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Trump Playing Catch-up to Fill Top Government Posts

Vice President Mike Pence swears in Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, Feb. 7, 2017. With them is DeVos' husband, Dick DeVos.

With Senate confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump filled another important post in his new government. Only 685 to go.

In his third week in office, Trump's young government remains a work in progress, with hundreds of empty desks in agency offices across Washington. While the president has criticized Democrats for the delays, he also shares at least part of the blame for moving more slowly than his predecessor to submit vetting information and paperwork for his nominations.

A tally of appointments and unfilled posts illustrates the daunting challenge facing any new president. Through Wednesday, Trump's team has nominated 35 people to fill 693 high-level positions that require Senate confirmation, according to data maintained by the Partnership for Public Service. At this stage in 2009, then-President Barack Obama's administration had nominated 38 officials in all.

Sessions was the eighth member of Trump's administration to be confirmed; at this point eight years ago Obama had 23 officials confirmed, including department heads and deputies.

In total, there are 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation and about 4,100 appointed positions, according to the partnership. Many of the positions are still vacant, leaving the federal government in the hands of acting leaders and career employees who often stay in their jobs regardless of political affiliation.

“It's not as if the government stops because these appointees are not in place. There are acting people in these jobs,” said Max Stier, the partnership's president and CEO. ``But they're acting. They don't have the imprimatur of the president. They're not thinking about the long-term.''

Awkward situations

The delays have forced Trump's administration to be reliant upon a number of holdovers who played prominent roles in the Obama administration, leading to suspicions of the federal bureaucracy. In the most prominent example, Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, a career prosecutor and Democratic appointee, after she publicly questioned the constitutionality of his refugee and immigration ban and refused to defend it in court.

Other holdovers are awkward, too. Among the 50 Obama officials asked to stay on to help with continuity was Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. Trump spent his campaign blasting the strategy that McGurk helped devise and publicly defend.

Also on the list was Adam Szubin, whose confirmation as Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence was stalled by Republicans for more than a year. Szubin served in an acting capacity, he was never confirmed, until he was named acting Treasury secretary by Trump.

Trump's choice for Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, is expected to get a vote in the Senate later this week.

The White House has complained about the slow pace of the confirmation process, blaming Senate Democrats for slow-walking their picks. The president tweeted Wednesday morning that it was a “disgrace that my full Cabinet is still not in place, the longest such delay in the history of our country,” charging, “Obstruction by Democrats!”

Trump's claims about the historic nature of the delays are not accurate - at least not yet. Obama's Cabinet wasn't completely confirmed until late April 2009 and President Bill Clinton's didn't have his full Cabinet in place until mid-March 1993.

Vetting issues

Democrats contend the administration has failed to fully vet the nominees, many of whom are wealthy and have extensive business ties, and have been lackadaisical in providing financial records and ethics filings.

Democrats boycotted a Senate Finance Committee meeting last week called to vote on Representative Tom Price, a Republican from Georgia, Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Mnuchin, who has clashed with Democrats over the foreclosures of thousands of homeowners when he headed OneWest bank. Democrats have said that both nominees have been misleading in their disclosure of their financial backgrounds.

Trump's pick for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, only submitted his required government ethics paperwork this week.

Beyond the Cabinet positions, however, many key agency roles remain unfilled, from deputy secretaries, general counsels and undersecretaries who often play a lead role in managing each department.

“There are critical positions around the secretary that allows the secretary to function,” said Clay Johnson, who served as deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. “The secretary is way less of a secretary without those people.”

Johnson said typically about 225 Senate-confirmed positions are filled by the annual congressional recess in August. “It still seems like they're playing catch-up,” he said.

Many of the earliest picks have been focused on the military, national security and law enforcement.

Trump won an early confirmation of Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security and has nominated Elaine Duke, who served in the department during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to serve as deputy secretary.

But many positions in the department remain unfilled as the ongoing legal fight over his executive order on immigration consumes time and resources. The president has yet to select heads of the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to natural disasters.

On the diplomatic front, Trump has nominated only three U.S. ambassadors to foreign countries - Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to China, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson to the United Kingdom and attorney David Friedman to Israel.

And while Trump recently tapped Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, he has yet to name his choice to serve as Solicitor General, who is responsible for arguing the federal government's cases before the Supreme Court.