WASHINGTON — Of the 75 senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security, 20 are either vacant or filled by acting officials, including Chad 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 other 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 continued 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.
Empty slots and high turnover have left parts of the federal government unprepared and ill-equipped for what may be the largest public health crisis in a century, said numerous former and current federal officials and disaster experts.
Some 80 percent of the senior positions in the White House below the Cabinet level have turned over during President Trump’s administration, with about 500 people having departed since the inauguration. Trump is on his fourth chief of staff, his fourth national security adviser, and his fifth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Between 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 DHS,” 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. The secretary, Robert Wilkie, has no experience in emergency management, and he has been largely absent from meetings with senior officials on the pandemic. He recently fired his second in command, who had worked in past disasters, and his head of emergency preparedness retired. Wilkie took a short leave of absence two weeks ago as the crisis began to unfold in the United States.
Senior officials in the department say they are kept out of the loop on major decisions, such as whether it will continue 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 Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser, ousted Thomas Bossert, 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, 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 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 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.
Wolf is the acting homeland security secretary, and Kenneth Cuccinelli, 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 Cuccinelli to the department violated a federal vacancies law that stipulates open leadership positions must go to certain officials.
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 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.
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. “DHS’s leaders have been at the forefront in helping contain the COVID-19 crisis. Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, DHS has been able to respond wherever and whenever needed.”