WASHINGTON — The sudden departure of the Justice Department’s No. 3 official is adding to the turmoil at an agency that already lacks permanent, politically appointed leaders for many of its most important divisions.
Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand’s resignation builds on an unusual problem that has contributed to instability in the department, current and former officials say, and has prevented the Trump administration from fully implementing its agenda more than a year after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office.
Sessions lamented situation Monday, blaming a single Republican senator for holding up the confirmations of key figures, including the heads of the department’s national security, criminal and civil rights divisions. While not mentioning him by name, Sessions left no doubt he was referring to Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who promised to prevent the confirmation of all Justice Department nominees after Sessions lifted Obama-era protections for states that have legalized marijuana.
Gardner continues to block the confirmations in protest, his spokesman confirmed Monday night.
Some of President Donald Trump’s Justice Department nominees have been in limbo for months as they go through a drawn-out confirmation process that has been aggravated by Gardner’s resistance.
That might be less surprising if Congress were controlled by Democrats. But it’s unusual to see a Republican blocking his own president’s nominee.
“It’s getting frustrating,” Sessions told a friendly crowd at a gathering of the National Sheriff’s Association. “These are critically important components … But because right now one senator’s concerns over unrelated issues — like reversing federal law against marijuana — we can’t even get a vote.”
Brand announced Friday she was leaving for a top legal job at Walmart after less than nine months overseeing some of the department’s most politically challenging areas, including its civil rights, antitrust and civil rights divisions. She cited an a opportunity in the private sector she could not turn down, which pays considerably more than a job in government.
But her time at the Justice Department had no doubt been difficult, especially with the staffing shortages. And her tenure came as the institution is under extraordinary criticism from Trump, which has strained morale. Her job also had the prospect of becoming even more difficult because she would have been in line to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned, been fired or otherwise stepped aside.
The process to nominate and confirm Brand’s replacement will take months.
Eight key positions lack Senate-confirmed leaders, including four that were overseen by Brand. Also awaiting confirmation is John Demers, Trump’s choice to lead the national security division responsible for terrorism and espionage cases. The post is critical, in part because only officials with Senate approval can sign warrants for foreign surveillance, an essential duty for the head of the national security division.
Related: Can legal marijuana survive the disapproving glare of Jeff Sessions?
Twelve of Trump’s 58 U.S. attorney picks still await confirmation, and dozens more have yet to be nominated. Some divisions have seen more than one acting leader in the course of just a few months. They have been briefing Congress and giving news conferences. That can be problematic, said Peter Keisler, who served as acting attorney general under President George W. Bush when Alberto Gonzales resigned from that job.
“The reality is that if someone is perceived as temporary and doesn’t have the full legitimacy that comes with Senate confirmation, they are less able to successfully advocate the interests and positions of their agency to the rest of the government,” Keisler said.
Other impacts of the vacancies are less obvious. Leaders serving in acting capacities are less likely to make wide-reaching policy changes for fear they’ll be overturned once a permanent head is in place. That matters, as Sessions and Trump continue to try to roll out an ambitious agenda that targets urban crime and illegal immigration.
“You can keep the ship steering on the same course it has been on, but it’s really hard to react to emerging problems,” said Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney in Alabama who worked under the Obama administration. “There’s a sense that everything is temporary. There’s uncertainty.”