Between the Trump transition team’s infighting, incompetence, and high-profile resignations, any decisions that signaled even a modicum of stability for the country would come as a relief at this point. Unfortunately, the nascent Trump Administration isn’t inclined to calm anyone’s nerves. According to an official within the Department of Energy, the Trump transition team has declined to ask the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and his deputy to temporarily stay in their roles after Trump takes office on January 20th.
The NNSA is the $12 billion-a-year agency that “maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” It’s unclear when the two officials will be replaced. Their offices will remain vacant until they are.
Traditionally, all political appointees of an outgoing presidential administration turn in resignation letters effective on noon of inauguration day, January 20. But appointees in key positions—like the people who make sure our nukes work—are often asked to stay on in their roles until a replacement can be found and confirmed by the Senate, helping ensure a smooth transition and allowing our government to continue functioning. In fact, for the entirety of Obama’s first term and into part of his second, the NNSA Administrator remained a Bush appointee.
Trump, however, appears determined to be free of anyone who was appointed by Obama, regardless of whether or not he has anyone in line for the job. Or, as our source put it: “It’s a shocking disregard for process and continuity of government.”
Just as with Obama’s soon-to-be-removed international envoys, Trump’s team hasn’t asked Under Secretary for Nuclear Security Frank Klotz and his deputy, Madelyn Creedon—both Obama appointees—to stay in their posts, even if it means no one is in charge of maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons. According to our Energy Department source, Trump’s team has yet to nominate anyone to succeed them. Since both positions require Senate confirmation, if could be months before their chairs are filled. And the vacancies may extend beyond the leadership roles.
“There are scores more appointees within the department,” our source told us. “Secretarial and administration appointments that don’t require Senate confirmation, mostly performing policy, liaison, and strategic advisory capacities in support of the agency they’re at. They serve at the will of the head of their agency. Those people are, theoretically, also out on inauguration day unless otherwise directed, which hasn’t happened yet to my knowledge.”
The source later added, “I’m more and more coming around to the idea that we’re so very very fucked.”
As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented—January 20 will mark the first time in the NNSA’s 17-year history that it will exist wholly without its appointed leadership. According to Bob Rosner, the Co-Chair of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the former director of Argonne National Laboratory, the leadership vacuum won’t prevent the agency from fulfilling its essential duties. But it will leave it without an advocate as it tries to secure a budget from Congress, and unable to tackle any new initiatives whatsoever.
“To some extent, what we’re talking about is the political leadership, the leadership appointed by each administration,” Rosner told Gizmodo. “The department is really run by its civil servants.”
Still, while those career civil servants will continue on with their current directives, they’re effectively barred from embarking on anything new. That’s because the legislation authorizing the NNSA specifically prohibits non-NNSA officials from managing NNSA employees—agency staffers are only allowed to take orders from Klotz and Creedon or their (nonexistent) replacements.
Usually, in the first few months of a new presidential administration, the NNSA defends its new budget to Congress. But without any leadership in place, that’s next to impossible, even as Trump has made big, vague promises of nuclear expansion.
“When it comes to the budget negotiations, the fact is that without political leadership they will be struggling for money,” Rosner told Gizmodo. “If [Trump] says he wants to invest heavily in the nuclear weapons program, and they don’t have anyone to defend the program, that’s going to be a pretty big problem for him.”
That’s just the first layer to Trump’s self-created nuclear problem. Even if he had prepared appointments to fill the soon-to-be vacant roles, how exactly they would go about fulfilling Trump’s repeated promises to “expand [U.S.] nuclear capacity” is another issue altogether.
Rosner noted that the Obama Administration has already essentially begun rebuilding the nuclear program, making Trump’s promised expansion “a perfect example of Trump basically being clueless.”
“He didn’t understand that we have a refurbishment program,” Rosner said. “He didn’t understand that, under Obama, that we’d rebuilt the entire production complex. So exactly what he would mean by ‘strengthening the nuclear program,’ it’s a bit of a mystery. I don’t know what he’s talking about. We’ve done it already.”
So did Trump simply not realize that a considerable portion of the Department of Energy is dedicated to building and protecting our nuclear arsenal? That would certainly explain his appointment of Rick Perry as secretary, and why he is apparently leaving the agency responsible for safeguarding our nuclear infrastructure without any leadership for the foreseeable future.” Neither Trump nor the NNSA have returned our requests for comment.
In the meantime, if you know anything at all about Trump’s transition efforts (or anything else that you think the world should be aware of), please do let us know.
Correction, 1/9/17, 11:03 p.m., : Another NNSA official, speaking on background to Gizmodo and Defense News, has disputed this report as “inaccurate” while also confirming that “there have been no discussions between the president-elect’s transition team and any of NNSA’s political appointees on extending their public service past Jan. 20.” In other words, the Trump transition team has indeed not asked the top two NNSA officials to stay on until they can be replaced.
After speaking to our source for clarification, we have updated the story and headline to reflect that, while Klotz and Creedon have submitted their resignations, intend to depart on January 20, and have not been asked by the Trump transition to stay past that date, the Trump team has not explicitly instructed them to leave or “clean out their desks,” as we reported. According to our source, both officials “have expressed [to the Trump team] that they would likely be willing to stay to facilitate a smooth transition, if asked,” as is the tradition for key officials, and have yet to receive a response.
Their goodbye party is scheduled for next Thursday.