How Trump is stalling his own nominees

The White House has taken weeks to formally submit nominations to the Senate, even after announcing the picks.

President Donald Trump is pictured.
It’s unclear exactly why the Trump White House has been so slow to officially submit some nominees’ paperwork. | Getty

President Donald Trump is lashing out at Democrats for allegedly stalling his appointments and agenda, but it’s his own administration that is frequently sitting on the necessary paperwork for nominees.

Trump tapped Kevin McAleenan on March 30 to lead Customs and Border Protection, a critical position for his drive to revamp U.S. immigration policy. But the White House didn’t formally submit his nomination to the Senate for confirmation until May 22, nearly eight weeks later.

And McAleenan’s nomination is far from alone in taking weeks to be sent to the Senate, where Republicans are growing impatient and bewildered with the Trump White House’s historic lag in filling administration posts.

Trump’s two nominees for the Export-Import Bank board — ex-GOP Reps. Scott Garrett and Spencer Bachus — haven’t been submitted to the Senate, despite being named April 14. Trump rolled out a batch of 10 judicial nominations to much fanfare on May 8, but two of them have yet to arrive on Capitol Hill.

And Dan Brouillette, nominated by Trump to be Rick Perry’s chief deputy at the Energy Department, was announced on April 3, yet his nomination wasn’t sent by the White House until May 16.

“Do I know why it’s taken so long for any of them?” responded Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), when asked about Brouillette’s delay.

“I don’t know what happens,” the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee added. “They go into some dark hole. And eventually they come out. But still.”

It’s unclear exactly why the Trump White House has been so slow to officially submit some nominees’ paperwork, but it comes amid broader struggles by the new president to vet senior officials and staff his administration.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said some nominations may have been bottlenecked at the Office of Government Ethics, which helps hash out ethics agreements for government appointees.

But an OGE spokesman suggested the White House has been slow to send them nominees’ financial information. “OGE can’t review reports until we receive them,” a spokesman said. “Once we have received them, OGE has been moving these reports faster than we did in the 2009 transition.”

Thune also speculated that the administration may be intentionally slow in naming nominees because it does not want to fill those positions in the first place. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Trump himself is looking squarely at Democrats for the delays, tweeting on Monday that “Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors. They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly responded in a statement that Trump only has himself to blame, adding, “It was the Senate’s responsibility to give a thorough vetting for such important positions, with many of the nominees having conflicts of interest and incomplete ethics agreements when they were named.”

At least 17 of Trump’s nominees took more than a month to be officially sent to the Senate, at which point the vetting by senators and aides can begin in earnest, according to a POLITICO analysis. (One of the 17 nominations, Jim Donovan to be Trump’s deputy Treasury secretary, has since been withdrawn).

And those figures don’t account for slots that are far from being filled. As of Monday, the Trump White House has only named candidates for 117 of 559 key administration positions, per figures from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post. More than 1,200 positions throughout the federal government must be confirmed by the Senate.

“Our members are frustrated,” said Thune, who is supposed to shepherd dozens of key nominations through the Senate as Commerce Committee chairman. “We’re kind of waiting. In many cases, there’s nobody on deck.”

Several prominent vacancies have become more conspicuous. Trump fired FBI director James Comey nearly a month ago and is still interviewing candidates to lead the bureau. Although Trump said in January that he would nominate New York Jets owner Robert “Woody” Johnson as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom — the target of multiple recent terrorist attacks — Johnson’s nomination has still not been sent to the Senate, more than four months later.

Jon Huntsman’s nomination to become U.S. ambassador to Russia has still not formally materialized, although administration sources said in early March that the former Utah governor and erstwhile Trump antagonist had been tapped for the diplomatic post.

And while Kevin Hassett was named April 7 as Trump’s nominee to be chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers — considered the West Wing’s lead economist — his paperwork wasn’t sent until May 16. Obama’s first candidate for that role, Christina Romer, was confirmed Jan. 28, 2009.

Some Trump nominees have run into hiccups deeper in the confirmation process. The nomination of Makan Delrahim, who’s been tapped to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, was abruptly pulled off the agenda minutes before his confirmation hearing was supposed to begin, because of issues with his ethics paperwork. His hearing was eventually rescheduled for two weeks later, and he is expected to get a vote in the Judiciary Committee this week.

“We wouldn’t nominate people until they were cleared by OGE and maybe they’re not doing that,” said Christopher Kang, who served as deputy counsel in the Obama White House. “I don’t see any strategic reason — or any reason, really — to take this long to send up the official paperwork.”

Despite the lag on some nominations early in Obama’s tenure, Kang said by 2011, paperwork for judicial candidates were usually sent to the Senate on the same day they were formally announced by the White House. Executive branch nominations — who require OGE signoff, while judicial nominees do not — sometimes faced short delays, but rarely as long as a month.

Once the nominations hit the Senate, many face political hurdles. Although Democrats can no longer defeat nominees through the filibuster, they are still pulling all the procedural levers they can to extract key concessions from the administration. One example is the nomination of Sigal Mandelker, a top Treasury Department official, which Democrats have held up to try to obtain documents involving Russia’s financial dealings with Trump associates.

“Using 30 hours [of floor debate] for a secretary is one thing, but using 30 hours for an under [secretary] or assistant [secretary] is, it’s a real point of leverage,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “And we don’t intend to overuse it.”

That means Senate Republicans are getting squeezed from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue when it comes to nominations: A White House that seems unwilling to name key administration personnel, and Democrats who are ready to run even obscure nominees through the procedural wringer.

“We need to get more names up here so we can work on them,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said. “We need to get Democrats to quit dragging their feet.”

Despite their sporadic blockades of nominees, Senate Democrats are still urging the administration to fill key posts as soon as possible. Schatz, along with a half-dozen other Democratic senators, wrote to the White House last month noting that more than 100 critical State Department positions need to be filled, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson restructures the organization of personnel at Foggy Bottom.

“Slow. It’s very, very slow,” said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “There’s a lot of jobs, important jobs, that have not been filled.”

Her GOP counterpart, Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, had no clue why McAleenan, now serving as CBP’s acting commissioner, took so long to be formally submitted: “But we’re going to try to move nominations as quickly as possible.”

Elana Schor contributed to this story.

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