Twelve hours after Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, voted to confirm Michael Pompeo, President Trump’s nominee to run the CIA, the protests began.
On Tuesday morning, more than 100 protesters gathered outside Warner’s constituent offices in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Amanda Lynch, a mother and writer near Manassas, took two of her sons to Kaine’s office there, where they played with pocket Constitutions, and she pledged to return every week.
“I was disappointed by Pompeo, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise,” said Lynch, 34. “He’s defended the use of torture even though it’s been proven that it doesn’t work. I’m disappointed in the selection of [education secretary nominee] Betsy DeVos. Apart from Gen. [James] Mattis, it’s hard for me to feel anything but perturbed by these Cabinet choices.”
Senators have confirmed four of Trump’s Cabinet nominees and voted a few more out of committee. Republicans have criticized Democrats for slowing down Pompeo’s nomination, delaying several others and voting in a bloc against secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson at the committee level on Monday.
But none of it has earned them many points with a fast-growing liberal protest movement that is asking Democratic senators to wage a blockade on nominees they have deemed unacceptable.
“They need to do anything they can to defeat or delay the seating of Senator Sessions, Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Price,” said Maggie Godbold, 62, a retiree and Democratic activist from Fairfax County, Va., who helped organize the protest at Warner’s office, one of 200 across the country Tuesday. “They’re unqualified.”
The senators, however, appear unwilling to do what their base is asking. On Tuesday, the full Senate voted 96 to 4 to confirm Nikki Haley, Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations. Earlier in the day, they voted Haley and three other nominees out of committee — Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Wilbur Ross to serve as commerce secretary; and Elaine Chao to lead the Transportation Department. That followed full Senate votes for Pompeo on Monday and for Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on Friday.
“There are clearly going to be some Trump nominees that give me pause, but there are some I’m going to be supporting,” Warner said in an interview on Capitol Hill Tuesday. “I argued strenuously, both as a governor and under President Obama, that you give the president, or the governor, the chance to put his team in place.”
The reality, too, is that thwarting Trump’s nominees is a goal that is largely out of reach for Democrats, thanks to their own party’s 2013 reform of filibuster rules, continued by Republicans ever since; it now takes just 51 votes to confirm a nominee for office lower than the Supreme Court.
Democrats, with no leverage, are left fighting nominees without really hoping to stop them.
“We’re getting lots of calls on lots of the nominees,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a liberal from a safe seat who voted to confirm Pompeo. “They want us to fight, but elections have consequences. We don’t have the votes in many instances, so in order to stop any nominee, we need three profiles in courage on the Republican side. Those are just the facts. And people understand that — but I think there’s nothing to be satisfied about, and there’s lots to be concerned about.”
That’s one reason Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has continued to tout his caucus’s decision to continue delaying votes on nominees — even if blocking any of them is unlikely.
Schumer said the Senate would “move with relative speed” on nominees who are “not controversial.”
Raising his voice and gesticulating more than usual at a weekly briefing with reporters, Schumer insisted: “We’re going to vet these nominees thoroughly. We’re not being dilatory, but we’re not going to just rush them through. These are all very important nominees. And to have a few days discussion on them? That makes sense. They’re going to be in power for up to four years with tremendous say on what affects Americans.”
Cue the Republican outrage.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Tuesday that “party-line votes on things like secretary of state” were breaking the comity of the Senate. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, successfully guided Tillerson to a confirmation vote, then bemoaned how no Democrats joined him.
“All of a sudden, because the election outcome is what it is, it’s like everything has changed,” Corker said. “I just want us to get back into the middle of the road and get back to realizing the importance of these positions.”
The delays are noteworthy when compared with past administrations; George W. Bush and Barack Obama entered their first day in office with at least seven nominees confirmed. The relative sluggishness of the Trump team’s confirmations, in contrast, has led to dozens of critical national security, financial, public health and other domestic policy positions sitting vacant, with most federal agencies temporarily under the management of career civil service managers or holdovers from the Obama administration who could sit in place for months to come.
