GOP Senators Push Trump to Fill Administration Posts
Republican senators are growing impatient with the White House’s slow pace in filling out the administration and are pushing President Trump to speed the nomination process, concerned that the dearth of Cabinet deputies could hamper the executive branch’s ability to function.
The Senate has taken longer to confirm Trump’s nominees than it has those of past presidents, but Trump also has been slower than his predecessors to make nominations.
Of the more than 1,200 jobs that require Senate confirmation, 553 are considered "key" positions by the nonpartisan nonprofit, Partnership for Public Service. The vast majority of those 553, including deputy, assistant and associate secretary posts, remain unfilled.
While Democrats stalled confirmations of several Trump Cabinet secretaries, most have been in place for weeks. Republican senators are now hoping the president will move more swiftly to nominate their deputies.
“It’d be great to be able to confirm some more nominees, so I’d love for them to speed up the pace,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber. Without nominations, and with the Affordable Care Act repeal and replace stalled in the House, “We’re going to have some holes in the calendar,” he said.
“I just don’t know how ready they were for the transition,” Cornyn added, when asked why he thought there had been delays. “And being sort of new to government – the president is a successful businessman, but this is a new and different kind of gig, so it’s harder than it looks.”
The Senate had confirmed 22 Trump nominees as of Thursday, with no others – except Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch – likely before the Senate breaks Friday for a two-week recess. In the same time period, according to a tracker kept by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, Barack Obama had 54 nominees confirmed, George W. Bush had 32 confirmed, Bill Clinton had 44 confirmed, and George H.W. Bush had 27 confirmed. Only the first Bush faced a Senate of the opposite party.
Trump is likely to fall even further behind during the Easter recess. By April 23 – the date the Senate returns – Obama had an additional seven nominees confirmed, Clinton an additional two, and George H.W. Bush an additional 23.
Trump has nominated 43 people since taking office -- 21 formally nominated but awaiting confirmation, in addition to those already confirmed (another 24 have been announced but not formally nominated). In the same time frame, Obama had formally nominated 120 people; George W. Bush, 65; Bill Clinton, 69; and George H.W. Bush, 72.
A White House official said fewer positions have been filled because Trump ran a "leaner" campaign than past presidents and didn't have scores of campaign officials expecting to be given administration jobs.
The personnel office "is able to go out and recruit a higher caliber of individual who will be able to fulfill those roles, [rather] than simply place those officials because they have an IOU because [they] were on the campaign," the official said.
Trump’s nominees have not stalled entirely in the Senate. The chamber confirmed his deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Tuesday; on Wednesday, the Commerce Committee approved his choice for deputy secretary of Transportation, and the Armed Services Committee approved his choice for secretary of the Air Force.
But the rate at which committees have received official nominations for positions, and the rate at which they’ve been able to consider them, has frustrated some senators. The Senate health committee, for example, held a hearing on Trump’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday.
“After that, there’s no one for us to turn to,” the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, told RealClearPolitics. He said he has encouraged the administration to send further nominees quickly. “The sooner they send us nominees, the sooner we can confirm them. And we’re eager to proceed.”
Some senators pointed to the lack of national security personnel as the most concerning. While Secretary of Defense James Mattis was Trump’s first Cabinet official to be confirmed on Inauguration Day, no other Defense Department official has been confirmed. Eight department officials have been announced, according to the Post tracker, but none of those nominations has been officially sent to the Senate.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, last week joined the chorus of critics. “It hurts the ability of the Pentagon to function without those people in their positions,” McCain said. He added of Mattis: “Basically, he’s all by himself.”
McCain said he’d raised those concerns with the White House, and the response had essentially amounted to: “Thank you very much.” But on Wednesday McCain told RCP he spoke with a personnel official at the White House when Trump invited the entire Senate for a gathering last week and received assurances more nominees were coming soon. The White House official said there were 20 Defense candidates being vetted that could be announced shortly.
