President Trump is increasingly relying on officials in high-level government positions to serve in an acting capacity, a strategy he appears comfortable taking as he escalates plans to implement his immigration policies and broader agenda.
The president argues that having Cabinet members and others serve his administration in an acting capacity is better than having people confirmed by the Senate.
“I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility,” Trump said in a February interview with CBS's “Face the Nation.”
The use of acting officials gives Trump even more power over those who serve him since they haven't been through a Senate confirmation process.
Some who hope to win permanent positions might even be more likely to back the president on controversial moves.
It also could allow Trump to more quickly dispose of someone he grows irritated with or tired of.
“The president likes to say it gives him flexibility, and it does to some extent,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who tracks staffing for administrations.
“As the president, you can appoint actings. Let’s say he gets tired of the acting [Department of Homeland Security] secretary. Let’s say in three weeks he’s not working in the direction he wants to see him. He can appoint somebody else acting.”
Acting officials lack the job security of a full-time nominee and could therefore be hesitant to carry out long-term planning they won't be there to see through, Tenpas said.
Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said there are a number of negative factors in relying on acting officials.
“What’s wrong with substitute teachers? What’s wrong with backup quarterbacks?” he continued. “The answer is expertise, staying power, efficiency, knowing the job and accountability.”
While Senate Republicans have chafed at some of Trump's recent suggestions for nominees, there has been less criticism from senators over his reliance on acting officials. To the extent there have been complaints from Republicans, they have been more focused on what they see as dilatory tactics by Democrats to slow nominations.
“We’ll take the nominations as they come,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this week following Kirstjen Nielsen's resignation as Homeland Security secretary. “I’ve got enough personnel work to do here in the Senate without giving [Trump] advice about who to send us.”
People serving in an acting capacity dot Trump's administration.
At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), there is an acting secretary, deputy secretary, under secretary for management and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner, among others.
The Department of Defense has an acting secretary, while Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday after he spent more than two months as the acting department head.
The United Nations ambassador is also serving in an acting capacity as Trump's nominee, Kelly Knight Craft, awaits Senate confirmation.
Other federal agencies run by acting directors include the Office of Management and Budget, the Food and Drug Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Aviation Administration.
And it's not just people in roles that require Senate confirmation who are serving in acting roles.
Trump named Mick Mulvaney acting White House chief of staff in late December and has yet to lift the “acting” qualifier or name a full-time replacement. In the meantime, Mulvaney has reportedly encouraged Trump to follow his instincts on issues such as health care and the fight for border wall funding.
Trump is also experiencing a high level of turnover in his government. Approximately two-thirds of senior White House positions have changed over, according to Brookings Institution data, and roughly a dozen Cabinet-level officials have come and gone.
While the use of acting officials gives Trump more leverage over government agencies and allows him to make changes on the fly, experts say it can come at the expense of preparedness, accountability and long-term decisionmaking.
“I think you’re better off as the president, if you’re trying to move the government in your direction, it’s better to have your leaders in permanent positions,” said Tenpas.
In the earlier stages of his presidency, Trump would nominate full-time replacements for fired officials quickly.
But in recent months, he has been more inclined to name acting replacements and leave them in charge for weeks or months on end, seeking to shape certain government operations to his liking by installing loyalists.
Matthew Whitaker spent nearly three months as acting attorney general following the ouster of Jeff Sessions. The choice drew pushback from Democrats who argued Whitaker was chosen purely for his alignment with Trump's views.
The president tapped Patrick Shanahan as acting Defense secretary in late December, days after James Mattis announced his resignation amid a high-profile clash over pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Shanahan has been on the job since Jan. 1, and the president has yet to name a full-time nominee.
Trump's recent moves at DHS come as he ratchets up his rhetoric on illegal immigration. In the last week, Trump has threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, the administration has said it is looking at ways to make it more difficult for migrants crossing into the U.S. to receive asylum and the president on Friday said his administration is considering releasing migrants into so-called sanctuary cities.
Kevin McAleenan, who took over Wednesday as acting Homeland Security secretary, will be tasked along with acting CBP and ICE leaders with executing Trump's agenda as he seeks to implement stricter policies to curb illegal immigration at the border, despite some congressional opposition.
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