WASHINGTON: Until the Trump Administration, one of the standard limits on bureaucratic power was the circumscribed reach of anyone serving in an acting capacity. Unless or until a person was confirmed by the Senate for a senior position in the Pentagon, the argument went, they didn’t possess the political or public authority to make new policy or approve major changes to their organizations.
That may have changed as part of the Trump Administration’s apparent push to scrap large numbers of civilian appointees and reduce the size of Washington bureaucracies. If you wanted a close-up view of just how uncertain this terrain has become, all you had to do was listen to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein address the issue at the annual Future of War conference run by the New America Foundation and Arizona State University.
He started off saying how much he valued “the much broader perspective” civilian leaders often bring to an issue, noting that he doesn’t pay much attention on a day-to-day basis to Wall Street, AMTRAK or airports.
So for, Trump has only one civilian in place at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. His deputy, Bob Work, is a holdover from the Obama administration. Trump did nominate Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan for Work’s job on Thursday, along with five other key Pentagon appointments announced. But none of them have been confirmed by the Senate.
Is the slow pace of nominations affecting the Air Force’s ability to do its job, I asked Goldfein today? “I would say not yet, but I am hopeful we can start seeing some confirmations come through. I’ll just give you an example within the Air Force. There is nothing acting about our acting secretary,” he said. Lisa Disbrow, who has demonstrated a refreshingly direct manner in her public outings as Acting Air Force Secretary, “is no acting. She’s the secretary,” Goldfein claimed. “In fact, she received pretty clear guidance from Secretary Mattis that she wasn’t to hold back on decisions.”
The end result for the Air Force: “I have seen no slacking in the pace at which decisions have been made,” the chief said. Could this be the beginning of a wholesale draining of Trump’s now famous swamp, or is it the unavoidable result of an administration unprepared to grab the reins of power. Or a bit of both.