Like the Pentagon, the Department of State lacks critical staff. Trump vetoed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary, Elliott Abrams – a veteran of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations – in February, CNN reported, because Abrams had criticized Trump during the campaign. Since then, no one has been nominated for any State Department position that requires confirmation, though there are more than three dozen such jobs, excluding ambassadorships.
“I’d love to see Secretary Tillerson have some help over there,” Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told RCP. “He’s got a big load. They’re laying out a strategic vision for multiple regions, working closely with the [National Security Council] and Mattis and others.”
Corker pointed out that there had been time on the Senate floor – a precious commodity in a chamber that moves slowly – carved out for confirmations in recent weeks, but there had been few nominees ready to fill that time. On the flip side, Corker said the lack of sub-cabinet personnel meant he deals directly with Cabinet members, which helps cement relationships.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that assistant secretaries of state in charge of specific regions were some of the most important positions to fill. To illustrate the problem their absence creates, Rubio pointed to the Organization of American States dealing with human rights and democratic concerns in Venezuela, an issue of concern to him. He said he’s pleased with the Trump administration’s position, but said there are broader concerns.
“There is no one appointed who is handling that on a day-to-day basis that can speak with the authority of having been selected by the president in that capacity,” Rubio said. “I believe we could have been much further along on some of those issues had there been someone there.”
“The secretary of state is one person. They can’t be everywhere,” Rubio added.
The White House official pushed back on senators' concerns, saying a number of individuals are undergoing the vetting process and would be rolled out soon. The official said Trump is meeting several times a week with his personnel director.
"Just because the Hill isn't aware of what is happening behind the scenes doesn't mean that the process isn't moving along, because it is," the official said.
Democrats also expressed concern over the pace of nominations. Sen. Tim Kaine, the party's vice presidential candidate in 2016, pointed out that Trump's top adviser, Steve Bannon, said one of the three main goals of the Trump administration was the "deconstruction of the administrative state," and wondered if it could be the reason for the lag.
"Is it an intentional strategy?" Kaine asked. "These are positions created by law for a reason, and especially in the national security space, you've got to keep people safe."
Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, called the administration “incompetent” and said he’d been discussing financial reforms with a group Tuesday that struggled to get guidance from the Treasury Department. Only Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been confirmed; seven other nominees to the treasury have been announced, but only three have been reported to the Senate and no hearings have been held.
“I just wonder when they’re going to actually try to run the government,” Brown said.
In many cases, Republicans argued the Trump White House was not entirely to blame. Several of his Cabinet secretaries weren’t confirmed until early March because of Democratic objections and procedural delays – though Republicans could confirm any nominee on party-line votes because of the elimination of the filibuster for executive positions in 2013.
“I think the administration has been slower than they should have been, but I think they have been hampered more by Democrats in the Senate than they should have to put a government in place,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership. “Every minute that you spend that you shouldn’t have to spend on these Cabinet members that were clearly going to be confirmed is a minute you can’t spend focusing on how you create the rest of that structure.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who shepherded the Supreme Court nomination through the Judiciary Committee, which also approved two sub-cabinet positions this week, said, "Democrats obstructing everything has slowed up the process. You can’t blame the administration.”
Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, however, said the slow pace of sub-cabinet nominees “undermines” those criticisms. Democrats are likely to make a case-by-case determination on how much to oppose certain lower positions.
“I don’t think we have a disposition that has to do with fast or slow,” Schatz said. “It has to do with giving our advice and consent.”
Several Republican senators said they’d received assurances from the administration that nominations will pick up in the coming weeks. Seven-term Sen. Orrin Hatch, who partially blamed Democrats for delaying Cabinet nominees, also said Trump’s lack of government experience might have slowed the process at the start.
“You’ve got the president, who hasn’t really been around Washington very much, who is brand new to the process, so it’s naturally going to take a little longer for him and his people to make all these determinations,” Hatch said. “They’re moving, but not as fast as I’d like.”
An earlier version of this story cited erroneous numbers for the current and previous presidents' nominees at this point in their tenures. Those figures have been corrected.
RealClearPolitics White House Correspondent Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.