President Donald Trump said Sunday that the United States needs to be "smart, vigilant and tough" after a terrorist attack rocked London. But the president’s counter-terrorism strategy could be hindered by dozens of vacancies across the government, not least a permanent FBI director.
Top ranks at the State Department remain largely unfilled, as are some key ambassadorships. Trump has not named anyone to lead the Transportation Security Administration, which screens people at airports, or to run the Homeland Security office charged with protecting the country’s physical and cyber infrastructure. His choice to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency is awaiting Senate confirmation, but Trump has not named a deputy.
At the Justice Department, Trump has not nominated an assistant attorney general for the national security division. And he has not nominated a deputy at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or a director of the office’s National Counterterrorism Center.
And, perhaps most crucially, Trump has not yet named a permanent leader of the FBI, which plays a central role in combating domestic terrorism. The president has continued to interview candidates for the job nearly a month after he fired James Comey.
"This is a team sport," said Max Stier, the head of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which advised Trump’s presidential transition on hiring. "It’s critical to have a full team."
The White House did not provide any comment Sunday.
Trump has filled some major national security jobs, including at the Defense Department, and he quickly replaced his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after he was fired in February. But hiring has been slow across the board, bogged down by an overwhelmed personnel office and disagreements among aides. In some cases — especially at State, where Trump named a secretary and deputy secretary but left many other posts open — Cabinet secretaries are still mulling a reorganization that might do away with certain positions.
Trump announced in January that he planned to nominate Robert "Woody" Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, which has been hit by two deadly terrorist attacks in recent weeks. But Trump has yet to formally send Johnson’s nomination to the Senate after more than four months in office.
The leadership vacuum across the federal government has at times kept Trump from meeting promises made before he took office. He blew past a 90-day deadline to craft an anti-hacking strategy, with no clarity on who was in charge of the issue.
Some experts said Trump’s slowness to fill top jobs wouldn’t prevent the federal government from responding to a terrorist threat because the FBI and DHS are staffed with long-serving experts.
“In terms of an immediate response to an attack, the agencies will probably do fine,” said Daniel Benjamin, who was the State Department’s counter-terror coordinator under President Barack Obama and now runs an international studies center at Dartmouth College. “The real problems come later, when the administration has to readjust strategy to deal with the threat, do the hard work of figuring out if there was a vulnerability in some security or immigration system, and then remedy it.”
Christian Marrone, who served as chief of staff to former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, said his bigger concern was Trump’s proposed budget, which boosted money for border security but called for cuts to programs that provide grants to cities states for counter-terrorism efforts.
"The proposed cuts to state and local law enforcement are dangerous," he said. "We must ensure the men and women on the front lines have the tools and training they need to handle such situations."
Trump took to Twitter on Saturday and Sunday to call for a forceful response to terrorism and to take a few digs at London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
"We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse," Trump wrote on Twitter.