With ten days​ to go until President Trump’s inauguration, his supporters and opponents, in the United States and around the world, wait with hope or dread to see which of his promises he will deliver on. To say that ‘he’ will or will not do anything is a slightly misleading way of putting it, however. The president does not act alone, but through the hundreds of thousands of employees of the executive branch of the federal government. So who are the people who will carry out – or resist carrying out – his will? How and when are they appointed, and by whom? Who stands between Trump and us?

When Napoleon sold his Louisiana holdings to the United States in 1803, the entire executive branch of Thomas Jefferson’s government consisted of 132 non-military employees. Jefferson’s own staff comprised one person, his secretary. The staff of the State Department, headed by James Madison, consisted of one chief clerk, seven subordinate clerks and a messenger. The US minister to France, Robert Livingston, had no staff.

When Trump moves into the White House on 20 January, he will take charge of around 2.8 million non-military federal employees working in hundreds of departments and agencies sprawled throughout the Beltway and beyond. Trump gets to appoint about 4000 people to orchestrate it all.

One helpful if inexact way to think about Trump’s appointees is to imagine the federal bureaucracy as an army, with four layers: a headquarters staff, generals, an officer corps and enlisted personnel. The resemblance is superficial in many ways, not least because the bureaucracy’s decision-making process is not top-down. Unlike the British cabinet, the American cabinet decides nothing; it is merely a collection of executive department heads. Policy is made not with a single order handed down from on high, but through horse-trading and political jockeying in networks that cross between departments and agencies, as well as extending deep within them. All the same, the official hierarchy is there.

The Headquarters Staff

The president’s immediate needs are met by his executive staff, who could make up around five hundred of his appointments if Trump fills all available slots. Officials in the Executive Office of the President negotiate international trade agreements, manage the economy and the federal budget, oversee environmental protection and so on. Many of them boil down the work of departmental officials, editing and adding their own gloss as needed; the idea is to inject a measure of order and design into the Leviathan by replicating chunks of it, small-scale, in-house. With foreign policy and national security, most of that replication is done by the staff of the National Security Council.

Since the Kennedy administration, power in the national security sphere has shifted, as Leslie Gelb put it in 1980, from the ‘king’s ministers’ to the ‘palace guard’ – from the cabinet to the NSC staff. Kennedy’s NSC staff comprised 20 experts, hand-picked by JFK and his top aides. Fifty years later, the palace guard had swollen to nearly 400 aides, many of whom the president didn’t know and had never met. Because that’s too many bodies to fit in the White House, most worked nearby in high-security office buildings. (In December, Congress placed a 200-person ceiling on the size of the NSC staff.) Few of them will be political appointees: two-thirds are pulled from the uniformed military, foreign service, intelligence community and civil service. They usually serve at the White House for one or two years before returning to their home agencies, which continue to pay their salaries while they’re at the NSC.

Much of the NSC microcosm distils (and duplicates, its critics complain) the work of the State Department and Pentagon. But NSC staffers spend less time on long-term strategic planning than on the quotidian demands of the president’s foreign policy schedule: briefing him for meetings, coming up with talking points for the press, planning presidential trips abroad and, most important, lining up options for presidential decisions. Knowledge and advice pour in from every direction, and it’s the job of the NSC staff to funnel it into usable buckets.

NSC staffers also convene hundreds of meetings each year to ‘manage the interagency’. The aim is to keep the president’s 2.8 million subordinates from colliding, and inject a modicum of consistency into federal policymaking.

The NSC staff’s final mission is to clarify the president’s intentions and ensure that they are carried out. Sometimes wilful careerists, enamoured of a policy the president has rejected, pour molasses in the works. Sometimes faithful subordinates are unsure what the president wants because his marching orders were fuzzy. Sometimes the president hasn’t issued any marching orders at all. Whatever the reason for the bureaucratic slowdown, it’s the function of the NSC staff to get things moving.

