Still-vacant appointments threaten implementation of Trump agenda

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During his first week in office, President Donald Trump upended U.S. trade policy, directed officials to begin making plans to build a wall on the southern border and ordered an investigation into vote fraud, all with the stroke of a pen.

But experts warn the flurry of activity from the Oval Office could slow to a grind when it comes to the implementation of many of those plans if Trump doesn't pick up the pace in selecting nominees for hundreds of appointed posts that fill out the executive branch.

"We're not talking about a small operation here — it's one of the biggest on the planet," said Terry Sullivan, the associate director of the White House Transition Project, of the size of the U.S. federal government. "When you don't have people at the helm that means things could run aground."

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Akie Abe (R) attend dinner with U.S. President Donald Trump his wife Melania (L) at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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US President Donald Trump salutes before boarding Air Force One from MacDill Air Force Base on February 6, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. President Donald Trump on Monday paid his first visit to US Central Command, meeting officers who will form the tip of the spear in implementing his new strategy to defeat the Islamic State group. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers opening remarks at the beginning of a policy forum with (L-R) daughter Ivanka Trump, Global Infrastructure Partners Chairman Adebayo Ogunlesi, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Blackstone Group Chairman and CEO Stephen Schwarzman and other business leaders in the State Dining Room at the White House February 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. Leaders from the automotive and manufacturing industries, the financial and retail services and other powerful global businesses were invited to the meeting with Trump, his advisors and family. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to announce his nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the empty associate justice seat of the U.S. Supreme Court at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order cutting regulations, accompanied by small business leaders at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington U.S., January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Vice President Mike Pence return to the White House after a visit to Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and British Prime Minister Theresa May arrive to speak after their meeting at the presidential complex in Ankara on January 28, 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May on January 28 promised steps to ramp up trade between Turkey and Britain ahead of Brexit but also urged Ankara to uphold human rights following a failed coup. On her first visit to Turkey as premier and fresh from meeting new US President Donald Trump at the White House, May held three hours of talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP / Adem ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: British Prime Minister Theresa May looks on as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in The Oval Office at The White House on January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. British Prime Minister Theresa May is on a two-day visit to the United States and will be the first world leader to meet with President Donald Trump. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Members of the Trump administration walk through the colonnade of the White House on January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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More than 1,100 executive branch positions are subject to Senate approval; about 700 of those were deemed crucial by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. Those include cabinet secretaries, deputy and assistant secretaries, heads of agencies and other management and leadership positions. Trump has so far announced nominees for 33 of the 700 positions; four of those nominees have been confirmed, according to a Washington Post tracker.

It's a pace that's only slightly slower than his predecessors, Sullivan said, but "that gap is probably going to continue to widen — and as it widens, that means the government is probably not standing up."

That's because as long as it's taking to confirm Trump's cabinet secretaries — at least one, Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, has had his hearing delayed three times — it's an even longer road to filling out the rest of the government. That, experts say, typically takes over a year. Lower appointees are subject to the same background check and Office of Government Ethics review as cabinet secretaries, and though their appointments typically win easy confirmation the whole process takes time.

And that clock hasn't yet started ticking, because the Trump administration hasn't announced nominees for most of these major appointments. But Sullivan indicated that as long as those key positions remain vacant or filled in the interim by Obama appointees, it will be tough for Trump's policy shifts to take full effect.

"When you don't have anybody identified or in place to carry out the administration's policy, the government continues to do what it was doing," he said.

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Confirmation hearings for Trump administration nominees
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Sessions to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is sworn in to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Retired General John Kelly testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on Kelly?s nomination to be Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Protesters dressed as Klansmen disrupt the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General-nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, listens to testimony during the second day of confirmation hearings on Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) nomination to be U.S. attorney general in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Witnesses are sworn for the second day of confirmation hearings on Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) nomination to be U.S. attorney general in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) speaks during the second day of confirmation hearings on Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) nomination to be U.S. attorney general in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Demonstrators protest against President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, outside the hearing room where Tillerson's confirmation hearing is being held today on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Rex Tillerson, former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. and U.S. secretary of state nominee for president-elect Donald Trump, arrives to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. Tillerson said Russia poses a danger to the U.S. and must be held accountable for its actions, a sharp departure from comments by Trump, who has called for a friendlier relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Elaine Chao appears before the Senate The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC for her confirmation hearing to be US Secretary of Transportation, January 11, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 11: Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.,listens during the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Transportation nominee Elaine Chao in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 11: A protester disrupts the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson in Dirksen Building, January 11, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 11: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduces his wife Secretary of Transportation nominee Elaine Chao during her Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: Defense Secretary nominee retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis (L) stands with Former Defense Secretary William Cohen during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Gen. Mattis will need a waiver from Congress to bypass a law prohibiting recently retired military officers from serving as Defense secretary. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Rex Tillerson (C), the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, shakes hands with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) as he arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: Defense Secretary nominee retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis arrives at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Gen. Mattis will need a waiver from Congress to bypass a law prohibiting recently retired military officers from serving as Defense secretary. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - Former Exxon Mobile Executive Rex Tillerson appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Wednesday January 11, 2017. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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The challenge posed by the hundreds of vacancies or Obama Administration holdovers may be even greater for the Trump administration, because many of the president's cabinet secretaries are business leaders with little government experience.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said business experience doesn't always translate to government, and cabinet secretaries have to be ready to navigate the huge, winding bureaucracy on Day One.

"Large organizations are different in the private sector than they are in the government," he said. "You don't have a lot of time for on-the-job learning."

That's exacerbated by the loss of institutional knowledge that comes with the exodus of staff from the former administration — a process that's expected when the White House shifts parties, but one that the Trump Administration has seemed eager to expedite.

On Thursday, the Trump administration ousted four top State Department officials, and news broke that the head of the Border Patrol left a post he had only held since October. That comes the day after Trump announced a raft of new immigration moves, including plans to build a wall on the southern border, that will require full cooperation of the Border Patrol for implementation.

The State Department exodus included the department's Undersecretary for Management, who had been in the post since 2007, and comes on the heels of the departures of other long-serving diplomats who quit when Trump took over.

State and other federal agencies won't grind to a halt without key staff; others will take over their positions in the interim. But Stier warned that scenario wasn't sustainable — and that the consequences could be bigger than Trump's agenda.

"He's not going to be able to deal with the crises that will come up as effectively as possible," he said.

"As much as he may have his own agenda, the world will throw curveballs. It's hard to do if you don't have your team in place."

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