WASHINGTON — Having now lost two of his three picks to become the military's next service secretaries, it appears increasingly likely that President Donald Trump won't have his top team in place at the Pentagon before summer. As a result, several related nominations could be caught in limbo, unable to move ahead until these more visible vacancies are filled.
On Sunday, Trump's pick for Navy secretary, Philip Bilden, withdrew from the confirmation process just a month after his nomination — and just one week after both the White House and the Pentagon sought to discredit reports indicating the businessman and former Army intelligence officer was planning to step aside. Bilden, who as secretary would have overseen the Navy and the Marine Corps, joins Vincent Viola, the president's choice for Army secretary, who dropped out in early February. Both men said they faced difficulty extracting from business conflicts.
Trump's selection for Air Force secretary is former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, and her nomination process appears to be proceeding unimpeded. Nevertheless, Trump's broader predicament once more raises questions about his own financial entanglements and the administration’s ability to navigate the federal government's complex conflict-of-interest rules. While for the Pentagon, it underscores that the usually tumultuous transition from one commander in chief to another is proving more challenging than in the past. By some estimates, it could take until May before any new service secretary nominees get through the Senate confirmation process.
"Even if the White House has a fully vetted and cleared candidate [this week], it will still take several weeks for the official FBI and Office of Government Ethics checks to happen," said Phil Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. "Those can only start once someone is formally tapped. Then it's another several weeks to a few months for the Senate to do its due diligence."
That's after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is scheduled to present options to Trump for accelerating the Islamic State's defeat, for funding the Defense Department through the end of fiscal 2017 and for working around federal spending caps as Pentagon budget planners craft a spending plan fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1.
As first reported Sunday by The New York Times, Trump this week will outline his federal budget proposal, calling for sharp increases in Defense Department spending and drastic cuts to some domestic agencies — initiatives that will have to be crafted and defended in coming weeks. The president is scheduled to address Congress on Tuesday evening, offering a broad overview of his plans for the months ahead.
At the Pentagon, without the president's appointees in place, the task of informing those plans will fall to interim department heads and career military employees. At least three other undersecretaries who would be in that process are stalled until the service secretary problems are resolved, according to Mackenzie Eaglen, a security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"The fact that they cannot even name one undersecretary," she said, "reinforces the challenges all around."
The net effect, said Carter, is that budget and planning proposals in the short term "will be more a reflection of uniformed military priorities than the priorities of the Trump administration."
In early February, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, lamented the delay in naming new defense officials for this very reason.
"The problem is it’s Secretary Mattis alone right now," Thornberry told reporters. "So you have a number of people, political appointees and others from the Obama administration, and they have been the ones trying to deny there’s a problem. They’re well intentioned people, patriotic Americans, but it’s hard for any of us to turn 180 degrees in the other direction."
As he did after Viola withdrew, Mattis on Sunday issued a statement vowing to move quickly on putting another Navy secretary nominee forward for Trump's consideration. Then the attention can shift to filling lower-level but vitally important political appointments inside the Pentagon. A recent analysis by Defense Newsfound that roughly 75 percent of those jobs remain vacant.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.