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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A quarter of the leadership positions on the Department of Homeland Security's website are "acting" or vacant.

Why it matters: President Trump has signaled that senior DHS official Chad Wolf will be named acting secretary to replace acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan. But throughout the agency, there have been hiring difficulties, vacant positions and temporary officials.

  • The biggest reasons: A strong economy makes it easy to find other jobs. Politicization makes it harder for nominees to be confirmed by the Senate. And the difficulties dealing with the border crisis along with the White House’s singular focus on immigration has had an impact as well, according to former DHS officials.
  • "[T]he WH’s constant mismanagement of the interagency policy making process is also a factor. Agency leaders never feel like they have command," a former administration official messaged.

The big picture: Trump focuses on DHS' role in immigration enforcement and policymaking. But the department was created with a broader mandate in response to 9/11. Its agencies fight terrorism, defend from cyberattacks, secure airports, enforce trade policy, physically protect public leaders and provide aid after natural disasters.

  • 19 of 75 senior leadership positions are acting or vacant, according to the DHS website's last update on Oct. 30. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman Julie Kirchner also recently offered her resignation.
  • There are vacancies for deputy secretary, undersecretary for science and technology, and director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Office of the General Counsel are all led by acting leaders.
  • A lack of leadership only allows agencies to do the "status quo" and prevents big decisions from being made, said Ur Jaddou, former chief counsel to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Jaddou directs a project called DHS Watch run by America's Voice, a group that advocates a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  • Given new turbulence in the Middle East and Russia's past election interference, "[o]ur nation cannot afford a continued string of temporary, acting secretaries," Jeh Johnson, who served as DHS secretary under Barack Obama, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Turnover happens in any administration, and some DHS subagencies have long struggled with hiring. But several former officials agreed — this isn't normal.

  • "Despite the Senate failing to confirm our nominees, all senior leadership positions have been filled on a permanent or acting capacity, and the Department continues to fulfill its mission to secure the homeland," a DHS spokesperson told Axios.

Behind the scenes: Jaddou said some take leadership roles at DHS "thinking they are ideologically capable of doing so," but "quickly find they are out of step" with Trump and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.

  • Trump has publicly said he prefers acting secretaries, who don't have to go through Senate scrutiny, because it gives him "more flexibility."

The personnel problem isn't just at the top. Subagencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have long had hiring issues due to low pay, a tight labor force and, for border patrol, the need to work in remote areas of the country.

  • With politicization under Trump, "it may be getting harder," a former DHS official said. ICE and CBP agents "get demonized from everyone. I’m sure that’s taking a toll."

The impact:

  • ICE and CBP have struggled to maintain their agent numbers, much less fulfill Trump's 2017 executive order calling for 15,000 more agents.
  • CBP had to cancel a recruitment contract earlier this year because of the small number of applicants due to the "political and economic environment," a DHS official said in April.
  • One-fifth of new hires for the TSA screener position quit within six months, GovExec reports, costing the government millions of dollars spent on training and hiring. A TSA spokesperson told Axios the 17.6% of all TSA officers left the agency in FY 2019.
  • FEMA has struggled with misconduct charges. Two officials overseeing restoration after the hurricane in Puerto Rico were charged with fraud and bribery.
  • Jeffrey Byard's nomination to run FEMA was withdrawn, reportedly because of a bar fight.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that President Trump nominated a new head of FEMA after Byard’s nomination was withdrawn. It has also been updated after GovExec corrected their TSA screener resignation data.

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.

Off the Rails

Episode 2: Barbarians at the Oval

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 2: Trump stops buying what his professional staff are telling him, and increasingly turns to radical voices telling him what he wants to hear. Read episode 1.

President Trump plunked down in an armchair in the White House residence, still dressed from his golf game — navy fleece, black pants, white MAGA cap. It was Saturday, Nov. 7. The networks had just called the election for Joe Biden.

Fringe right plots new attacks out of sight

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Domestic extremists are using obscure and private corners of the internet to plot new attacks ahead of Inauguration Day. Their plans are also hidden in plain sight, buried in podcasts and online video platforms.

Why it matters: Because law enforcement was caught flat-footed during last week's Capitol siege, researchers and intelligence agencies are paying more attention to online threats that could turn into real-world violence.