By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2017 — The infantry learns pretty quickly to be extra alert at dawn and dusk, because the enemy favors those transition times to attack.
The same is true during political transitions, and the Defense Department is working closely with President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team to ensure the process at the department doesn’t give any enemy of the United States an opportunity.
Shortly after the president-elect takes the oath of office at noon today, the department will have a new defense secretary. Trump has nominated retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis to succeed Defense Secretary Ash Carter. If the Senate confirms him, he will raise his right hand again and pledge “to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work will serve as acting secretary for any interim period between the inauguration and the swearing-in of a new secretary.
The department has ongoing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other areas, and it cannot simply stop these operations to install new leaders. U.S. forces keep watch against North Korean aggression, continue patrols in the South China Sea and train with allies and partners in Europe.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other terror groups are not going to take a break because the United States is installing a new government. Still, with few exceptions, most of the Obama administration’s political appointees in the department will exit when the new president takes office. This includes the Army, Navy and Air Force secretaries, and the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of defense.
Filling those jobs will take time; they require Senate confirmation, and the president-elect has nominated only one person for any of these jobs: Vincent Viola as Army secretary.
Jobs that do not need Senate approval will be filled more quickly. So-called “Schedule C” jobs range from senior executive service appointments to GS-7s. But even these will take some time to fill, as there is usually a vetting process, and time is required to get security clearances and the like.
So What Happens?
Generally, career civilian employees step into these positions on an acting basis. These individuals make the day-to-day decisions to keep the department or office or agency running.
This will be a relatively new procedure for the department. In 2009, the last time there was a change of administrations, President Barack Obama asked then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to stay on. Gates agreed, and some members of his leadership team also stayed in place.
The last wholesale changeover was when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld succeeded Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in 2001. Transition that year was delayed because of the disputed election in 2000, and it took some time for Rumsfeld to assemble his team. In fact, at one point it was taking so long, he talked about being “home alone” in the Pentagon.