Unfilled jobs and high turnover mean the government is ill equipped for a public health crisis, said many former and current federal officials and disaster experts.
By Jennifer Steinhauer and
WASHINGTON — Of the 75 senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security, 20 are either vacant or filled by acting officials, including Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary who recently was unable to tell a Senate committee how many respirators and protective face masks were available in the United States.
The National Park Service, which like many federal agencies is full of vacancies in key posts, tried this week to fill the job of a director for the national capital region after hordes of visitors flocked to see the cherry blossoms near the National Mall, creating a potential public health hazard as the coronavirus continues to spread.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, workers are scrambling to order medical supplies on Amazon after its leaders, lacking experience in disaster responses, failed to prepare for the onslaught of patients at its medical centers.
Ever since President Trump came into office, a record high turnover and unfilled jobs have emptied offices across wide sections of the federal bureaucracy. Now, current and former administration officials and disaster experts say the coronavirus has exposed those failings as never before and left parts of the federal government unprepared and ill equipped for what may be the largest public health crisis in a century.
Some 80 percent of the senior positions in the White House below the cabinet level have turned over during Mr. Trump’s administration, with about 500 people having departed since the inauguration. Mr. Trump is on his fourth chief of staff, his fourth national security adviser and his fifth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Between Mr. Trump’s history of firing people and the choice by many career officials and political appointees to leave, he now finds himself with a government riddled with vacancies, acting department chiefs and, in some cases, leaders whose professional backgrounds do not easily match up to the task of managing a pandemic.
“Right now for the life of me, I don’t know who speaks for D.H.S.,” said Janet Napolitano, a secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama. “Having nonacting leadership, and I think having consistency in your leadership team and the accumulation of experience, really matters. And I think it would be fair to say the current administration hasn’t sustained that.”
One example is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is legally meant to back up the nation’s health care system in an emergency. On Thursday, the Office of Inspector General at the department released a report detailing red flags in its preparedness for the crisis.
The secretary, Robert L. Wilkie, has no experience in emergency management, and he has been largely absent from public briefings with senior officials on the pandemic. “Secretary Wilkie has attended 20 coronavirus task force meetings since he joined the task force on March 3,” said Christina Mandreucci, a spokeswoman for the department. Mr. Wilkie recently fired his second in command, who had worked in past disasters, and his head of emergency preparedness retired.
Senior officials in the department say they are kept out of the loop on major decisions, such as whether it will continue Mr. Trump’s preferred policy of sending veterans into the community for care, and learn from the news media about how centers are interpreting guidelines.
Many of the newcomers in agencies lack relationships with the private sector and lawmakers to accomplish basic goals.
One high-profile case came with eliminating a directorate at the White House’s National Security Council that was charged with pandemic preparations. In 2018, John R. Bolton, then Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, ousted Thomas P. Bossert, Mr. Trump’s homeland security adviser and longtime disaster expert. The directorate was folded into an office dedicated to weapons of mass destruction.
Equally notable may have been the resignation last year of Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who was an early advocate for broad coronavirus testing and stronger mitigation policies. He was succeeded by Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, a noted oncologist, who has struggled during Senate hearings to explain some of his positions. The agency is largely viewed as slow in engaging the private sector to develop tests for the coronavirus. Many members of Mr. Gottlieb’s team departed with him, leaving the agency with many people new to their jobs.
The Department of Homeland Security, the agency tasked with screening at airports and carrying out the travel restrictions that were Mr. Trump’s first major action to combat the coronavirus, is full of vacancies. Of the 75 senior positions listed on the department’s website, 20 are either vacant or filled by acting officials.
Mr. Wolf is the acting homeland security secretary, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a representative on the coronavirus task force, is the department’s acting deputy secretary. The deputy administrators of the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency also serve in acting capacities. A federal judge also ruled that the process the Trump administration used to bring Mr. Cuccinelli to the department violated a federal vacancies law that stipulates open leadership positions must go to certain officials.
