By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary Tom Vilsack left the Agriculture Department a week before his tenure ends and before President-elect Donald Trump has chosen his replacement.
Vilsack, who has led USDA for eight years and was President Barack Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet secretary, told employees in an email that Friday – today – is his final day. The email did not say why he was leaving. He has said he wants to remain involved with agriculture after leaving government, but has not detailed those plans.
As Vilsack leaves the department — aides said the former Iowa governor has already left the building and is boarding a flight to his home state — some in farm country are worried that agriculture may be a low priority for the new administration. It is the only Cabinet position Trump has not moved to fill, yet rural voters were key to delivering him the presidency.
“When that individual is named, he or she will be at a tremendous disadvantage, in terms of getting up to speed on all this department does,” Vilsack said in a statement, noting he was confirmed on Obama’s first day in office.
Farm-state lawmakers in Congress say they are eagerly awaiting the decision.
“We brought him home,” Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Thursday of delivering on Trump’s win. “Farmers, ranchers and small town America brought him home. So obviously they’d like to see a Secretary of Agriculture that would be their champion. That hasn’t occurred yet. So we hope it will.”
Trump and his staff have interviewed a series of candidates, but have not yet announced a choice. Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in a daily briefing call with reporters on Friday, played down any talk of a delay with the agriculture selection, saying that the president-elect had given it the same amount of attention and consideration as his other Cabinet picks.
Spicer said Trump had met with “several” qualified candidates and would make a decision in the near future. Trump will be sworn in Jan. 20.
Trump has little agricultural history, and spoke rarely about farm issues on the campaign trail.
“People don’t know what he stands for in agriculture and everyone’s waiting for the secretary to be named so you can get some clues,” said Roger Johnson, head of the National Farmers Union.
Vilsack is one of the nation’s longest-serving agriculture secretaries. During his tenure, he focused on rebuilding rural communities, increasing the diversity of types of agriculture, boosting innovation and research and making school meals healthier. He’s also worked to resolve civil rights claims against the department.