Trump seemed to recognize the potential costs of this thickening when he told Fox & Friends in early March 2017 that he did not want to fill many of the 600 high-level posts still open for occupancy:
"Well, a lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have. You know we have so many people in government, even me, I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. … There are hundreds and hundreds of jobs that are totally unnecessary jobs."
Trump may have been right to question the need for so many jobs but was wrong to conclude that all the positions were unnecessary or could be eliminated at will. Some of them were created by statute; others were established through the federal government’s highly formalized classification system, and still others came about by department memoranda.
Most important, those positions were hardwired into a bureaucratic process that links the top of the federal government to the bottom. With all fifteen cabinet secretaries confirmed by May 1, the Trump administration was not so much headless as neckless.
At that point, the Trump administration was far behind other administrations in nominating its most senior officers but was filling up faster at the subcabinet level than most observers believed possible. Most of the new cabinet secretaries had already appointed their chiefs of staff, while the White House had appointed coterie overseers for the cabinet secretaries and their chiefs of staff. This process of title assignment was well underway when ProPublica published a list of the first 400 White House appointees.
In addition, many overseers selected by the White House do not have the requisite experience to monitor their assigned agencies or track their targets. A large number of the 400 appointees were former campaign aides and members of the administration’s transition “landing teams” clearly rewarded more for that service than for their knowledge.
The variation in status among these 400 political appointees is clear in the pay grades. The chiefs of staff and senior White House advisers on ProPublica’s list were appointed at the top of the salary schedule as political members of the Senior Executive Service, while the rest appear to be personal and confidential assistants at the middle of the schedule or even temporary appointees at the very bottom of their departments and agencies.
Based on the pay grades, most of the 400 will eventually receive one of the lesser titles listed in Table 1. This does not mean they will be irrelevant, but it does suggest that they will not be particularly effective overseers and “commissars,” as one Defense Department official described the White House loyalist sent to keep watch on the Pentagon.
Trump is not the first president to salt the cabinet ranks with loyalists. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama did it, too, and they could always find an appointment for a friend. However, most presidents eventually decide that the best way to control the cabinet is to ignore it or appoint policy czars to eclipse it. Assuming Trump believes the cabinet is worth spying on, he may yet again be displaying his naïveté about governing.12 His loyalists are easy to identify and are not well linked to the White House itself. They report to lower-level White House staff working in the Old Executive Office Building, which Vice President Walter Mondale once likened to being in Baltimore.
Nevertheless, with so many Senate-confirmed appointees stuck in the nomination or confirmation process, and so much pressure to tamp down spending and regulation, the Trump administration’s watchful eye makes sense. It also makes the administration look faster than it is—he may be moving at a snail’s pace on his subcabinet, but he has been surprisingly quick in putting people on people on people to keep the cabinet in line.