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Why the Trump administration's vacancies could be a foreign policy problem


President Trump has inherited a world of foreign policy problems ranging from ongoing military conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to a growing nuclear threat from North Korea.

Trump does not have a full State Department team in place to help navigate such a complicated global chessboard, however.

Trump's administration is still operating on a bare bones staff as he passes his 200th day in office Monday.

Only 124 of Trump's nominations for key administrative positions have been confirmed. That's less than half of the 310 that were confirmed under former President Barack Obama at this point in his presidency.

Trump has also not nominated anyone for 354 out of 577 key positions identified by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan government watchdog.

State's vacancies could be particularly problematic, former officials say.

"The longer it takes you to put a team in place, that retards the development of foreign policy initiatives," said Philip J. "P.J." Crowley, a former assistant secretary of State.

Trump has made some State nominations, mostly political appointments for embassies in places like Great Britain, France, Spain and the Bahamas.

Such a practice is not unusual. Most incoming presidents give their donors, campaign workers and friends embassy jobs in cushy posts.

Crowley said it is crucial for Trump to get key State Department jobs filled quickly as the U.S. is heavily involved in major conflicts around the globe, however.

"The critical absences right now are undersecretaries of State, under secretaries of Defense, assistant secretaries in your national cabinet agencies," he said. "They’re the people that drive the formulation of American foreign policy."

Why is it taking so long to get these jobs filled? Trump and Senate Republicans say it is obstruction by Senate Democrats.

Democrats say it's Trump's fault for not sending enough nominations to the Hill. They also argue that the nominations he has sent have often been people with complex business ties that complicate the paperwork and slow down the vetting and confirmation process.

"It wasn't so long ago that President Obama nominated someone for the Supreme Court and it was [current Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-KY] who said there's not going to be a hearing and there's not going to be a confirmation during 2016," Crowley said.

Experts say one thing making it harder for Trump to staff his administration than previous presidents is that he ran a smaller, more nimble campaign which gives him a much shorter list of donors and campaign surrogates to recruit.

"Trump’s campaign was not a traditional one as most of these spots go to old friends, donors, or party people," said Michael Cohen, acting director of the political management at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University. "Trump only has a few old friends, never developed donors, and was never a GOP person."

"The absence of a large network of supporters meant that they didn't have a ready pool of individuals to be able to populate the government," Crowley said.

Trump also got off to a slower start and the confirmation process has decelerated in recent decades, meaning he will now have to fight the legislative calendar to get his nominees appointed.

The White House last week nominated ambassadors to Spain and South Sudan as the Senate left for its August recess, which will delay any confirmation hearings until September and an ultimate vote to confirm nominees until later this fall.

The Senate unanimously confirmed 78 nominees last Thursday via voice vote.

The nominations included Susan M. Gordon as principal deputy director of National Intelligence; David Malpass as undersecretary of Treasury; Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr (a reappointment) for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); plus nominees for top jobs in the Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Health and Human Services (HHS) departments.

The Senate also confirmed Christopher Wray to become the FBI's director last week.

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