NNSA and the Art of Reading Political Spin
Gizmodo’s got an alarming story up, at least if you consider unattended nuclear stockpiles and a’splodey bomb photos alarming:
According to an official within the Department of Energy, this past Friday, the President-elect’s team instructed the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and his deputy to clean out their desks when Trump takes office on January 20th.
Oh. Well. I mean, it’s just the National Nuclear Security Administration. Nothing to see here, they don’t do anything important like maintain national security through the military application of nuclear science. They’re not responsible for the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear explosive testing. They don’t work to reduce the global danger from weapons of mass destruction. They definitely don’t provide
(Hint: yes, they do all of that.)
Thankfully, Defense One has stepped up and gotten someone from the NNSA to deny that Trump’s team has asked both NNSA director Frank Klotz and his deputy, Madelyn Creedon, to step down on Jan 20! Why, not at all. In fact, the official assures us 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.
See, here’s the thing. It might sound, on the surface, like Gizmodo and Defense One are saying two separate things, but they’re not. Oh sure, it’s possible that there were no literal marching orders given to Klotz, Creedon, and other appointed staff… but it’s just as likely someone did clarify that they needed to have their desks cleared and goodbyes said by noon, January 20th. See, Klotz, Creedon, and about 3,000 other government employees are appointed. They don’t have to be dismissed; by tradition (and in some cases law), all non-termed political appointees would have submitted their resignations some time after the election, effective immediately on swearing in of a new president.1 Now traditionally, what happens is that the sitting president tells all agencies that there is a hiring freeze and gives all appointees their resignation deadline; Obama’s was December 7th. The incoming presidential team then offers extensions to the majority of appointees, because it takes time to appoint and confirm some 850 high level/cabinet members of the government (not to mention the other 2,000+ lower level appointees), and it’s nice to have people around to, you know, run things.
That didn’t happen this time.
Gizmodo is taking it as active malice: Trump’s seeking out and firing people. The NNSA is downplaying this: no, no, they weren’t fired or removed…. it’s just that their service ends January 20th and unlike every other time ever, it’s not being extended, nor is the service of all the appointed folks under them!
It’s the same story, different spin, same result. Functionally speaking, right now, as of noon January 20th, the NNSA won’t have appointed leadership – which means that, as of noon January 20th, NNSA will be hamstrung. As Gizmodo explains, the career civil servants and scientists (that is, people hired rather than appointed) will continue doing their job, but they won’t have an advocate to secure a budget from Congress and they won’t be able to tackle any new directives 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.
Given Trump’s bombastic and erratic statements regarding the US nuclear arsenal, this situation should concern everyone. It is not, as is so commonly said right now, normal.