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Help Wanted: The Trump Administration (Still) Has Some Openings To Fill

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in March in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in March in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

President Trump starts the second hundred days of his administration Sunday with a perhaps unwelcome benchmark: fewer appointees in place than any of his recent predecessors.

Only a fraction of the hundreds of key jobs the Trump administration needs to fill have been nominated and confirmed by the Senate.

The nonpartisan Partnership For Public Service lists 556 "key" positions, including Cabinet secretaries, undersecretaries and ambassadors, and of those positions, just 25 have been confirmed by the Senate.

Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project, calls it a "really, really slow performance," with many contributing factors.

One of the biggest problems was the Trump transition's very slow start. You might remember that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was put in charge of the transition when Trump won the GOP nomination. But just three days after the election, he was ousted from the job.

Clay Johnson III, who helped President George W. Bush staff up his administration, says that put the Trump team in an immediate hole. "Everything they had done was just thrown out," Johnson said. "So they started from scratch the first day of the transition, and that's a very steep hill to climb."

The Trump administration blames Democrats in Congress for blocking and holding up the president's nominations. On NBC's Meet the Press last week, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus pointed the finger at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, saying Senate Democrats "have done something that even many Democrats and even Democrat-leaning pundits have said is inexcusable, which is to hold up one nominee after the next."

But that argument doesn't hold up. Not only do Republicans control the Senate calendar, but, going back to the Partnership for Public Service's numbers, the administration hasn't even submitted nominations for more than 400 of those 556 key positions.

The White House, perhaps with an eye on the 100-day benchmark, submitted a flurry of nominations late last week, including several deputy secretaries and undersecretaries. And the Senate on Thursday confirmed Alexander Acosta as secretary of the Labor Department. Acosta's confirmation leaves only one vacant seat in the president's Cabinet — the nomination of Robert Lighthizer as U.S. trade representative who was voted out of committee this week.

Trump political adviser Stephen Bannon has talked of doing away with the so-called "administrative state." But Terry Sullivan at the White House Transition Project says there no evidence that Trump is filing jobs at agencies he cares about, such as the Departments of Defense or Homeland Security, while purposefully neglecting agencies he doesn't, like the EPA. "You don't see that," he says. "You see just this vast, common low performance across all agencies, regardless of their agenda."

Sullivan believes another reason for the slow pace of hiring by Trump is that many of his nominees have been wealthy, with complex financial backgrounds that make vetting more difficult. In fact, vetting problems led at least two of the new administration's would-be nominees to back out.

Squabbling among the well known factions within the White House is another likely cause of delays, as is the reported insistence of the president that only loyalists who supported his campaign be named to top positions in his administration.

Former U.S. Ambassador Chase Untermeyer, who served as personnel director in the George H.W.Bush administration, says it's difficult for any new White House to fill its ranks. He advises the Trump administration to take its time.

"My suggestion is not to feel pressured. Yes, there will be people watching the number of nominations sent to the Hill and the number of empty desks in the various departments and agencies." But, Untermeyer says, "it definitely pays off to do the job carefully rather than fast."

Still, the longer it takes for the president to put his team in place, the longer it will take that team to put in place his policies.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.