There are going to be a lot of new butts in the chairs reserved for President Trump’s cabinet at the State of the Union Tuesday night — and for many, it will likely be a one-time seating assignment.
President Trump’s cabinet has had a historically high level of turnover for a first-term president — and his cabinet’s composition has an unusually high number of temporary appointees right now.
Nearly a quarter of Trump’s current 22-member cabinet are temporary appointees: acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Mulvaney remains the confirmed head of the Office of Management and Budget, a cabinet-level position, so at least one of his two cabinet-level jobs has been confirmed. He earlier served as acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the same time as holding his OMB job, but a protege of his was recently confirmed to the position by the Senate. There are rumors that Mulvaney is angling for yet another position: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s current job. It’s unclear how long Ross plans to remain.
Wheeler has been nominated to stay on but hasn’t been voted on yet, while Trump recently announced said he’ll nominate Bernhardt to remain on in that job. Whitaker will likely be replaced soon, assuming the Senate confirms Attorney General nominee Bill Barr. It’s unclear how long Shanahan will hold the key national security role — James Mattis resigned late last year and Trump hasn’t said who he’ll pick to replace him.
That has shortened the list White House will choose from to pick a the cabinet-confirmed designated survivor on Tuesday night.
Trump has made it clear he prefers having acting appointees, seeming to prefer the instability.
“It’s easier to make moves when they’re acting,” he said in a Sunday CBS interview. “I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.”
There also may be even more turnover sooner rather than later. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been in talks to run for Senate back in his home state of Kansas, and while Trump declared he’s not going anywhere, it remains to be seen whether Pompeo will definitely stick around.
Jonathan Cohen became acting ambassador to the United Nations when Nikki Haley resigned late last year. That’s usually a cabinet-level position, but that seems to be in flux in the current Trump administration. Trump has said he’ll nominate Heather Nauert to fill the role. But she hasn’t been officially nominated yet, even though he made the announcement more than a month ago.
This level of tumult, vacancies and temporary jobs goes far beyond the cabinet. According to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Services’s Political Appointee Tracker, more than 40 percent of Senate-confirmed political positions are currently vacant — 274 of the 705. The Trump administration has formally nominated candidates for less than half of those vacant positions.
When Trump steps up to deliver the State of the Union Tuesday night, he’ll be looking at a lot of new faces sitting in the crowd. While plenty of those will be from the new Democratic House majority, a number will be his own cabinet members.