The White House was hoping for a smooth 2018 on Capitol Hill. Instead, President Donald Trump is staring at two bitter confirmation fights — and the possibility emboldened Democrats could block his new Cabinet nominees.
Trump’s decision to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson at the State Department — and to elevate Pompeo’s controversial deputy Gina Haspel, who hasn’t previously been confirmed — has created a pair of high-stakes battles in the Senate, where the GOP enjoys a threadbare 51-49 advantage.
With Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposing both nominees and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) absent while he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, Trump will need Democrats to support his picks.
The looming struggle to get Cabinet replacements through underscores just how much the political calculus has changed for Trump since the early days of his administration, as Democrats look ahead to the midterms and throw off any semblance of cooperation with the White House.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), for example, supported Pompeo to be CIA director, as did 14 of his colleagues in the minority. Democrats say Pompeo will fall far short of that — if he gets any Democratic support at all.
“Both of them have serious questions to answer and neither confirmation is a sure thing,” Schumer told POLITICO in a statement.
Republicans agree that failed confirmation votes are a real possibility.
“I’d be surprised if they didn’t” block the two nominees, said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “Sen. Schumer is pretty clear that he’s trying to slow us down. And again, it may not be [over] the nominee themselves. It’s purely a tactic to prevent us from doing our work here.”
Until the Tillerson ouster, the calendar for 2018 appeared free of the type of divisive legislative fights over health care and taxes that defined Republicans’ first year back in full control of the government.
The completion of an omnibus spending bill and a punt on the immigration status of Dreamers, the thinking went, would leave the White House free to focus its energies on the midterms and avoid any debilitating intraparty brawls.
Instead, the White House is gearing up for a full-on push to keep the GOP in line behind two nominees known for defending torture techniques — and the prospect of additional confirmation fights if Trump shuffles other members of his Cabinet.
“I think we assume a tough fight on almost all of our nominations. I think that the obstruction has been historic. So we wouldn’t expect anything different at this point,” said White House legislative affairs director Marc Short. “I’m confident that they’re both eminently qualified and have amazing stories to tell, and I think they’ll generate a lot of confidence through the hearing process.”
White House officials say they’re confident that they’ll emerge victorious, in part because there are 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016, who will face pressure not to obstruct.
“I think Democrats make a show out of both of them,” one White House official said, but predicted eventual confirmation, voicing particular confidence about Pompeo.
“Democrats are well aware that they could get a much less agreeable appointee in the Trump administration, someone that doesn’t have the credentials he does,” the person said. “I think they’re going to make a scene of it, but they’re going to take him.”
The White House is also hopeful that the looming prospect of talks with North Korea could put further pressure on Democrats to approve the nominees.
Haspel and Pompeo each face a different set of challenges. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) voted in favor of Pompeo as CIA director last year, but could flip. With Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, already opposed, losing another Republican on the panel could be catastrophic, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could still bring Pompeo to the floor, regardless of his committee vote.
Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who serves on the Foreign Relations panel, has been privately cited by Democrats as a potential flip vote on both Pompeo and Haspel. A vocal Trump critic, he said he’s “looking into” Haspel’s record and wants to hear willingness from Pompeo to break with Trump on Russia.
“We need people who will stand up to the president, frankly, on some of these issues. I want to make sure he’s willing to do that,” Flake said in an interview.
Haspel, whose current role did not require confirmation, is unlikely to face a no vote from a committee stacked with defense hawks. But she will face difficult questions from Democrats about her time overseeing a CIA prison in Thailand where suspects were interrogated with methods that many consider to constitute torture.
“These are going to be hard-hitting hearings. So certainly, Democrats are very, very anxious to get some answers,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who serves on the Intelligence Committee and opposes both Pompeo and Haspel.
Yet Trump’s demonstrated preference for unorthodox figures could leave some Democrats inclined to accept the pair, who few would label unqualified even if they disagree with them on policy.
Republicans also have the advantage of a cadre of Democratic senators facing reelection in 2018 in states Trump easily won: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. All four voted to confirm Pompeo at the CIA.
The most conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is not an automatic “yes” on either, despite his closeness to Trump.
“Sen. Manchin looks forward to meeting with both nominees and evaluating their records of service,” a spokesman said.
Democrats have shown increased unity since the early months of the Trump administration. They held together to block repeal of the Affordable Care Act when they were joined by three Republicans. And they voted unanimously against Trump’s signature tax cut bill.
“It’s possible. At 51-49, what’s the possibility that there will be some Republican opposition? I think it’s fairly high,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “I think there will be drama.”
Short of blocking the picks altogether, Democrats could still cause serious headaches for the White House throughout the process.
“The biggest danger for the White House is that both of these people are coming from inside the administration and are going to be asked to talk about what’s happened inside the administration during their confirmation hearings,” said Matthew Miller, who helped shepherd former Attorney General Eric Holder through his confirmation hearings and joined him at DOJ as a spokesman.
He pointed as an example to a Washington Post report from June 2017 that Trump complained to Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats early in his presidency about then-FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the Russia probe.
If Pompeo refuses to address that conversation, Democrats could use that as justification for voting against him, Miller said, since such questions go to how Pompeo reacted to presidential pressure while leading the CIA.
“If you invoke executive privilege at your oversight hearing, there’s nothing the senators can do to you,” Miller said. “In a confirmation hearing, you can lose votes over it.”