Donald Trump's Glacial Pace Toward a Full Cabinet

Most presidents have the majority of their Cabinet confirmed by this point in their first term. Why doesn’t he?

Andrew McGill / The Atlantic

Donald Trump is falling behind, and he knows it. His Cabinet, while growing, still has too many empty seats. For a developer accustomed to hiring and firing employees at will, the laborious Senate confirmation process—hearings! debates! cloture votes!—must feel like the longest round of contract negotiations ever.

Last week, he tweeted his frustration, blaming Democrats for the holdup:

There could be a bit of Trumpian hyperbole in there—it’s not clear that he actually checked to see if the delay is the longest in history. But at the time of his tweet, the president was correct in that he had fewer Cabinet members confirmed than every first-term president since Ronald Reagan. He had even fewer than Barack Obama, who had to find new candidates for Cabinet seats on the fly after his first choices dropped out.

That said, Trump is wrong to solely blame it on the Democrats. They’re the proximate cause of the delay, but not the whole reason for it.

Here’s where Trump’s Cabinet stands as of today, compared with the last five administrations. (This chart will update automatically update with the latest confirmations.)

It’s hard to beat Reagan; the Senate confirmed most of his Cabinet within two days of his inauguration, records show. Bill Clinton also had a relatively easy time, clearing most of his picks within a week with the support of a Democratic Senate. The exception was Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as attorney general; she was confirmed almost two months later, after two other candidates dropped out amid “nanny issue[s].”

Trump’s progress tracks more closely to that of George H. W. Bush and Obama, both of whom saw protracted opposition to their nominees and multiple dropouts. Here’s how quickly each administration filled its Cabinet after Inauguration Day:

The elder Bush had to contend with a Democratic Senate eager to rein in a Republican president after eight years of Reagan. His biggest headache was the nomination of John Tower for defense secretary, which the Senate eventually voted down along party lines, a rather rare outcome. (Tower’s replacement? Dick Cheney, the future vice president.)

Obama also struggled to round out his team, even though he had the backing of a Democratic majority in the Senate. The core of his Cabinet was in place within a week, many with near-unanimous support—including Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. But he ran into trouble with his nominee for secretary of labor, then-Representative Hilda Solis; Republicans stonewalled her over her past support for pro-union legislation, before eventually acquiescing.

Obama also struck out twice with his commerce nominees, dropping New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson amid a federal investigation into political contributions and losing Republican Senator Judd Gregg over “irresolvable conflicts.” Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was the last Cabinet member to be confirmed, almost 100 days after Obama took the oath of office.

Trump, however, is in a different league. So far, all of his nominees who’ve gone up for a Senate vote have been OK’d by the body—though Betsy DeVos, who needed Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote to take her seat as secretary of education, came closest to failing. But after more than two weeks, still less than half his Cabinet is in place. In every day of his administration so far, his boardroom has had the lowest occupancy rate of any presidency in the past three decades.

He blames Democratic opposition, which has certainly been stiff. Only a handful of Democrats have supported a majority of his nominees, and several voted against nearly all of them. Democratic leaders have also fought against quick votes, requiring the full 30 hours of debate for most of Trump’s picks and slowing consideration to a relative crawl.

In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement on Tuesday, decrying Democratic delay: “We’ve seen unprecedented obstruction from our colleagues across the aisle. … It’s made the confirmation of this president’s nominees the slowest in modern history.”

But Trump’s haphazard transition also deserves a large share of the blame. Most presidents-elect announce their Cabinet picks within a week or two of Election Day, and only after careful vetting; it’s an open secret every election year that they’ve worked on their selections for months. Trump instead sprinkled his announcements over a period of two months, rushing some and delaying others, publicly summoning candidates to Trump Tower for meetings and staging handshakes outside his Bedminster, New Jersey, country club.

This showmanship hid a lack of preparation, as my colleague Russell Berman has reported. A charitable explanation would suggest he was building suspense and enthusiasm for his nominees. The more likely reason is that he was caught flat-footed by his victory and further set back by the controversial demotion of Chris Christie, who for a time was his chief transition aide. After Christie, Trump floundered; many of his nominees hadn’t filed the necessary ethics paperwork right up through Inauguration Day, leading to delays in their confirmation hearings. And earlier this week, The New York Times reported the Trump administration skimped on giving candidates the so-called “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” quiz, a battery of personal and financial questions meant to head off embarrassing revelations during public confirmation hearings.

It’s hard to only blame Democrats when the administration’s paperwork wasn’t filed on time. Trump, of course, will blame them anyway. The practical effect of this logjam is that agencies will go leaderless longer than is necessary, or even advisable.

But it signals something else, too. Trump has shown he can move quickly when he can act unilaterally—witness the steady march of executive orders signed in the Oval Office. Getting a Cabinet confirmed by the Senate, however, requires something beyond bold action; it requires cooperation and compromise. Those are things the former businessman hasn’t yet demonstrated he has embraced in the White House, at least publicly.