Mr. Wolf is familiar with airport security operations. He was part of the team that established the Transportation Security Administration and later served as the agency’s chief of staff. But the chaotic introduction of Mr. Trump’s travel restrictions this month against European countries struggling with the pandemic exemplified the erratic structure at the top of the department and the agencies it oversees, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Mr. Kerlikowske said relationships with executives at airlines and at the airports were imperative. “The lack of experience and knowledge is kind of telling,” he said.
A spokeswoman for homeland security, Sofia Boza-Holman, said such criticism of the department was unwarranted. “That’s absolutely absurd,” she said. “D.H.S.’s leaders have been at the forefront in helping contain the Covid-19 crisis. Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, D.H.S. has been able to respond wherever and whenever needed.”
Mr. Cuccinelli alarmed the public last month when he took to Twitter to complain that he did not have access to a Johns Hopkins University map of the virus’s spread, leading critics to wonder why Mr. Cuccinelli, a member of the coronavirus task force, needed outside data.
Mr. Wolf drew similar criticism from lawmakers when he failed to provide basic information on the coronavirus outbreak at a Senate appropriations hearing. “Mr. Secretary, you’re supposed to keep us safe,” said Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana. “You’re the secretary of homeland security and you can’t tell me if we have enough respirators.”
Mr. Wolf said the United States was “several months” away from getting a vaccine. “Your numbers aren’t the same as C.D.C.’s,” Mr. Kennedy said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Don’t you think you ought to contact them?”
Even National Park Service vacancies have taken a toll. The park service — which has its own police force — in recent days closed some parking lots near the Tidal Basin on the National Mall, where the cherry blossoms attract huge crowds each year, and urged people to stay away. Mayor Muriel Bowser stepped in and limited access to the area and sent police officers and members of the National Guard to enforce the shutdown.
As he juggles negotiations on Capitol Hill and introduces emergency lending programs with the Federal Reserve, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, is scrambling to have enough officials in place to accommodate the additional workload stemming from four emergency lending programs, two new stimulus bills and a delayed Tax Day, even as departures are in store. The Treasury Department’s acting assistant secretary for international finance, Geoffrey Okamoto, is leaving to be the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Brian McGuire, the assistant secretary for legislative affairs, is departing.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Treasury Department is the thin staffing at the Internal Revenue Service. The tax collection agency has faced deep cuts to its budget over the last decade, leaving some of its technology out of date.
Now the I.R.S. must cope with Tax Day being delayed by three months and a deluge of questions from confused taxpayers calling employees that are teleworking. The shortfall in staff is likely to be especially problematic as the Treasury Department tries to send stimulus money to Americans by using the I.R.S.’s taxpayer database to track them down.
Even the Pentagon, which is broadly viewed as better positioned than many other agencies for the pandemic response, is not immune. More than a third of all Senate-confirmed civilian positions at the Defense Department are vacant or filled by temporary officials, a peak level for the administration outside of the transition period, according to Pentagon statistics. Of 60 senior positions, 21 lack permanent appointees.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this month about the imbalance. “These vacancies continue to challenge the department’s ability to effectively respond to national security challenges and undermine civilian inputs into the decision-making process,” Mr. Reed said.
Mick Mulvaney, who has served as Mr. Trump’s acting White House chief of staff since the beginning of 2019, was formally fired over Twitter on March 6, at the height of the coronavirus crisis.
Mr. Mulvaney has technically stayed on in his position, but since mid-March, he has been in self-isolation in South Carolina after announcing that he had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.
In previous administrations, the chief of staff has often played the key role in responding to crises.
Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, whom Mr. Trump announced as Mr. Mulvaney’s successor, has been seen at the White House in recent days, though he had not resigned from Congress.
Reporting was contributed by Alan Rappeport, Eric Lipton, Eric Schmitt, Michael D. Shear and Sheila Kaplan.