By the time Donald and Melania Trump had their first dance at an inaugural ball Friday evening, Trump had approximately two Cabinet members in place.
That’s a historically low number for a president’s first day in office — and it’s largely thanks to Senate Democrats delaying confirmation of President-elect Trump’s picks.
Trump had nominated much of his Cabinet at a historically quick clip, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had hoped to have up to seven of those nominees in place hours after Trump takes the oath of office on Friday.
McConnell’s optimism was buoyed because Republicans control the Senate and Democrats can no longer filibuster Cabinet nominees by requiring 60 votes to pass instead of a simple majority.
All Democrats, who oppose Trump’s picks, can do is slow down the process, by asking some nominees back for questioning or dragging a vote on for days.
Turns out that’s exactly what they’re doing. The Senate voted Friday on two of Trump’s nominees — retired Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security and retired Gen. James Mattis to lead the Department of Defense.
The rest, say Democrats, need more vetting.
Here’s Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) talking to reporters on Thursday: “Let me be clear, Democrats will allow the confirmations of and vote for nominees who would not have been chosen by our party, but what we will not support are nominees who are so extreme in the viewpoints or their noncompliance with the ethics laws and practice that they have demonstrated themselves to be unfit.”
That has Senate Republicans incredibly frustrated.
“We need to, sort of, grow up here and get past that,” McConnell said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” earlier this month. “We need to have the president’s national security team in place on day one.”
McConnell has some historical precedent to back up his point, said Robert David Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College.
On his first day in office, President Jimmy Carter had eight of his Cabinet nominees confirmed.
Within two days of his inauguration, Ronald Reagan had 12 of his nominees in place.
Within 24 hours after his inauguration, Bill Clinton had 13 in place.
Even President George W. Bush, whose transition period was swept up in a dramatic Supreme Court decision about his election, had seven of his nominees confirmed on Jan. 20, and four more in four days.
President Obama — as Republicans are pointing out — had seven in place by the time he and Michelle Obama had their first dance.
Johnson says the only historical comparison to Trump’s thin Cabinet on day one could be President George H.W. Bush, who had zero nominees confirmed on his first day.
Bush’s problem was that he was facing a Senate controlled by the other side. Then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) was drawing out Bush’s nominees to, “send a message” that the Senate is a place to be reckoned with, Johnson said.
The fact Trump will start his presidency with so few Cabinet members in place underscores just how partisan this process has become. For most of this century, there was little to no political drama surrounding nominees.
As I wrote recently:
The conventional wisdom was that a president should get deference to pick his team and that the new administration should be able to start running the government as soon as possible.
But in 1977, Democrats, newly in power, got burned by doing that. They rushed through President Jimmy Carter’s friend, Bert Lance, for Office of Management and Budget only to see him come under fire months later over allegations of mismanagement and corruption in his past life. Lance ended up resigning, and it was a very public embarrassment for Democrats so soon after Watergate.
Senators learned their lesson. Since then, vetting has become an accepted part of the process. But a byproduct of vetting has been to give the minority party more opportunities to raise questions about nominees (usually about whether the vetting process has been completed to the party’s standards). And a byproduct of that is that nominations have increasingly become more contentious, usually along party lines.
Eventually, though, Trump will have his Cabinet. No matter how long Democrats delay, they can’t actually stop these picks from being approved.