Pentagon staff levels remain low, but help on the way


WASHINGTON — Through the first five months of the Trump administration, the Pentagon remains thin on political appointees, with roughly 29 percent of spots filled.

As of June 15, there are 45 political appointee spots filled at the Pentagon, according to Christopher Sherwood, a Department of Defense spokesman. That is up from 28 such appointees as of Feb. 13. Of those, 41 spots are filled by individuals who do not need to undergo Senate approval.

The good news for supporters of the department: Sherwood added that there are “another 42 in some stage of review in the hiring process,” which would bring the Pentagon up to roughly half of the 160 or so the political appointees the Obama administration had before the political transition took place.

The Pentagon is not required to list every individual who has been given a job by the Trump administration in the department, but a search of announcements for senior executive service level jobs shows:

  • Thomas A. Alexander, announced June 13 as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter narcotics and global threats. Alexander was most recently chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs.
  • Anita K. Blair, announced June 13 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for civilian personnel policy. Blair was most recently the deputy assistant secretary for human resources, and chief human capital officer, for the Department of the Treasury.
  • Timothy R. Jost, announced June 13 as the comptroller’s director for resource issues. Jost was most recently with Red Curve Solutions, a consulting company managing finance and compliance. 
  • Derek J. Maurer, announced June 13 as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. Maurer was most recently the confirmations lead on the Department of Defense Beachhead Team — the group that helped guide the transition from the Obama to Trump administration inside the building.
  • Christopher M. Shank, announced June 13 as senior advisor to the secretary and under secretary of the Air Force. Shank was most recently policy and coalitions director for the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
  • Amber Smith, announced June 13 as deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for outreach. Smith was most recently an advisor for the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs on the presidential transition team.
  • Molly L. Walsh, announced June 13 as senior advisor to the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Walsh was most recently a senior policy and research analyst at the Logistics Management Institute.
  • Elbridge Andrew Colby, announced May 10 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy & force development. Colby was most recently a Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
  • Pete Giambastiani, announced May 10 as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. He was most recently chief of staff to Representative Tom Rooney (R-FL), a member of the House Appropriations and Intelligence Committees.
  • Thomas Goffus, announced May 10 as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe & NATO. Goffus was most recently a professional staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
  • Robert Soofer, announced April 26 as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. Soofer was most recently a professional staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he served as staff lead for the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, with responsibility for nuclear, arms control, and missile defense matters.
  • Amy K. Mitchell, announced April 26 as the special assistant to the secretary of defense for protocol.  Mitchell was most recently vice president of communications for the National Review publication.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis downplayed the staffing level issue on June 14, telling the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that names are coming “down the pike very, very shortly here,” perhaps a reference to the 42 staffers in the works. 

  He noted part of the delay has comes from the rigorous ethical requirements put in place by the Senate Armed Service Committee, which he called “probably the most challenging ethical standard, in terms of removing even the appearance, that someone could have a conflict of interest.”

“It took me — and I was in the Marines for 40 years, sir — it took me an accountant and a lawyer and a stack of paper this thick to show that I didn’t have ethical conflicts, and I’m pretty boring when it comes to my economic situation,” Mattis said. “So I’d just tell you that it is a challenge, but we do end up with some varsity-level draft picks.”

In terms of senate confirmable spots, there are currently six senate-confirmed positions filled, 11 names awaiting confirmation and one name announced that has yet to be sent to the Senate. That leaves 35 spots without a name attached, including high-profile ones like undersecretary of defense for policy; undersecretary for Acquisition, technology and logistics; and secretary of the Army — the latter open after two nominees were forced to withdraw their names.

Speaking to Defense News in March, Robert Rangel — a current Lockheed Martin executive and former chief of staff for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — raised concerns that major acquisition programs could be delayed if large numbers of appointees are not in place by summer.

For now, industry watchers have not seen any major damage from the lack of politicals, said John Luddy, vice president for national security policy with the Aerospace Industries Association, a major industry trade group based in Washington.

“I don’t think it’s quite the logjam that it might be in other places,” Luddy said. “It’s not to say we can be complacent, but a lot of the things the new administration wants to do is pretty well embraced within the military and embraced within the career civil servants in the building.”

But Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs with AIA, points out that certain decisions need to be made by appointees and that if a chair is empty, the decision gets pushed up the chain of command, which could lead to delays.

“Anything new or significant, somebody has got to improve it. And if that approval is not happening at the political level, then it becomes a bandwidth challenge because you have to keep going up and up the chain until you find somebody in a position give a blessing for a new course of action,” Nathan said. “The higher up you go, the less bandwidth people have.”

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