Trump’s confirmation chaos in perspective
© Getty Images

Will Rogers once quipped that “About all I can say for the United States Senate is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.” The unseemly dynamics surrounding President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE’s judicial and executive branch nominees in the last 14 months bear out such insight. Delays, “holds,” hearings, inquiries and recriminations of the president’s picks have rendered the process of Senate confirmation—albeit with a Republican majority in the upper chamber—a herculean task aggravated at times by indecorous and unsavory theatre at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

We would do well, however, to examine more closely how unique Trump’s experience has been thus far, and how his nomination strategy compares to his immediate predecessors. Three points merit elaboration.


First, Trump’s nominations have been exceptional for a focus on outsiders. The president’s choices for Cabinet secretaries, like his White House staff, have been recurrently unconventional. The president has cemented his “Drain the Swamp” credibility among supporters by selecting individuals like Dr. Ronny Jackson for the Department of Veterans Affairs with little administrative experience, or others like Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosColleges, universities seeing rise in sexual assault claims, lawsuits Support for educational choice continues to grow Stand with veterans instead of predatory for-profit colleges MORE for the Education Department and Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump admin appeals ruling ordering EPA to ban pesticide Government watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels MORE for the EPA who flagrantly oppose the bureaucracies they were nominated to lead. Notwithstanding contemptible tactics like those of Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) to attack Jackson personally with unsubstantiated, anonymous allegations of misbehavior, the Senate would be remiss in failing to raise fundamental questions about Jackson’s professional qualifications to head Veterans Affairs, the second largest Cabinet department.

The president’s “I alone can fix it” attitude in the quest to alter the culture in Washington through appointments defies the dictum of late presidential advisor and scholar Richard Neustadt, who emphasized the degree to which Congress and the executive are “separated institutions sharing powers.” Trump has turned Senate “advice and consent” on its head. Senators on both sides of the aisle complain that there is little White House outreach for their input, and consequently consent for the president’s nominees is frequently difficult to secure.

Second, Trump’s poor record of confirmations to date is linked to a generally downward trend for recent presidents. Fourteen months into his presidency, Trump’s success rate stood at 57 percent, 10 percent less than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge denies bid to move lawsuit over Trump national monument rollbacks to Utah Tomi Lahren to former first lady: 'Sit down, Michelle' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins MORE for the same point in his term. Obama’s confirmation rate of 67 percent was 11 percent lower than that of George W. Bush after 14 months.

If the situation has deteriorated recently, structural factors in the Senate are partially to blame. Lower-level appointees, in particular, have become cannon fodder in a procedural war of “holds” on nominees. While in the majority, Democrats changed Senate rules in 2013 to scale back Republican filibusters (the so-called “nuclear option”) of nominees. The GOP retaliated by forcing cloture votes and extending post-cloture debate for days and weeks. Now back in the minority, Democrats have, in turn, utilized the same procedural tactics to delay Trump’s confirmations. With floor time in the Senate a precious commodity, the GOP leadership has little choice but to prioritize confirmations amidst other pressing legislative business.

Trump routinely lambasts Democrats at post-election rallies and on Twitter for their alleged obstructionism. To be sure, the principle of unanimous consent enables a single senator to suspend consideration of a nominee indefinitely and Democrats have made ample use of this tactic. But it is critical to underscore that many Republicans have placed “holds” on Trump’s nominees across the alphabet soup of departments and agencies. The reasons are varied, from nominee qualifications to parochial and policy concerns and the protagonists have been as diverse as Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSome employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report Colorado governor sets up federal PAC before potential 2020 campaign Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE (R-Colo.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump changes mean only wealthy immigrants may apply, says critic The Hill's Morning Report — Ford, Kavanaugh to testify Thursday as another accuser comes forward Viral video shows O’Rourke air-drumming to the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ after Cruz debate MORE (R-Texas), and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCongress must use bipartisan oversight as the gold standard The Hill's Morning Report — Ford, Kavanaugh to testify Thursday as another accuser comes forward Trump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote MORE (R-Ariz.).

Finally, Trump has made fewer nominations than any of his predecessors. The White House Transition Project found that compared to presidents dating to Reagan, Trump has stood up half as many nominees in critical areas such as defense, national security, and economic policy in his first year. The State Department provides a critical example. Nearly a year after the 2016 election, half of the vacancies had no nominee. As of April 2018, only a quarter of career slots at State have been filled, and key ambassadorships remain vacant. Trump has stated that “I’m the only one that matters” in foreign policy and “I tell my people, ‘Where you don't need to fill slots, don't fill them.’ But we have some people that I'm not happy with their thinking process.” Clearly Trump’s perceived or real concern about the “deep state” undermining his agenda figures prominently in a novel bid to reduce the size of the nation’s diplomatic corps. But how far can any president take his agenda without the requisite personnel to implement his policies, whether at State or elsewhere?

Trump’s 19th century populist predecessor, Andrew Jackson, once pounded his fist on a table and declared “You are a den of vipers and thieves. I have determined to rout you out, and by the Eternal, I will rout you out!” Trump’s paramount frustration prompts his repeated calls to exile “establishment” politicians permanently. His ability to oust his Democratic detractors such as Tester, among others, will be put to the test in the November mid-term elections. But unless the rules of the Senate are fundamentally altered to preclude “holds” on his nominees, he may well continue to face ongoing consternation with senators in his own party—even with a bolstered majority—in advance of the 2020 presidential contest.

The logic of Trump’s populist style is circular. His nomination strategy has, at times, contributed to the dysfunction in Congress and his own woes. Yet that very dysfunction in both branches is channeled back to rally his base supporters. The result is the gridlock that Trump claimed only he could solve.

Richard S. Conley is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His research focuses on the presidency, executive-legislative relations, and Native American studies. His email is