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Trump sends controversial nominees back to Senate despite concerns over qualifications

K.T. McFarland, President Trump's former deputy national security adviser and Michael Flynn's close ally, was nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Singapore. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump has re-upped a slew of controversial picks for administration and judicial posts whose nominations languished in the Senate last year amid questions about their qualifications and the political baggage they would bring to the job.

A list of 75 nominees sent to the Senate this week for reconsideration includes K.T. McFarland for U.S. ambassador to Singapore, despite scrutiny by congressional investigators as part of their probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Others include a nominee who would be the first politician to lead NASA, a pick to lead the Council on Environmental Quality who has cast doubt on climate change, a choice to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission who has drawn opposition from consumer groups and two judicial nominees rated "unqualified" by the American Bar Association.

Tracking how many key positions Trump has filled so far

"They've renominated a lot of folks who aren't going to be confirmed," said Jim Manley, a lobbyist and longtime aide to former Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Instead of finding more qualified candidates, they're doubling down and trying to roll the Senate."

Republicans argue Trump's nominees have faced unwarranted resistance from Senate Democrats, whom they accuse of trying to run out the clock on many of the president's picks, and say most remain worthy of consideration. Trump himself has repeatedly complained about Senate Democrats, calling them "good at obstruction."

Under Senate rules, a single member can object to a nomination being carried over into the new year. About 150 Trump nominees drew no objections in December, but an unusually large number — nearly 90 — were sent back to the White House at the end of the year.

All but 14 of those have been renominated by Trump. Most of those nominees had previously announced their plans to withdraw or had been voted down by a Senate committee, including three picks for the federal judiciary and Scott Garrett, Trump's choice to lead the Export-Import Bank. He had voted to eliminate the agency as a member of Congress.

Others who publicly exited include Sam Clovis, Trump's nominee to become the chief scientist at the Agriculture Department.

Clovis, who has no experience in the hard sciences, withdrew his name from consideration in November amid revelations he was among top officials on the Trump campaign who were aware of efforts by foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos to broker a relationship between the campaign and Russian officials.

Controversial Trump nominees face a narrower path in the Senate this year. With the arrival of Democrat Doug Jones from Alabama, the GOP now holds just 51 seats.

A Republican consultant with close ties to the White House said one reason Trump has renominated even some of his more controversial picks is a sense of loyalty.

"Most of these are being held up by Democrats," said the consultant, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly. "If some of them are being slow-walked, that doesn't necessarily mean they should be abandoned."

Among the more high profile re-nominations is that of McFarland, a former deputy national security adviser and close ally of Michael Flynn, Trump's ousted national security adviser who is now cooperating with the special counsel in the Rusisia probe.

McFarland's first nomination in May stalled amid concerns about her knowledge of contacts between Russian operatives and Trump campaign officials.

McFarland, a former Fox News commentator, testified in July she was "not aware of any of the issues or events" related to Flynn's contact with Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States. Emails obtained by the New York Times in December showed McFarland was aware of a key exchange between Flynn and Kislyak.

Richard Grenell, Trump's nominee for ambassador to Germany, is also being re-upped for consideration despite resistance from Democrats. Grenell, a former diplomatic aide to President George W. Bush, is a frequent Fox News commentator and outspoken critic of the media.

Also renominated this week was Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, an agency that coordinates environmental efforts across the administration.

White, a former Texas regulator who once called carbon dioxide a "harmless trace gas" that was merely "plant food," was grilled at her confirmation hearing about her qualifications and past statements on climate change. In November, more than 300 scientists wrote to the Senate opposing her appointment.

After the White House re-upped White's nomination on Monday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) assailed her on Twitter.

"My question is: why in the world would @realDonaldTrump renominate Kathleen Hartnett White to chair the Council on Environmental Quality after her disastrous nomination hearing in November??" he wrote. "She is wildly unqualified to serve in this position — she outright rejects basic science."

Her nomination has also been vigorously opposed by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which called her "dangerous" in a tweet this week.

NASA, meanwhile, has been without an administrator since Charles Bolden resigned a year ago. It took nine months for the White House to nominate Jim Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, who faced withering questioning from Democrats at his Senate confirmation hearing late last year.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and influential Democrat from Florida, led the charge against Bridenstine, calling into question his credentials.

Nelson said "the NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive," as well as someone who can unite people — criteria he said Bridenstine lacks.

During his tenure in Congress, Bridenstine has focused on space issues, including sponsoring an expansive bill known as the American Space Renaissance Act. He has also been endorsed by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.

Still, Bridenstine's path to confirmation remains tricky due to concerns voiced by some Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who said he does not want to see "the politicization of NASA." During the 2016 presidential race, Bridenstine appeared in ads on behalf of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and suggested Rubio, then a White House candidate, was soft on terror.

Others on Trump's list this week include former Republican congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle of New York to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a five-member panel responsible for regulating thousands of other products.

Buerkle, who has been a member of the commission since 2013 and now serves as its acting chairwoman, was the subject of a New York Times story late last year with the headline: "Trump Pick to Head Consumer Safety Board Is Seen as Too Close to Industries."

The piece reported that she has seldom voted for a mandatory recall, a maximum fine or a tougher safety standard.

Others with an uncertain path in the Senate who were renominated this week include Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of Kansas, whom Trump put forward in July as his pick to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He has faced resistance from Democrats related to his record on LGBT rights.

Trump's list of resubmissions also includes two nominees to the federal judiciary rated "not qualified" by the American Bar Association.

The ABA concluded Charles Goodwin, Trump's nominee to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, is unqualified because of his "work habits." And, the ABA said Holly Teeter, Trump's nominee to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, is not qualified based on her lack of trial court experience. Among other things, Schiff has drawn criticism for his blogging, including a post in which he called Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy a "judicial prostitute."

White House officials have accused the ABA of being politically biased in its rankings.

The fate of two other Trump judicial picks remains unclear.

Damien Schiff and Stephen Schwartz — nominated last year for the Court of Federal Claims — were not on this week's list of those getting a second shot in the Senate.

Christian Davenport contributed to this report.