandal. A few, Kirstjen Nielsen, Jeff Sessions, David Shulkin and Rex Tillerson, fell afoul of a president accustomed to getting his own way. Just two, Nikki Haley and Linda McMahon, left the administration on their own terms.
Shanahan wasn’t the president’s first choice for the Pentagon job. Trump said he would nominate him after the retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said they were not interested in the position, POLITICO reported in January.
Shanahan has served as acting secretary of defense since Mattis’ departure in early January. Though the president has said repeatedly that he prefers cabinet members who are serving in an acting capacity, Trump had faced mounting pressure from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to nominate a permanent defense chief.
Senate confirmation for the Pentagon post is considered particularly important because the secretary of Defense is a part of the chain of command and bears responsibility for deploying troops.
“Since the SecDef is supposed to assert civilian control over the military and all the generals who report to SecDef are confirmed by the Senate, he is at a disadvantage exercising authority over them when their positions have more political grounding than his,” said Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration.
The calls for a nominee did not abate on Tuesday, when Trump announced that Army Secretary Mark Esper would replace Shanahan as the acting secretary of Defense.
“I do think we’d be better off by far to have a secretary of defense who is actually confirmed by the Senate,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said it was “appalling” not to have the position filled in a permanent capacity and that “it shows the chaos in this administration.”
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of Defense, said it was in Esper’s interest to go through the formal Senate process.
“That really gives that position and that individual legitimacy going forward,“ he said. “When you are not confirmed you’re just kind of swinging out there in the wind.”