January 16, 2017
Incoming President Donald Trump cleared a first hurdle on his Cabinet nominees last week when Congress approved an exemption letting retired Marine Gen. James Mattis serve as the next defense secretary — but some cracks are showing.
150 House Democrats and another 17 members of the Senate caucus opposed the “Mattis fix,” using the vote as an early chance to show displeasure with Trump even before he takes office.
Gen. Mattis will still need confirmation from the Senate, and Republicans are hoping to have a full slate of top national security Cabinet jobs ready for votes once Trump is sworn in at noon Friday. But the president-elect is not likely to match the records of Presidents Clinton, Obama or George W. Bush, each of whom got most of his Cabinets approved within a couple of days of taking office, facing almost no dissent.
A large number of Democrats have already said they would vote against their colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has tapped to be attorney general.
“After reviewing his record and giving careful consideration to his answers during the hearing, I am not confident in Sen. Sessions’ ability to be a defender of the rights of all Americans or to serve as an independent check on the incoming administration,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer,(D-NY.) said last week.
Former oil company CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick to lead the State Department, is likewise proving a ripe target for Democrats.
“He did not demonstrate the awareness, judgment or independence I expect from our nation’s chief diplomat,” said Sen. Tim Kaine,(D-Va.) and his party’s vice presidential nominee last year.
Coming up this week are hearings on Trump’s picks for the Interior, Education, Commerce, Energy, Treasury and Health and Human Services departments, and for the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Republicans say Democrats are being unfair to Trump, while Democrats said the president-elect has gone outside the mainstream for his picks, which is sparking intense resistance. Democrats expect nominees who are professional politicians, not successful businessmen and women.
Democrats are likely to cast more “no” votes than Republicans did on the entire initial slate of Obama’s 2009 Cabinet picks.
In that year, seven of Obama’s Cabinet nominees were confirmed on Inauguration Day on voice votes, and another four were confirmed within a week. Those included two sitting senators: Ken Salazar for interior secretary, who cleared without opposition, and Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, who was confirmed on a vote of 94-2.
Bush and Clinton also had smooth transitions. Bush’s first 11 Cabinet-level picks were approved without opposition, and almost all of Clinton’s slate was approved in two days without dissent.
Even President Reagan, for whose nominees Democrats forced roll-call votes, won easy confirmations.
In last week’s first set of hearings, Democrats accused the nominees of breaking with Trump on a number of areas, with Russian policy being the most notable.
The president-elect said he had no problem with any disagreements.
“We want them to be themselves, and I told them, ‘Be yourselves and say what you want to say. Don’t worry about me,’” he told reporters.
Predictions of mass Republican defections have yet to materialize, and no Republican has announced opposition to any of Trump’s nominees.
Tillerson is considered the most endangered, with skepticism from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a harsh grilling last week by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Sessions has total support within the Republican Party and has won a commitment from Sen. Joe Manchin III,(D-WV.).
“Trump has exceeded my expectations,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican whom many analysts had watched for a possible defection.
He said he’s had the most difficulty deciding on nominees of intelligence posts.
“I’m a great advocate for privacy, and it’s yet to be determined. I’m going to look for the answers from CIA as well as Director of National Intelligence and things like that. I want to know whether they will be safeguarding Americans’ privacy,” he said.
Some Democrats worry that if they reject some of the initial slate of nominees, Trump’s replacement picks could be even worse.
“I’ve frankly been reflecting on: If not Tillerson, who else might President-elect Trump choose?” Sen. Christopher Coons,(D-De.), said in an interview with MSNBC. “He conducted a sort of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ review process to come up with a nominee for secretary of state, and he seriously considered Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, and I try to imagine how they would have fared in today’s confirmation hearing.”
Sen. Ron Johnson,(D-Wis.) who voted to confirm some of Obama’s more contentious nominees, breaking with most in his party, said he was hoping Democrats would show the same deference toward Trump’s right to pick his team.
“I took a lot of heat for voting for some of these nominees of his. I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said, pointing in particular to his vote for Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “That was not popular. I’ve been called a traitor by conservative talk radio for doing that. But I had no reason not to. She’s a qualified individual. She had nothing in her background to disqualify her.”