The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are a Biden nominee’s Twitter attacks fair game for Senate Republicans after years of tolerating Trump’s?

Neera Tanden speaks at a 2019 rally in favor of impeaching President Trump. She's Biden's pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

It wasn’t hard to see a fight coming over President-elect Joe Biden’s most controversial Cabinet pick to date. Neera Tanden, head of a liberal think tank and Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, spent years as a prominent face of the opposition to Republican policies and politics. She sometimes did that by attacking individual GOP officials by name. Now her selection means she has to get the okay of many of those same senators to actually get the job.

But there’s irony, or even hypocrisy, on the other side, too. Some of the Republican senators who have expressed resistance to Tanden said they weren’t happy with her attacks on them, many of which came in tweets.

Putting up a fight over the other side’s Cabinet picks based on their qualifications, their potential conflicts or their past public statements isn’t unusual. But singling out such attacks as disqualifying seems rich for members of a party who have spent the past four years defending or ducking President Trump’s tweets.

And yet Tanden’s nomination is worth getting derailed because of her rhetoric on Twitter, some are saying.

“The concern I have is both judgment, based on the tweets that I’ve been shown, just in the last 24 hours … and it’s the partisan nature,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who once held the job Tanden is nominated for.

“In light of her combative and insulting comments about many members of the Senate, mainly on our side of the aisle … it creates certainly a problematic path,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said.

She is “a partisan activist who’s gone after senators of the majority party. She seems to have chosen a path that doesn’t lead to a Senate-confirmed office,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told the New York Times.

They weren’t specific about what exactly insulted them, but Tanden is known for being an attacker on social media and cable TV. Her tweets include stuff like this:

Of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky):

Of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine):

Reporters have noticed that she appears to have deleted other tweets with political attacks or urging supporters to campaign against Republican senators. Some liberal Democrats have also taken issue with Tanden’s sharp words, which were sometimes directed at them.

But compared to Tanden, Trump is much more of an aggressor. He’s not just a partisan attacker, he regularly tweets false and even sexist and racist things about his political opponents. And when Republicans are asked about those, they regularly pretend the tweets are no big deal.

“I don’t read Twitter. I only write on it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters in June, after Trump tweeted a baseless accusation about a 75-year-old man who had been injured by police while protesting in Buffalo.

“Most of us up here would rather not be political commentators on the president’s tweets,” Sen. John Thune (R-N.D.) said about the same tweet.

“This is just another one of the media’s silly games,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) in July, responding to Washington Post opinion columnist Dana Milbank’s request for comment on some of the president’s racist tweets and comments.

You could argue that these senators didn’t vote to confirm Trump (though many voted for him to be president, twice). But many of these same Republicans have also voted for at least one of Trump’s picks known for being inflammatory on Twitter.

Richard Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence, stands out among high-profile administration appointees for his Twitter feed. Senate Republicans voted for him in 2018 to be Trump’s ambassador to Germany, despite his well-known tweets attacking women in politics, the media and, after he became ambassador, European politicians.

Democrats opposed Grenell’s nomination because of his tweets, saying the ones about women in politics (“Hillary is starting to look like Madeleine Albright”) made him unfit to be a diplomat. “This person doesn’t clearly have, for my mind, the temperament to be the type of ambassador we want,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

As The Post’s Karoun Demirjian reported at the time, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at the time that Democrats were showing “extreme partisanship.”

Of course, the political and procedural dynamics were quite different when Trump’s picks were being considered. Then, his party was in the majority, and the party most offended by Grenell’s attacks had little power to stop his confirmation. Tanden doesn’t have that luxury, especially if Republicans win two Georgia Senate race runoffs in January and thus hang onto their Senate majority.

These senators opposing Tanden are probably aware of a long-standing tradition to give a new president leeway in picking his team. Even in today’s hyperpartisan environment, just opposing a Cabinet pick on ideological views that differ from your own is frowned on. (When Democrats voted against Grenell, some made sure to mention they voted for other conservative picks that don’t have such a problematic social media trail.)

Tanden’s situation is unique among high-level political appointees. She devoted years to urging voters to kick Republican senators such as Collins out of their jobs, so she and the Biden team surely expected those senators would be reluctant to give her a thumbs up.

But by rejecting her, Republicans also put on display just how much they’ve been willing to overlook from the world’s foremost tweeter of political attacks.