Trump's Cabinet: Anatomy of a Tanked Nomination

BY MILO KAHNEY Andrew Puzder, after a meeting with Donald Trump in New Jersey in November 2016. (New York Times/File)

On February 15, Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Labor, withdrew his nomination. Although Puzder, former CEO of CKE Restaurants, has a history of opposing worker’s rights and minimum wage increases, his anti-labor stance was not the reason for his withdrawal. He went through a series of scandals including claims of domestic violence against his ex-wife on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1990, his hiring of an undocumented immigrant to be his housekeeper, and his uneasy relations with other members of the Trump administration over his stance on immigration. Republican senators such as Tim Scott of South Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia held reservations on voting for Puzder. The withdrawal follows Michael Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor because of his ties with Russia, adding to Trump’s rocky start. Puzder is the 14th nomination in U.S. history to withdraw his nomination. Since the start of Jimmy Carter’s administration, only six nominees have either withdrawn or have been rejected. In total, only 23 nominees have not been confirmed over 45 administrations, making Puzder’s withdrawal exceedingly rare.

Most nominees face little resistance, even with the opposition party having control in the senate. John Kerry, the former Secretary of State under Obama, passed the senate with an overwhelming 94 to 3 vote. Trump’s Cabinet selections, however, have faced much resistance from Democrats. Only three nominees have passed without being contested with six or fewer votes, compared to only ten contested Cabinet votes between the Carter administration and Obama administration. Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer even voted against Elaine Chow, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, despite the fact that she is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. However, despite these controversies, only Puzder has failed to pass.

Most failed nominees either have a serious scandal or disagree with the administration; their unorthodox ideas rarely affect the vote. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s controversial nominee for Secretary of Education, was nearly rejected when two Republicans joined all 48 Democrats and voted against her, making it a 50 to 50 tie. However, Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote in favor of the appointment. She has controversial ideas including mass privatization of education and infusing public education with Christianity. Thousands of concerned citizens called their senators urging them to vote no on DeVos’ nomination, while many people took to the streets to protest. However, she made the cut, demonstrating how rarely the Senate rejects nominees and how important scandals are to bringing down a nominee.

Nominees withdraw if they do not have the votes to be confirmed, to avoid the embarrassment of being rejected. Most nominees are forced to withdraw or are rejected because of a scandal in their past or a disagreement with the administration. Two of George W. Bush’s nominations, Linda Chavez for Secretary of Labor and Bernard Kerik for Secretary of Homeland Security, withdrew for hiring undocumented housekeepers. In 2009, Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, withdrew his nomination because of fundamental differences with the Administration over economic principles. Also, the Obama Administration failed to properly vet some of their nominations. Along with Gregg, two other picks withdrew their nomination and four were contested. Bill Richardson, his choice for Secretary of Commerce, withdrew his nomination because of pay-to-play allegations, which is exchanging money for government services. Tom Daschle, his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, withdrew because he failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes.

It seems that qualification has little to do with voting. Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Energy, famously forgot to mention the agency he now heads, the Department of Energy, when listing which departments he wanted to get rid of in a 2012 presidential debate. Perry, a man whom Trump claimed wore glasses just to look smart, succeeds two nuclear physicists.

In 1989, the Senate rejected former senator John Tower, George H.W. Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, a bizarre and almost unprecedented event. Tower met qualifications, he was a Republican senator from Texas between 1961 and 1985 and he served as the chair of Senate Armed Services Committee. He was much more qualified than DeVos, whose main qualification was that her family donated over $200 million to Republicans. He was the first nominee to be rejected since the 1950s. Democratic senators claimed he had a history of alcohol abuse and close ties with defense contractors, despite the fact that many senators during that time also had a history of alcoholism. Former Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona even admitted that he and many other senators would not hold up to the moral standards that the senate put on Tower. His rejection sparked debates in the Senate over the double standard that nominees face.

People with poor qualifications and controversial views pass the Senate, while qualified people see their nomination rejected because of scandals. Scandals, as the principal reasons for failed nominations, are dangerous because the Senate is willingly voting for unqualified people like DeVos and Perry. With Trump’s questionable nominees, the Senate must use its powers to check their qualifications so that unqualified people are not running important cabinet departments that affect millions of Americans.