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Trump Finds Benefits With Officials Working In Acting Positions


When you look around the upper echelons of the Trump administration right now, there appear to be an awful lot of temps. Earlier this year, the president was asked why so many of his Cabinet officials are serving in an acting capacity. And here's what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I sort of like acting - gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting. So we have a few that are acting. We have a great, great Cabinet.

MARTIN: President Trump has replaced his attorney general and EPA administrator with permanent hires. But now there are two more vacancies, the head of the Secret Service and the secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen. Whoever the president nominates for that particular role is going to have to deal with the backlash to the president's immigration policies, so it may not happen quickly.

Andrew Card served as chief of staff to President George W. Bush, and he is with us now on the line. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

ANDREW CARD: Good morning, Rachel. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So do you think it matters to have a number of Cabinet members in their roles as - in an acting basis.

CARD: Well, it is destructing to the cadence of government doing its job. But this is also an important time for the president to have a team that he has confidence in, not only because he needs the team to help him, as he's president, he needs a team to be in place that he can count on doing the job when he's going to be distracted with the campaign. So I think it's important for him to have the people around him that he thinks can make a difference and do the job that he wants done - although it is disruptive.

It's particularly challenging, I think, for the Secret Service because this is a time when they have to beef up to get ready to protect a lot of candidates who may be running for president. So in addition to protecting the president and doing all of the other things the secret has to - the Secret Service has to do, they have to worry about staffing up to help presidential campaigns that they don't really want to have to help.

MARTIN: But especially when it comes to the Cabinet nominees - I mean, secretary of defense, currently in an acting capacity - and the interior secretary, currently in an acting capacity. I mean, what does the president mean when he says he likes the flexibility when it comes to these top jobs - I mean, especially jobs that are so urgent and important?

CARD: Well, when you're doing the job, whether you have the title acting or not, you have to do the job. So you are completely focused on doing your job. You don't really worry about the - the the fact that you may be acting, though there are challenges when you have to address Congress. And Congress - you'd like Congress to act quickly to get candidates confirmed that the president has nominated. I'm not sure that it's going to happen, but I suspect that Mitch McConnell will work hard to try to get things done quickly so that people can be fully confirmed in their positions.

MARTIN: Right - because there is a problem...

CARD: But you really want the person in the job to focus on doing the job for the president, and that's what's important. So they shouldn't be preoccupied whether or not their title is acting or the real job.

MARTIN: Right.

CARD: But it's also significant that the president is controlling the agenda. Everybody is talking about what's happening in the Cabinet right now. They're not talking about who's running for president. And that's also an ancillary benefit to have kind of the pot stirred all the time, and he has a great capacity to stir the pot.

MARTIN: But Cabinet secretaries in acting positions don't have to testify before Congress. I mean, that's significant. Is it not?

CARD: It is significant. And one of the things that happens when you have to nominate someone else to do a job and the hearings are going to be held on Capitol Hill, it takes the focus and gives your opposition the ability to have the focus be on the negative things that are happening, not the positive things. So yes, it's a challenge.

I think that Kristen (ph) Nielsen did a remarkable job. That's a tough job, Department of Homeland Security. She did a remarkable job, and she deserves a lot of kudos for what she did. But this is a time of change. And - and the president felt it was - a need to make a change there. I respect that. And I just hope that the organization itself focuses on doing their job rather than worries about what the changes mean.

MARTIN: What do you think she did well? - because she's gotten an awful lot of criticism, as you well know, for implementing the president's very controversial immigration policies, including separating children from families.

CARD: Well - and first of all, I think it's - it's an outrageous policy. But I also don't think there's a problem that - it's not easy to understand or to solve. And President Obama had a tough time dealing with this, and he had - didn't have anywhere near the magnitude of the problem that President Trump has.

So this is not an easy problem to address. And I hope cool, calm reflection on what is happening and what needs to be done will take place all across the aisle - Republicans, Democrats; in the executive branch and in the legislative branch - because this is a real challenge to be met. And I don't know that there are good answers. I think there - some problems are so great that there may be no good policy and answers. They may be just less bad policy answers.

MARTIN: President Trump has suggested he's making these changes at the Department of Homeland Security in order to go in an even, quote, "tougher direction." If he does bring in someone at DHS who's going to toe an even tougher line on immigration, can they get through the confirmation process right now?

CARD: Well, I think it's going to be very hard to get someone through the confirmation process unscathed, especially because it's an election year but even more significantly because of the nature of the policies that are being debated right now in the homeland security arena and the - the real problem at the (unintelligible) - at the border. There are real challenges at the border. I was just in Texas. And believe me; they - they can see the challenge every day.

MARTIN: Former Bush chief of staff Andrew Card. Thank you for your time this morning, sir. We appreciate it.

CARD: Thank you. Have a great day.

MARTIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.