Trump won by rejecting the political rules. Will the GOP Senate give him more leeway with Cabinet nominees?
President-elect Donald Trump won election by torching every rule in the political book, calling government officials “very, very stupid” and promising to hire the best people to fulfill “every dream you’ve ever dreamed.”
Now, as Trump assembles his governing team, he and the Republican-controlled Senate are facing their first test of what that means, and whether the old confirmation rules — where those serving the president are subject to intense scrutiny over past comments, deeds and potential conflicts of interest — still apply.
Republican senators already have begun to debate how much leeway to give Trump, and which, if any, battles to fight with a leader who ran against both Washington and the Republican Party that many of them continue to revere.
The GOP will hold a narrow majority in the Senate when Trump takes office in January. Nominees no longer need 60 votes to win approval, except to the Supreme Court, thanks to rule changes Democrats made in 2013 to make confirmations easier.
Even though Trump’s nominees can win confirmation without Democrats, they can only afford two Republican defections to secure victory if Democrats are united. That places extraordinary power — and pressure — on Republicans who choose to dissent from Trump, should they decide to do so.
The risks are many. Voters who backed Trump, having chosen the ultimate outsider, may want more of the same from the people leading government agencies. And Trump showed during the election that crossing him invites retribution that could exact a large political price among Republican voters.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), selected Friday as attorney general, was rejected by the Senate for a federal judgeship in 1986 over accusations of racism and is the Senate’s leading immigration hard-liner. As a sitting senator, however, he likely has a leg up in winning confirmation from his colleagues, but that is not a sure thing.
Two of Trump’s leading candidates for secretary of State, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, could also face opposition. Kentucky Rep. Sen. Rand Paul, an early GOP opponent of Trump’s, took a public step last week in declaring opposition to both men because they supported the war in Iraq.
Giuliani, one of Trump’s closest advisors, also faces scrutiny for his work on behalf of foreign governments and an Iranian opposition group that was officially designated as a terrorist organization at the time Giuliani represented them.
Most Republicans have yet to weigh in on Trump’s future picks, particularly as many names remain in the talking stages. Still, they have urged Trump not to defy all convention, pointing to the complexity of leading government agencies.
“They’re large. They’re bulky. They’re complicated,” said Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican. “It takes a little bit of time to get up to speed on them.”
“I would hope that he’s not just trying to pick different people,” he said. “He’s trying to pick competent people.”
Some Democrats believe Trump will flood the Senate with so many controversial picks that lawmakers will be forced to accept some who would ordinarily provoke a fight.
“They’re going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Senate,” said Jim Manley, a former Democratic leadership aide.
Manley named several Republicans, including Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, who might join Democrats in opposition to some of Trump’s picks. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative Republican who was one of Trump’s most high-profile critics during the campaign, might also be a target for Democratic alliances.
But Manley did not believe they could count on more than a few battles.
Steven S. Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in Congress, agreed.
“I don’t think any of those Republican senators are going to make opposition to Trump nominees a habit,” he said. “They are going to be very selective.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who shares Paul’s skepticism of domestic spying programs and other instruments of the war on terror, predicted an alliance between him and Paul could pose a hurdle to some of Trump’s plans.
“Registries of Muslims … constitutional values,” Wyden said. “What the Senate has historically said is you get beyond partisanship.”
But Paul drew an immediate rebuke from one of his colleagues. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Republican who waged a short bid for the presidency and was critical of Trump during the campaign, said Paul has little influence in the Senate.
“The fact that Rand Paul doesn’t like either one of them helps me reach my decision,” Graham said of Giuliani and Bolton.
Trump’s selections deserve the benefit of the doubt if they are qualified, Graham said. He pointed to some of President Obama’s choices for Supreme Court and key Cabinet posts who earned his vote, despite ideological differences, because they met the qualification test.
So far, Graham said Thursday, there is no one being talked about by Trump whom he could not stomach. Graham even offered unsolicited praise for Jared Kushner, Trump’s 35-year-old son-in-law, who would face potential problems with anti-nepotism laws and conflicts of interests should he serve in the White House.
“If his son-in-law is a valued advisor, I’m all for his son-in-law helping him be a good president,” he said.
Trump’s selection Friday of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to lead the CIA is an example of a sharply ideological nominee whose credentials are not likely to be questioned. The former Army officer, a Harvard Law School graduate, was one of the most relentless critics of the Obama administration’s handling of the 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, an issue that united Republican partisans even as it infuriated Democrats.
Trump may reserve his most controversial choices for slots that do not require Senate confirmation. One of Trump’s first selections, Steve Bannon for a lead White House advisory role, has immediately put Democrats on edge and made some Republicans uncomfortable because he has been accused of promoting white nationalism.
Ret. Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, has made inflammatory comments about Muslims. He also has drawn fire for his role as a paid lobbyist for foreign clients.
Both have been chosen for jobs on which the Senate has no say.
Democrats see Bannon as an ominous sign that Trump will not make efforts to modify the sharp rhetoric and racially charged campaign promises he made before the election.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who lost his bid for the vice presidency with Trump’s election, said he did not want to prejudge Trump’s other choices. But like many Democrats, he was eager to throw the spotlight on Bannon.
“We should never normalize connections to anti-Semitism or white nationalism,” he said. “And so that’s something that we’re going to continue to make sure that we talk about because that shouldn’t be a one-day news story and then, ‘Well, OK, that’s the new normal.’”
Still, it is unwise to underestimate how senatorial egos can ensure that few, if any nominees emerge from the confirmation process without at least a few blisters. Even administrations with more expertise and preparation than Trump’s have faced excruciating battles, and losses, from those in their own party.
Obama wanted former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, but withdrew the nomination, despite holding a big Senate majority, because Daschle had underpaid income taxes. President George W. Bush had to withdraw Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court, despite GOP control of the Senate, in part because senators thought she lacked relevant experience and was too much of a presidential crony.
President Bill Clinton dropped two picks for attorney general after news surfaced that they had employed nannies who came to the country illegally.
And President George H.W. Bush suffered a big defeat his first year when the Senate rejected his nomination of former Sen. John G. Tower of Texas to be secretary of Defense. Bush underestimated the number of senators whom Tower had alienated over the years, and allegations of drunkenness and multiple affairs led to his rejection, 53 to 47.
Times staff writers David Lauter and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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