Six months ago, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was on President Trump’s cabinet shortlist. Though Trump ultimately picked former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be his U.S. agriculture secretary, Miller says he still might be interested in a position in the federal government.
“I have been asked, but I haven’t agreed to do any of them," Miller told the Tribune. “I kind of like being a big fish in a little pond down here in Texas."
Trump has yet to announce his nominees for a dozen key posts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including deputy secretary and chief financial officer. They are among hundreds of unfilled posts across the federal government.
Miller, who was among Trump's most avid Texas supporters in the home stretch of the 2016 election but has since suggested some distance with Trump on immigration, said he'd reconsider taking a role in the Trump administration if the president appealed to him directly.
“If the President of the United States says, 'I need your help,' if he personally thinks I’m the guy to move the country forward, I’d have to do it,” he said. For now, though, “I’m really focused on being the commissioner of the best agriculture state in the country,” he added.
The Trump administration has surprised many with its sluggishness in sending lower Cabinet nominees to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. While some have blamed the White House, Miller offered his own theory for the holdup.
“The reason is the FBI. You’ve got the 'deep state' people in there who are loyal to [Former FBI Director James] Comey,” Miller said. Trump fired Comey on May 9, setting off a political firestorm that led to the Department of Justice appointing a special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
Presidential nominees are subject to a background check by the FBI. Miller’s theory, he said, is that the FBI has been deliberately delaying those checks so key federal positions remain unstaffed in an effort to undermine the president.
But that theory makes little sense, experts say, given the usual process by which nominees are announced, vetted and confirmed.
James Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government who studies presidential appointments, said that most of the time an FBI background check is conducted after a nominee is publicly announced — unless the White House directs the bureau to conduct a background check during its own vetting. In other words, there is no formal mechanism by which the FBI can hold up the announcement of a nominee, but it may delay his or her confirmation.
“The FBI begins the background investigation on the individual when the nominee’s name is submitted to the FBI,” Samantha Shero, a spokeswoman for the bureau, wrote in an email Monday. “The investigations can vary in length and upon completion are provided to the White House.”
Pfiffner also noted that the White House’s own political vetting process could be causing some of the delays. In an April column for Foreign Affairs, he cited the February firing of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development official who had written an op-ed critical of the president as an example of how Trump prioritizes political loyalty when looking to staff the government.
The White House press office referred a request to comment to the USDA, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Terry Sullivan, an expert on presidential nominees who heads up the White House Transition Project, also dismissed Miller's "deep state" theory.
“That [theory] is consistent with the far right’s distrust of government in which they can’t imagine that the people who occupy the executive branch are there simply to do a good job,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan added that there are systemic problems with the way White Houses fills the executive branch. Understaffed offices at the Office of Government Ethics and the FBI can only process so many of the hundreds of presidential nominations that a new commander-in-chief has to make at one time.
“That doesn’t explain why Trump’s people are so much slower,” Sullivan said.
So far, both Miller and industry representatives for the state's farmers and dairymen said the vacancies at the USDA have not posed much of a problem for Texas farmers. (Former President Barack Obama had announced nominees for at least seven of the positions unfilled by Trump at this point in his presidency.)
According to Gary Joiner of the Texas Farm Bureau, the USDA has retained longtime staffers at the local level that continue to work with Texas farmers.
Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen, said that the officials handling the yet-to-be nominated positions in a temporary capacity are doing a fine job.
Miller agreed that Trump’s agricultural agenda has been a success, pointing to his work rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations.
“This administration is working with me, not against me. It’s good to be a Texan,” Miller said.
But the unfilled leadership positions — if they remain so — could become more of a problem next year, when Congress is slated to take up the next farm bill, Turley said. He noted that interest groups often bounce ideas off of administration officials during the months-long negotiation of the wide ranging legislation, which sets farm subsidy levels and allocates money for agricultural research, among other things.
“The longer you wait, it’s going to start impacting our ability to move our points forward in the farm bill,” Turley said.
Miller also said the unfilled USDA positions are better filled sooner rather than later.
“They’ve gotta get beyond this and start functioning,” he said.
When asked whether he knew the names of any of Trump’s desired USDA nominees, Miller said, “Yeah, but I can’t tell you.”
Disclosure: The Texas Farm Bureau has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.