The modest progress on Pompeo and Tillerson came as top congressional leaders met with Trump at the White House on Monday night for a social gathering that included talk of persuading Democrats to move along quickly with votes on some of the president’s top picks. On Tuesday, Senate leaders met with him again at the White House to discuss his Supreme Court nominee — which Trump said will be announced next week.
But the Democratic Party’s base expects senators to move nominees along as slowly as possible.
This is not the first time a restive left has demanded resistance and blamed Democrats when little arose. In 2005, the active and angry Democratic “Netroots” shamed senators who voted to confirm George W. Bush’s nominees, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. Barack Obama, then a freshman senator, wrote a diary on the liberal Daily Kos blog explaining why he and other self-identified progressives had not filibustered every nominee they could.
“How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line?” Obama wrote.
A final vote on Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil whom Democrats have labeled as part of Trump’s “Swamp Cabinet,” won’t occur until Tuesday at the earliest. Other nominees, including Carson and Chao — the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — remain in limbo. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also scrapped plans on Tuesday to hold votes to recommend former Texas governor Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) to lead the Interior Department. Aides said that “a miscommunication” between the parties forced the panel to reschedule to a later date — further delaying the formation of Trump’s government.
“We’ll, in a more fulsome way, move into approving Cabinet appointments, both controversial and noncontroversial, beginning next week,” McConnell told reporters.
Schumer cited Carson as a nominee who has split Democrats, saying Tuesday that he had fresh concerns about the former brain surgeon’s nomination to lead HUD because of Trump’s decision last week to sign an executive order that overhauled federal housing policy.
Carson had been unanimously approved by the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday — including by liberal leaders such as Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Under pressure from supporters on social media to explain her vote, Warren’s office said in a statement that she was backing Carson despite his inexperience with federal housing policy because of commitments he made at his hearing to work with her to expand “fair housing rights to all Americans” and to combat unacceptable lead levels in public housing.
Other Trump nominees sat for confirmation hearings on Tuesday, including Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), tapped to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Amid several questions about his personal finances and disclosures to the Senate Finance Committee, Price would not commit during his confirmation hearing that no Americans will be worse off under Trump’s executive order to ease rules under the Affordable Care Act.
Price also declined to confirm whether Trump is indeed nearly finished with a plan to replace the health-care law.
Republicans defended Price, broadly criticizing Democrats for undermining the Senate by continuing to attack Price’s views and ethics instead of embracing his qualifications for the job.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Trump’s choice to lead the Office of Management and Budget, defended his support of cuts to popular entitlement programs that Trump has vowed to keep intact.
During his hearing with the Senate Budget Committee, Mulvaney also faced questions about the Trump administration’s claims that turnout for the new president’s inauguration was larger than previous swearing-in ceremonies.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) brandished side-by-side images of the Mall from Obama’s 2009 inauguration and Trump’s on Friday.
“I’m not really sure how this ties to OMB,” Mulvaney said before conceding that images from Obama’s inauguration showed a bigger crowd.
Merkley explained that he raised the issue “because budgets often contain buried deceptions. . . . This is an example of where the president’s team, on something very simple and straightforward, wants to embrace a fantasy rather than a reality.”
Mulvaney assured the committee that he is “deadly serious about giving you hard numbers — I intend to follow through on that.”
In the coming days, progressive groups are planning to organize more rallies, building on Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington as well as the political unpopularity of Trump. Tuesday’s protests in Virginia were part of a National Day of Action against the “Swamp Cabinet,” organized by the progressive group MoveOn. They supplemented the ongoing “Trump Tuesdays” that other progressive groups are organizing to keep protesters in the field and attention on the Trump administration.
“The millions of people that took to the streets on Saturday are not going to give up because Ben Carson will be confirmed to run HUD,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn. “People want to see evidence that Democrats will stand up and fight, but they increasingly get that they can’t stop everything. Democrats are just going to have to get used to their constituents being angry if they don’t use every tool at their disposal.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.