It’s not chaos if the dizzying madness is caused by careful design. Yet, the nation’s front pages insist day after day that “chaos” and “turmoil” are “roiling” the White House, as Rex Tillerson is sacked on the can, as Rick Perry potentially moves from one agency he can’t remember to another. The repetition is nauseating, which is a better descriptor for the effects of our president’s childish gamesmanship with executive branch personnel. For there is nothing chaotic or tumultuous about a deliberate plan by an institutional terrorist hell bent on dismantling the citizenry’s trust in its own government. How else could you describe a president so gleeful over the sickening drama he has injected into his own administration’s bloodstream? Rather than replenish a government he has failed to adequately fill, Donald Trump continues to haphazardly hack away.
In doing so, President Trump has undermined the basic functioning of responsible government even beyond his own unprecedented ignorance. We are about to be on our second CIA director, secretary of state, and FBI director in little over a year, to say nothing of the breakneck churn of the president’s own staff. Trump’s impish disregard for the orderly functioning of government has even impeded his own priorities—deportations of undocumented immigrants are far lower than they were during any time under President Obama (though they are more arbitrary and cruel).
Fortunately, the president’s effort at disrupting his own cabinet is one of the few areas over which Congress has strong, constitutional authority to affect. The response must be strong and unmistakable: the U.S. Senate should refuse to confirm—should refuse to even consider—any Trump cabinet-level nominee.
Refusing to even consider a presidential nominee might at first seem to overstep the Senate’s constitutional role to provide “advice and consent.” Yet, the president’s current conditions for cabinet officials have necessitated such a position. For President Trump is not selecting cabinet appointees for their competence, expertise, or policy positions; instead, his sole criterion is executive fealty. And he is using termination threats and actual firings to enforce that obedience. Under such circumstances, it is entirely appropriate to exert an equal and opposite pull on the administrative state. The Senate’s “advice” should be that cabinet nominations are for setting policy, not for entrenching abusive executive powers.
Senate Republicans have already acknowledged this reality in rising to the defense of Trump-termed “beleaguered” Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump has bullied Sessions for months over the attorney general’s recusal from the Russian investigation and his half-hearted promise to drop further investigation into Hillary Clinton’s affairs. After weeks of twitter abuse, Senate Republicans rose to Sessions’s defense, including by aggressively wielding the confirmation power. “Everybody in D.C. Shld b [sic] warned that the agenda for the judiciary Comm [sic] is set for rest of 2017. Judges first subcabinet 2nd / AG no way,” wrote Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley on Twitter in July, in a not so subtle warning to the president.
The strategy has worked thus far in its limited deployment. Even as Trump has continued to assail his own attorney general, Sessions has remained in place and thus far bucked the president’s pressure to replace Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein and end the Special Counsel investigation.
In contrast, when Trump has tested thuggish intimidation tactics on other appointees, Senate Republicans’ silence has emboldened the president to finish the job. Earlier this month Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe was fired a day before a retirement he was pressured into after more than a year of outrageous attacks. Similarly, Senators have tepidly defended the more moderate national security triumvirate from repeated presidential humiliations. While refusing to publicly criticize the president, Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster articulated not-so-subtle rebukes of the president’s policy posturing and conspicuously refrained from making statements that would place Trump in a better light. Now, McMaster appears poised to follow Tillerson on his way out, leaving only Defense Secretary James Mattis among the relatively sane guardians of America’s security.
A no-nominee blanket policy should have been the clear senatorial response as early as May 2017, when Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey and then took to NBC to admit his corrupt purpose to obstruct the Russian investigation. Current Director Christopher Wray has vacillated between tepid acquiescence to Trump’s bombast and mild displays of backbone. It is not yet clear what kind of director he will be and how fervently he will defend the FBI’s independence. But the answer is of no consequence for these purposes. The Senate cannot both recognize the gross abuse of power that such firings constitute and then dispassionately weigh replacement nominees’ qualifications divorced of that context.
Even apart from these presidential shakedowns, high-level cabinet positions require stability to ensure consistent leadership and policy guidance. Shuffling Rick Perry from Energy to Veterans Affairs and Mike Pompeo from the CIA to State as if this were all just good fun is deeply offensive in its own right.
Assuming Republicans refuse to act as a check on President Trump, Senate Democrats should nonetheless hold the line on their 49 votes to make Trump think twice before creating another vacancy requiring Senate confirmation. Already Kentucky Republican Rand Paul has come out against Pompeo for Secretary of State and Trump CIA nominee Gina Haspel on policy grounds. Senate Democrats should force at least a vice-presidential tie-breaking vote on each of these nominations. Otherwise, Trump’s unprecedented cabinet shakeups will continue.
The solution is clear. No more confirmations. Period.