President Donald Trump said in an interview Sunday that he prefers to have temporary Cabinet secretaries, suggesting that the current, unsettled state of the executive branch is likely to stay in place, though it puts him at odds with the U.S. Constitution.
Trump conducted the interview with CBS’s Margaret Brennan as part of Super Bowl Sunday activities. Portions of the exchange aired on Face the Nation in the morning and as part of pregame coverage in the afternoon. The president covered a broad range of topics. Trump spoke at length on foreign policy, criticizing his own top intelligence officers’ conclusions about Iran and North Korea. He defended his plans to pull U.S. troops back from the Middle East, and questioned “whether we should have been [in Afghanistan] in the first place,” seeming to challenge the wisdom not only of the long occupation but also of the post-9/11 invasion.
The president also said that he would not bar his son Barron from playing football, but that he would not “steer him” toward the sport, citing its health risks. His comments echo similar remarks by former President Barack Obama in 2013, but contrast with his own previous mockery of NFL concussion rules.
But perhaps the most important comments Trump made were about his aides and the Cabinet. Currently, six acting officers are in Cabinet-level jobs: Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Acting United Nations Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
“It’s easier to make moves when they’re acting,” Trump said Sunday, echoing similar comments he made to Reuters in January. But whereas the president told the wire service that he was “in no hurry” to fill the jobs permanently, he suggested to Brennan that he prefers the temporary jobs as a matter of course.
“Some are doing a fantastic job,” he said. “I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.”
The problem is that the arrangement also conflicts with the Constitution, which says the Senate must offer “advice and consent” on nominees for top jobs. Of the six open positions, five require confirmation. Trump has nominated permanent candidates for two of the posts: William Barr, a former attorney general, in Whitaker’s place, and Wheeler as permanent administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He has reportedly chosen Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, as UN ambassador, but has not formally nominated her.
No matter how much Trump likes the flexibility, the Constitution doesn’t: It requires the president to put nominees to Senate approval in part to avoid chaotic policy making and mismanagement of government. The Constitution does allow recess appointments, and past presidents have sometimes made extensive use of them, including to install candidates the Senate opposes while calling for their confirmation.
Trump, however, isn’t bothering. He doesn’t care whether the Senate has a role, and apparently he’d rather it not, because that makes it easier for him to fire people. His position is especially brazen because, with the Senate in Republican hands, he could get nearly any nominee he wants confirmed. His preference is to flout the Constitution and keep his aides on edge.
The president offered several obviously false statements about his Cabinet during the interview. He said he fired former Defense Secretary James Mattis, which is a lie—Mattis resigned in protest of Trump’s troop-withdrawal plans. Trump also claimed that reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was recruiting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run for Senate were “fake news”—only to be reminded by Brennan that Pompeo had validated them.
The other acting Cabinet officials aside, Barr is expected to be confirmed soon in the Senate, though Democrats this week forced a postponement of the vote. Barr is expected to eventually receive a report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and will have to decide whether to release the report to the public.
Trump said the decision will be “totally up to the attorney general,” though in an interview with The Daily Caller this week he again asserted that “I had the right if I wanted to to end everything … Many people thought that’s what I should do.”
Pressed on whether he’d be okay with the report being public, Trump told Brennan, “I don’t know. It depends. I have no idea what it’s going to say.” Yet Trump also said, “You have to get rid of the Russia witch hunt.” He did not indicate how he thought that should happen—or what he expected on that front from his new attorney general.