President Donald Trump held his first Cabinet meeting Monday with four empty chairs at the table.
Trump blamed the absences on Senate Democrats. The party, he said, has obstructed confirmation of the Cabinet-level posts, including the U.S. trade representative, the director of national intelligence, and the secretaries of labor and agriculture.
“We have four empty seats, which is a terrible thing,” the president said as the meeting started. “Because the Senate Democrats are continuing to obstruct.”
Well … not exactly.
It’s true and unfortunate that Senate Democrats slow-walked some of Trump’s early nominees. In fact, Senate Democrats — lacking a filibuster option — delayed final votes on several Cabinet picks, making it harder for the White House to assemble a government.
At the same time, Trump’s scattershot approach to filling vacant jobs has left hundreds of positions unfilled nearly two months after he took office. By one estimate, roughly 500 senior-level positions remain empty, a dismal record that The New York Times said resulted from “dysfunctional” transition work.
And nowhere is that dysfunction more apparent than in one of those empty Cabinet seats: the one held by the secretary of agriculture.
The transition team reportedly vetted several candidates for that important job, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. But Trump didn’t settle on the eventual nominee, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, until just before his Jan. 20 inauguration. Perdue was Trump’s last Cabinet choice.
But it gets worse. Perdue is deeply entangled in several potential conflicts of interest. He holds ownership positions in farm-related companies and serves as secretary of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. Those connections were revealed in Perdue’s filing with the Office of Government Ethics — a document made public only last Friday.
It’s hardly the Democrats’ fault that it took Perdue seven weeks to submit documents about his business arrangements. Senate hearings, and therefore Senate confirmation, had to be delayed until the papers were submitted.
And it still isn’t clear that Perdue has taken all the steps required so that he can go before the Senate. He’s working to clear up the potential conflicts, pushing the vote down the calendar.
The delay has irked Republicans. “We need him on board,” Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said in early March.
Yes. Yet Roberts and other farm state senators have been far too quiet about the tardy Perdue nomination. Their acquiescence enables Trump.
Western Kansas is on fire, yet the nominee for agriculture secretary is still doing his homework.
The delay also suggests a more disconcerting possibility: that Trump doesn’t understand or fully appreciate the importance of agriculture or food production or nutrition programs across the country. The evidence to date reinforces that suspicion.
The White House should move quickly to get someone in the office. Farmers, ranchers and anyone who eats deserve more than an empty seat at the table.