With the Tuesday announcement that Army Secretary Mark Esper will become Acting Secretary of Defense, an acting secretary will replace another acting secretary in a department that hasn’t had a formally recognized leader at all in 2019.
….I thank Pat for his outstanding service and will be naming Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, to be the new Acting Secretary of Defense. I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2019
Esper will replace outgoing Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from consideration for Senate confirmation to officially lead the Pentagon. Shanahan replaced Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in December citing the President’s treatment of both allies and competitors.
President Trump famously loves “acting” positions. It allows him to quickly fill a position without Senate confirmation and results in the acting official being legitimate only on the president’s whim. They can just as easily be replaced as they were appointed.
“I like acting. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting. So we have a few that are acting. We have a great, great Cabinet,” Trump said.
But this means that there has not been a confirmed, formal leader of the Department of Defense in half a year. That’s a scandal in and of itself, not only for the president but, as Jonathan Bernstein argued in Bloomberg, for a Senate that doesn’t seem to mind having its constitutional authority usurped.
Other global powers have called the maximum pressure campaign the United States has leveled at Iran “unthinking and reckless,” Iran is only now breaking the nuclear deal that the United States vacated early in the Trump presidency, likely as a reaction to the American pressure campaign, since Iran has also declared nuclear weapons heretical.
But the pressure campaign is the passion project of National Security Adviser and Iran hawk John Bolton. In absence of a Secretary of Defense, Bolton appears to be guiding America’s war stance toward Iran.
But if war begins, it isn’t just the Secretary of Defense that will be missed. In addition to lacking a permanent head of the military, America lacks a permanent Secretary of Homeland Security and an Ambassador to the United Nations. And even though White House chiefs of staff don’t need Senate confirmation, Mick Mulvaney is still the acting White House chief of staff.
And owing to the flexibility that Trump loves the “acting” system for, acting appointments are less likely to push back on a president’s whims, which could compromise national security. This is illustrated by Trump waiting until after Mattis’ resignation to declare a national emergency at the southern border, despite having already deployed troops and chemical weapons on the border.
If war in the Persian gulf is imminent, which it may very well be, America’s leadership is woefully understaffed to handle it.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.