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WASHINGTON — More than 13 months into the Trump administration, the Justice Department is now officially without its Senate-confirmed No. 3 in charge — a department where nine of the divisions or offices that reported to former associate attorney general Rachel Brand also lack a permanent leader.
Much attention over Brand’s departure has focused on the order of succession at the Justice Department — a recurring question given President Trump’s repeated lashing out at both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
Within the department itself, however, there is another issue that Brand leaving her job highlights: There are very few people serving in “permanent” roles in the Justice Department.
Brand — who oversaw a significant part of the Justice Department’s portfolio and had served in the Justice Department for several years of the George W. Bush administration — was confirmed by the Senate and seen as helping provide day-to-day stability in the department. With Brand out, Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio, who joined the Justice Department for the first time a month into the Trump administration, has taken over her responsibilities for the time being.
Four of the five legal divisions Brand oversaw lack their own Senate-confirmed leader, a multiplying effect on her departure, and one that is echoed in the the offices that reported to Brand as well. That includes the Tax Division, amid significant changes to the US tax code passed into law by the Republican Congress last year, and the Civil Division, responsible for representing the president and other federal officials in many lawsuits filed against the administration.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the issue.
Former Justice Department officials told BuzzFeed News the situation isn’t a dramatic one, legally. Strong acting heads, who are widely respected, sometimes still can have great influence, of course. And some components have not had a Senate-confirmed leader for several years, including the Civil Rights Division (2013) or the Office on Violence Against Women (2012).
But in day-to-day interactions, people serving in acting roles understandably can have difficulties asserting themselves or their office’s priorities — particularly outside of their agency — in political and even policy discussions. And with fewer people in permanent roles, the Trump administration lacks the stability for good government, or for advancing an actual agenda, more than a year into the presidency.
This topic of vacancies at Justice is not new — NPR, the Washington Post, and Above the Law all wrote about the issue in the opening weeks of 2018, before Brand announced her departure. But Brand's departure adds a new importance to the wide breadth of vacancies in offices that reported to her.
For any administration, the first years are often the most productive in terms of advancing their agenda — and the continued slow pace of the Trump administration in filling roles with permanent leadership reflects the lack of a fully realized Trump administration and, in some cases here, an apparent disinterest in advancing some of the previously established functions of the department.
An acting assistant attorney general oversees the Civil Division, Civil Rights Division, and Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) currently. The Tax Division is being helmed by the principal deputy assistant attorney general — a consequence of there not yet even being a nominee for the position.
There are pending nominations for the three legal divisions with “acting” heads, at various stages in the Senate process. Eric Dreiband, Trump’s nominee to run the Civil Rights Division, and Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Trump’s ENRD nominee, are two of the three Justice Department nominations awaiting floor action in the Senate — along with Criminal Division nominee Brian Benczkowski. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet taken action to consider their nominations, however, focusing instead primarily on getting judicial nominees confirmed. Trump’s nominee to head the Civil Division, Jody Hunt, was only sent to the Senate initially in December after several months’ delay and, as a result, is much less far along: He has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In all, of the legal divisions that reported to Brand, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, running the Antitrust Division, is the only Senate-confirmed legal division head in place.
BuzzFeed / Justice Department / Via justice.gov
Within the offices that report to the associate attorney general, the situation is more stark.
Trump has not even nominated leaders for the Community Relations Service, Office of Justice Programs, or Office on Violence Against Women. (Given that the department’s budget proposal would eliminate the Community Relations Service, it appears that a nominee is unlikely to be coming anytime soon for that office.) Additionally, and as reported by the New York Times, the new administration has effectively closed the Office for Access to Justice. The Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office, currently has an acting director — even though the leadership of that office is appointed by the attorney general and so doesn’t have to go through the Senate confirmation process.
The only offices that report to the associate attorney general that have permanent heads are the Executive Office for the US Trustees and the Office of Information Policy — and they have been in their roles since the George W. Bush administration.
The final entity overseen by the associate attorney general is the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. The two part-time commissioners serving currently were nominated by former president Obama and both have been serving for several years now.