The Generals

Because the United States has no shadow cabinet to step in when the presidency changes hands from one party to the other, new cabinet members must be found and hired. The ideal candidate is a camera-ready expert with well-honed political skills, instant name recognition and experience in government, who has run a large organisation, is respected on the Hill and popular with all major constituencies. Presidents also want people whose loyalties will remain with the White House, not the department they’re running. Potential appointees who fulfill all those criteria are non-existent, however; the qualification most commonly dispensed with is significant supervisory experience. A cabinet member who’ll delegate much of the management to a deputy with administrative savvy is preferable to someone who stumbles over their words on Meet the Press.

Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO and Trump’s choice for secretary of state, seems to check most of those boxes, though he has no governmental experience. His views on US-Russia relations seem to mirror Trump’s, though on free trade he appears closer to its traditional supporters in the state department. Steven Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs partner and hedge fund manager whom Trump wants in charge of the Treasury, is largely unknown and has never worked in government.

In addition to the 15 cabinet members, more than a thousand other presidential appointments require Senate confirmation. They include US marshals and US attorneys; a deputy secretary, a couple of dozen under-secretaries and assistant secretaries, and various legal, budget and administrative officers in each department; and nearly two hundred ambassadors. Historically, about one-third of ambassadors have been political appointees. An aide to Robert Kennedy is supposed to have been stopped by a reporter while walking Kennedy’s dog on the Senate lawn. The reporter asked whether this wasn’t beneath the aide’s dignity. ‘To you this may be a dog,’ the aide replied. ‘To me, it’s an ambassadorship.’

Even when a nominee has bipartisan support, Senate confirmation takes a long time. Before being nominated, the appointee is investigated both by the administration’s political leaders and by the FBI. Every detail of the candidate’s personal and professional life is scrutinised, along with the lives of family members. After being nominated, the appointee is vetted again by the Office of Government Ethics and the staff of the Senate committee he or she will testify before. This vetting is usually completed before the committee makes its recommendation. If no fatal flaw emerges, the nomination then goes to the full Senate for approval. Yet the appointee can still encounter a filibuster (senators can delay a nomination with extended debate), or a ‘hold’: a senator can delay a vote on a nomination simply by asking the party leader to sit on it. (In 2013 the Senate changed its rules to lower from 60 to 51 the number of senators needed to halt the filibuster of a nominee.) Confirming a cabinet appointee quickly can create its own problems, however: he may find himself with no security-cleared subordinates who are committed to the administration’s political agenda. Timothy Geithner said he felt ‘home alone’ during the first months of the 2009 financial crisis because he was the only confirmed political appointee at the Treasury. A year after Obama took office, only 64 per cent of his Senate-confirmed executive agency appointees were in place. Trump’s supporters in the Senate will push to speed things up; his opponents will push for more thorough vetting. Senate hearings begin today, even though the Office of Government Ethics at the end of last week had not received ethics forms from several nominees.

The Officer Corps

The president appoints roughly two thousand officials who sit below Senate-confirmed appointees and above career civil servants, over whom they exercise considerable authority. They are the presidential loyalists who will be counted on to translate policy directives into administrative action. Their positions are catalogued in the ‘Plum Book’, published after each presidential election, which lists all available political appointments in the new administration. Most initial appointees at this level are now being selected and vetted by the Trump transition team.

A third of them make up the non-career Senior Executive Service. Officials in the SES hold top managerial positions immediately under Senate-confirmed appointees. The SES was created in 1978 to provide a corps of professional managers to run the government: there are currently 6800 of them, of whom Trump is permitted by law to appoint 10 per cent. Many will come from congressional staff, private businesses and law firms, and state government. Some will take a salary cut when they move to their new jobs, where they won’t earn more than $183,000 a year.

Schedule C appointees fall a notch below the SES. The category was created in 1953 by President Eisenhower who, on taking office, confronted a federal bureaucracy engorged with workers hired during twenty years of uninterrupted Democratic control of the White House. Schedule C appointees are policy-makers, like the non-career SES, but have less responsibility. The maximum annual salary of a Schedule C employee is just over $150,000. Trump will have twice as many Schedule C appointments as SES appointments, about 1400. Cabinet members like to have a say over some Schedule C positions, but historically most have been controlled by the White House. Schedule C jobs will go to the friends and colleagues of Trump’s family and associates, former members of Congress, party and campaign loyalists, and supporters from trade associations, lobbying outfits and think tanks.

