By Jim Elliott
Donald Trump’s presidential transition efforts, heavy on creating vacancies, light on filling them, reminds me of a friend of mine who likes to remodel houses.
Well, remodel is the wrong word. He likes to tear houses apart. Room by room by room. Within the first month the kitchen would be gutted except for the appliances. All the wall studs were exposed and the floor was torn up.
Everything was ready to be replaced, and much of the material was bought and waiting. And waiting and waiting, because the next project was the living room. And then the bedroom and yes, even the bathroom until he was living in a house where you could walk from room to room through the walls.
Then, he changed jobs and had to move and needed to sell the house. But to sell the house it would have helped if it had things like interior walls and flooring, so he had to hire someone to do the work while he moved into a different house far away and—you guessed it—began to remodel it.
Last week Trump, through his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, canned 46 U.S. attorneys, leaving almost one half of the U.S. attorneys’ offices without leadership. There are 94 U.S. attorney districts in the United States; they investigate and prosecute federal crimes such as child pornography and money laundering, and other civil and criminal cases.
They are presidential appointees and serve at the president’s pleasure, so Trump is well within his rights, But they were fired was, to say the least, unconventional. They were all Obama appointees (of course), and on one day last week all of them received a phone call telling them to resign at 5 p.m. that day, which they all did except for one in New York state who had previously been told by Trump, then president-elect, that he wanted him to stay on. That one had to be fired.
Generally a current U.S. attorney is not asked to leave until his replacement is ready to be sworn in. That can sometimes take a while. In Montana, the Bush appointee held the position for almost a year until Obama appointee Mike Cotter could be confirmed by the Senate.
So, the usual practice is to ask for resignations after there is someone appointed to fill the job, but not this time. My aim is not just to point out the unorthodox, not to mention rude, way in which they were fired, but more importantly, that there were no replacements, leaving the office open.
Bare walls, as it were. This is a strange and dangerous pattern in the Trump administration, that of leaving important positions without leadership. For example, there are over 500 positions that need Senate confirmation, but as of March 11, just 18 Cabinet positions had been filled.
Trump’s assumption seems to be that the small, closely knit team that got him elected will be able to handle anything that comes up. They won’t, because they cannot possibly have the expertise and deep knowledge of critical issues. They need to put their experts into position as soon as possible so that decisions based on knowledge and experience can be made.
Max Stier, CEO of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, said in a recent interview with Vox correspondent Tara Golshan, “That’s what is at risk here: You will have some kind of crisis that requires coordinated response, and the difference between doing something and doing it well is the difference between the public being taken care of and not.”
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.