WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed the first of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees Friday evening, his picks for two major national security posts, but the rest may have to wait days or weeks before they can officially join the new administration.
Retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Defense, won confirmation on a 98-1 vote shortly after 5 p.m., hours after Trump took the oath of office at the Capitol. Retired Gen. John F. Kelly, his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, was subsequently confirmed 88-11.
Both former Marine Corps generals were well known to senators and earned bipartisan support as their nominations headed to the Senate floor. Mattis was previously in charge of U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Kelly led U.S. Southern Command. Perhaps more critically, both showed a willingness to break with new president’s controversial campaign positions during their confirmation hearings last week, on matters including the likelihood of building a wall on the border with Mexico and the importance of countering the Kremlin to preserve the hegemony of NATO.
While Democrats were ready to endorse Trump’s generals, they are withholding support from almost all of Trump’s other Cabinet nominees, threatening to slow-walk proceedings on the floor if the new president doesn’t force his picks to go back to the committees and answer more questions. But it is unclear whether they will be able to persuade any Republicans to join them in opposition, and Democrats cannot ultimately reject any of the nominees without GOP allies.
“If there was ever a group of Cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it’s this one,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, said Thursday, calling Trump’s Cabinet “a swamp full of billionaires” beset with “conflicts and ethical issues as far as the eye can see.”
A early tiff emerged Friday over the nomination of Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, selected to serve as CIA director. Several Democratic senators raised objections to proceeding with Pompeo’s confirmation without an extended floor debate, even though they could not block an up-or-down vote.
“This is about whether the Senate is going to be a rubber stamp and whether the senate is in effect going to abdicate its responsibilities to do oversight,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, a senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “I think we ought to have a debate in broad daylight, not when senators are trying to figure out if their tux is going to fit, and we can’t get people into a real discussion.”
Schumer asked the Trump transition Thursday to keep sitting CIA Director John Brennan in place until a final vote Monday — much as President Obama kept former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden in place for three weeks after his own inauguration. The request was not granted: Brennan, who has sharply criticized Trump’s recent comments on the U.S. intelligence community, left Friday upon Trump’s inauguration.
In an sign that Pompeo will ultimately be confirmed, the Senate advanced his nomination Friday on an 89-8 procedural vote.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, the Intelligence Committee’s chairman, said Friday that there was no reason for delay.
“We owe it to the country to have a vote today,” he said. “We ought to provide this president a CIA director who’s in charge. An acting director … it’s just not sufficient, whether it’s for a day or whether it’s for a week. Right now, they need the leadership that’s permanent. They need to know tomorrow who’s heading that agency.”
In a White House statement Friday evening, Trump said he was “pleased” by the confirmations of Mattis and Kelly and called on senators to “fulfill their constitutional obligation and swiftly confirm the remainder of my highly qualified cabinet nominees, so that we can get to work on behalf of the American people without further delay.”
Other nominees could wait much longer than Pompeo: Democrats are prepared to delay at least eight other nominees until they are able to register their complaints, either in another round of committee questions or on the floor.
Those nominees include attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who faces deep skepticism over his civil rights views and record; Education nominee Betsy DeVos, who underwent aggressive questioning from Democrats Tuesday over her views on education policy and showed a tenuous grasp of some key issues; Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price, a Georgia congressman who is accused of using his legislative post to help companies he had invested in; and Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick for the Office of Management and Budget, who admitted failing to pay taxes for a domestic employee for four years.
Schumer accused Republicans Friday of “trying to jam through” Trump’s Cabinet picks and said the nominations of several billionaires and sitting politicians belied Trump’s campaign-trail promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
“If there ever was a group of Cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it’s this one,” he said. “I’ve never heard such a parade of potential ethical violations.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in an interview Wednesday that “Democrats are in a bad mood” and are taking that out on Trump’s nominees. “We are getting off to kind of a rough start,” he said in a USA Today interview.
“I would hope the feeling around here would be at least on Day One to have some level of cooperation,” he said Friday. “We should work in the same spirit with the current administration and put the rest of President Trump’s team in place as soon as possible.”
Another nominee who has inspired controversy is State Department nominee Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of oil giant Exxon Mobil. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on his nomination Monday, but it is not clear that Tillerson will win the support of a majority of members. Democrats are all but uniformly opposed to his nomination, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has criticized Tillerson sharply for his stance on Russia’s involvement in Syria and countering human rights violations around the world.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, suggested, however, that GOP leaders are prepared to get Tillerson’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote, regardless of whether Tillerson wins over a majority of the committee. “There are multiple processes for moving someone out of committee,” he said. “At this point, I’m confident he’s going to be our next secretary of state.”
Democrats have also signaled serious doubts about Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, grilling the billionaire investor Thursday about his six-year tenure running a mortgage bank after the 2008 economic crisis, as well as his failure to initially disclose hundreds of millions of dollars of personal assets to the Senate Finance Committee. Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick to lead the Labor Department, is under close scrutiny for his record as chief executive of a major fast-food chain – including his stance against minimum-wage increases and federal worker protections – and will face senators on Feb. 2. And Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, underwent hours of hostile questioning Wednesday from Democrats concerned about his views on climate change and his record of repeatedly suing the agency he is looking to run.
Other picks — such as Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson, Transportation nominee Elaine Chao, Interior nominee Ryan Zinke and United Nations ambassador nominee Nikki Haley — have generated fewer objections. But Democratic leaders said some senators still had unanswered questions that needed to be resolved before they would consent to a confirmation vote.
It is unlikely Republicans, who argue that they are putting Trump’s nominees through the same vetting that Obama’s nominees received, will bend to Democratic demands. And Democrats are hamstrung by the fact that they cannot use the 60-vote procedural filibuster to block any Cabinet nominations.
Mulvaney, whose tax questions are similar to those that derailed past Democratic nominees, received a gesture of support Thursday from a prominent Democrat and fellow South Carolinian.
Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democratic leader, said he wanted to know more about the circumstances of Mulvaney’s tax misstep but would “give him the benefit of the doubt.”
With some sympathy, he compared the situation to one his family’s beauty salon faced many years ago: “My daddy didn’t realize [he had to pay employees’ taxes], either. But he paid a hell of a penalty for it.”
Clyburn said he was more concerned about the issues facing Price: “Insider trading, to me, is very, very serious. To me, that’s much more serious than an oversight on payroll taxes.”