In principle, appointing and installing these two thousand Schedule C and non-career SES managers should be easy. But the positions often remain unfilled for months, for several reasons. First, a new administration is buried in a blizzard of CVs. During its first six weeks, the Clinton administration received 50,000 applications. The Bush transition team established a separate office after the 2000 election solely to handle Schedule C applications. As of 2 December 2016, the Trump transition team had reportedly received 65,800.

Second, outgoing officials are often friendly and helpful to the incomers. (When Geithner moved into his new Treasury home, it might have been more accurate to say that he found another family still living there.) They are often asked to stay on for a while, and it’s no accident that civilian political appointees in the Pentagon are frequently given military aides to explain local cultural norms. This slows the hiring of tenderfeet. Continuity in US national security policy flows in no small part from continuity in the personnel who make it.

Third, virtually everyone who works in foreign policy or national security – around 4.3 million people – requires a security clearance. In 2015 alone, 638,679 clearances were issued, more than half to direct government employees (the rest went to contractors). Getting a clearance is burdensome and time-consuming. Applicants have to complete the notoriously onerous form SF-86, which demands detailed answers concerning their past places of residence, foreign travel, contact with foreign nationals, employment, credit, bank accounts and financial interests, military service, education, spouses, relatives, business associates, mental health, criminal activity, organisational memberships, and drug and alcohol use. It can take days or even weeks to fill out. Interviews with past employers, neighbours and associates then follow. (Appointees submit to this process on the assumption that the government will safeguard the classified personal dossiers it assembles. But in 2015 the US Office of Personnel Management announced that its computers had been hacked, with the result that 18 million personnel files – including mine and that of the head of the OPM – are probably now being vetted by the government of China.)

The Enlisted Personnel

Not all positions require vetting, which brings us to the last remaining cohort of Trump’s 2.8 million employees: those who are already there, members of the career civil service. In Jefferson’s day, every executive employee served at the pleasure of the president and could be dismissed at any time. A spoils system later emerged, and continued until after the Civil War, with government jobs frequently going to politicians’ relatives, friends and party activists. No longer. Civil service reforms have mandated that most federal employees be hired, promoted and dismissed on merit. More than half of federal civilian employees now have an undergraduate degree or higher. Just over 40 per cent are women; just under 40 per cent belong to an ethnic minority. The average employee is 47.4 years old and has been a civil servant for nearly 14 years. Some 26 per cent are military veterans. The average annual salary is $81,249.

In theory, political and administrative activities can be neatly distinguished, to ensure democratic accountability while maintaining expertise and institutional memory. In practice, the two categories overlap. Civil servants’ raw experience makes for enormous leverage in policymaking; during an administration’s first days in office, career officials often hold acting leadership positions. And presidents have not been averse to poking into hiring decisions at the highest ranks of the civil service. The porous divide between the civil service and political appointees encourages interloping: one reason presidents intrude in civil service hiring is to dig out political employees who burrowed into career positions at the end of the previous administration rather than face dismissal. One of Trump’s first steps may be to man the spades. Then again, he may not need to: a survey of federal workers in October 2016 found that only 65 per cent were committed to remaining for a Trump administration.

Except​ in crises, government policy is rarely made with a stand-alone decision by someone near the top of the organisational chart. It is hammered out in the cut-and-thrust of bargaining in shape-shifting, informal networks, which have no standard operating procedures, no explicit division of labour, and no fixed, identifiable leaders. Personal relationships count for more than anything else. Networks of this sort have produced government policy on everything from the Iraq invasion to drone strikes to healthcare. If history is any guide, it is from these informal networks that the details of Trump’s main policy initiatives will emerge.

Informal networks have always been part of American politics. The diplomatic path to the Louisiana Purchase was cleared by Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a well-connected French aristocrat whom Jefferson befriended while serving as minister to France in 1787. He met with Napoleon early in the negotiations, at Jefferson’s behest. Du Pont held no formal office. When Livingston’s efforts stalled, the deal was closed with the arrival of another personal envoy, Jefferson’s friend and protégé, James Monroe.

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