WASHINGTON — The White House has so far declined to ask for the resignations of its ambassadors and other political appointees, potentially delaying a turnover of the government’s most senior officials and risking more chaos across the federal work force in President Trump’s final days in office.
Mr. Trump’s monthslong defiance to issue an order for those letters of resignation — which has been a routine proceeding in past administrations — is another snub of presidential decorum that broadcasts the depths of division inside the United States.
Mr. Trump promised early Thursday to ensure an “orderly transition” to the administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., following Wednesday’s assault by his supporters on the Capitol to disrupt the official Electoral College tally. Some senior administration officials quit after Mr. Trump incited the violent protest against Congress.
The White House did not respond on Thursday morning to the latest of several requests for comment about when it would formally call for resignations.
The delay has irritated some foreign allies who want to plan for Mr. Biden’s policies but are awaiting the departure of Mr. Trump’s ambassadors so that career diplomats at American embassies are not put in the position of being insubordinate to their bosses. More broadly, and without a clear directive to leave, officials said, some political appointees may burrow into the federal bureaucracy until they are forced out by Mr. Biden.
When the Clinton and then the Bush administrations left office, there also were concerns about political appointees staying on, often transferring to permanent civil service positions. But people familiar with Mr. Biden’s transition plans said Mr. Trump’s refusal to formally tell his Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and other senior policy advisers to leave before the Jan. 20 inauguration has created anxiety and a high level of confusion across the federal work force.
“There’s been no memo sent to anybody,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was an ambassador to four countries under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He also served as an assistant secretary of state to Mr. Bush. “And so a number of ambassadors are saying, ‘Hey, I’ll just stay until I’m informed otherwise.’”
Mr. Hill predicted, though, that the delay would not dramatically undercut national security or foreign policy, or have widespread adverse effects other than “participating in sort of a scorched-earth” political effort.
Another former ambassador, Eric Rubin, noted that “the world is watching” the transition process — in part to see if the United States will return to an era of domestic politics ending at the water’s edge, which was a bedrock of American foreign policy for much of the last 75 years.
“We hope that the next two weeks will see intensified cooperation on the transition in all of our foreign affairs agencies,” said Mr. Rubin, who was ambassador to Bulgaria under Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump, and is now president of the union that represents career diplomats.
The Presidential Transition
For more than 30 years, since at least the end of the Reagan administration, outgoing presidents have requested the resignations of political appointees, who account for about 4,000 of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees. Their timely departure helps prevent a personnel bottleneck immediately after the inauguration that would occur if departing employees are still being processed just as new administration appointees are coming in.
Even during friendly transitions of power, it is fairly common for new presidential administrations to take several months or longer to appoint the majority of its senior advisers.
Most politically appointed ambassadors, for example, do not take up their foreign posts until early summer following the transition in January, depending on how quickly they can be confirmed by the Senate.
And Mr. Biden’s top advisers have urged senators to start considering some key political appointees, including cabinet secretaries, even before Jan. 20 to speed up the process.
At the State Department, diplomats and other officials involved in discussions with Mr. Biden’s transition team noted that some foreign governments, particularly in Europe, are eager to start discussing climate policy with United States embassies but cannot as long as Mr. Trump’s ambassadors are in place.
Others described a sense of bemusement among allies who are watching American diplomats as they carefully avoid mention of Mr. Trump’s electoral loss — and by extension, Mr. Biden’s win.
A former British Conservative member of Parliament, Alistair Burt, seized on Wednesday’s protests at the Capitol to press the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Wood Johnson IV, for “a clear expression of support for your duly elected new President Biden.”
Several diplomats said they have repeatedly asked for specific guidance from Washington — and have not received it — on whether they are allowed to acknowledge the transition in public documents or statements.
Others have taken the silence as permission to do it anyway, as in an interview last month when Philip Frayne, the American consul general in Dubai, assured a local radio host that Washington’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates wasn’t “going to change much with the new administration, with the Biden administration coming in.”
Although American ambassadors are expected to submit resignation letters at the end of a presidential term, tradition holds that only those from political appointees are accepted. Currently, about 57 percent of ambassadors are career diplomats who have earned the rank, and generally will be allowed to remain in their posts for the duration of their three-year assignments.
In a limited number of cases, and usually to accommodate an ambassador’s family, political appointees have been allowed to remain for a short time under a new presidential administration. It is not clear whether Mr. Biden will agree to that, although officials familiar with his transition plans said he is prepared to fire political appointees, in accordance of rules set by the Office of Personnel Management, if they have not resigned by the time he is sworn in.
The nation’s senior diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, referred vaguely to his own impending departure in an interview this week. “I think we’re leaving the world safer than when we came in,” he told Bloomberg News.