KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Now to uncertainty in Washington. President Trump had lunch today with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And that might not seem unusual in other circumstances, but there's been a lot of speculation lately about how long Tillerson will stay in his job. If he leaves the Trump administration, his won't be the only vacant seat at the table. Two Cabinet posts are now open. And at the sub-Cabinet level, there's an even more severe staffing shortage. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Compared with past administrations, President Trump was relatively quick to nominate Cabinet secretaries, and all were confirmed by the end of April. But then July 31 Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly suddenly left the post to become White House chief of staff. The president has yet to nominate a successor at Homeland Security. With Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's resignation last month, that leaves two open Cabinet positions.
MAX STIER: There hasn't been any precedent for having two Cabinet secretaries leave this early in a term.
KEITH: Max Stier is president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that closely tracks presidential appointments. There are 600 positions that require Senate confirmation that Stier says are key for the functioning of the government.
STIER: And of those President Trump has only about a quarter that are actually in place. And we're nine months into his administration.
KEITH: And that, says Stier...
STIER: Is way behind what any prior administration has been able to accomplish and is a big problem.
KEITH: The Senate has also been slow to confirm those who are nominated. But Trump said as recently as last Friday he has no intention of filling all the open positions. Press secretary Sarah Sanders says some jobs are in the process of being filled, but...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president came to Washington to drain the swamp and get rid of a lot of duplication and make government more efficient. And so if we can have one person do a job instead of six, then we certainly want to do that.
KEITH: But it's not quite that simple. Stier says those open jobs are being filled, just on an interim basis by career civil servants and foreign service officers.
STIER: But they're the proverbial substitute teacher. Everyone knows you're not around for the long term. Whatever decisions you make aren't going to necessarily stick. You're not likely to take the long-term view or handle the most difficult issues.
KEITH: Of the departments, Energy, Education and Interior have the lowest percentage of positions nominated. But the State Department isn't much further along. Of the positions requiring Senate confirmation tracked by the Partnership for Public Service, nominees for fewer than half have been sent to the Senate. There are gaping vacancies in significant areas, says Danielle Pletka at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
DANIELLE PLETKA: You really do actually need an assistant secretary for Near East affairs because you know we are fighting a war in the Middle East. You can't really think that you don't need an assistant secretary for South Asian affairs, where we are also fighting a war in Afghanistan. This is not a question of not filling superfluous positions, of which there are many in government. This is a question of filling important positions.
KEITH: There is no nominee for ambassador to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or South Korea, no assistant secretary for arms control or assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, this while North Korea is testing ballistic missiles. And within days, Trump could announce a decision to upend the Iran nuclear deal, Pletka says.
PLETKA: Who's going to take that message to our Middle East allies? We don't have those people.
KEITH: And what Pletka really doesn't understand is why a president who came to Washington promising to shake things up wouldn't want to install his own people to help him do just that. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.