Key Nominees Sit in Limbo as Trump Grapples with Senate

U.S. scrambling to fill major posts addressing the coronavirus pandemic and economic aid.

An ambulance sits parked near the U.S. Capitol building.
An ambulance sits parked on the plaza outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 16. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

More than a dozen nominees for key Trump administration foreign-policy posts are caught in limbo as lawmakers grapple with how to conduct oversight and nomination hearings during a pandemic lockdown. 

Some of the nominees stuck in place are poised to take up important ambassadorships or senior posts in the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is now tasked with helping developing countries and humanitarian crisis hot spots avert the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic. One is a nominee to sit on the executive board of the World Health Organization, the embattled United Nations agency that is leading the global response to the pandemic but which U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week said he was defunding. 

On Wednesday, the controversy over the Senate’s advice and consent powers erupted into what could prove a constitutional crisis. Congress has extended its recess until at least early May to adhere to public health guidelines on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected over 2 million people and killed around 140,000 worldwide. In the meantime, it is holding pro forma sessions from afar rather than formally adjourning, a move that has drawn sharp criticism from Trump. 

In response, Trump threatened to use a never-exercised constitutional power to force Congress to formally adjourn, which would allow him to install his nominees in recess and go around the traditional Senate confirmation process. It’s unclear that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be on board with this approach, and Trump’s plan could be hampered by Senate rules. 

“The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis. It is a scam. What they do, it’s a scam and everybody knows it,” Trump said at his daily White House briefing. 

Across the board, Congress still doesn’t have clear answers on how to conduct business amid the coronavirus lockdown. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is no different, leaving open questions about when, or how, those nominees will be vetted or confirmed when the Senate comes back from recess. 

Sen. Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, are in talks to expedite the nomination of Brett Giroir, Trump’s pick to be U.S. representative to the board of the World Health Organization, given its role in the pandemic response.

But the two parties disagree over how to handle other nominations, enflaming tensions in a committee historically known for its bipartisanship, according to multiple congressional aides familiar with the matter. 

Republicans say Democrats have rejected a proposal to hold “paper hearings” for the nominees, under which lawmakers would submit questions and get responses in writing to fulfill their oversight duties—all of which would be made public. Under the Republican plan, nominees would be made available for one-on-one phone calls with members. They would prioritize nominees who are deemed uncontroversial, including career diplomats up for ambassador posts. 

Democrats say the Republicans’ proposal is a nonstarter, because lawmakers can’t properly grill nominees and assess whether they are fit for confirmation through written exchanges and phone calls alone. 

“The idea was to be very transparent and flexible so members got what they felt they needed and everything would be made publicly available,” a Republican aide said. The longer the nominations are delayed, “the longer the backlog will get.”

“We will not have capacity to do as many policy-focused subcommittee hearings when the Senate returns if this list continues to grow, with no agreement from Dems to work together on processing nominations,” the aide said.

Lawmakers on the committee have criticized some of Trump’s past nominees for being woefully unqualified for their posts. (One of them, the millionaire Trump donor Gordon Sondland, was later thrust into the center of the impeachment investigation over his role in Trump’s Ukraine policy.) Others faced scrutiny over prior legal troubles, controversial statements, or not being forthright with the committee during the vetting process, raising questions over whether “paper hearings” are sufficient for nominees. 

“While Senator Menendez is committed to getting nominees into place necessary to respond to the COVID crisis, he will not agree to rubber stamp nominees,” said Juan Pachón, the committee communications director for Menendez. 

Trump “has nominated and re-nominated individuals with serious problems including: restraining orders for threats of violence; people who made material omissions, sometimes on a repeated basis, in their nomination materials; people who tweeted and retweeted vile things about Senators and their families; and who have engaged in incidents that should, frankly, mean they never should have been nominated,” Pachón said. 

“The last thing we should be doing is walking away from our responsibility to take the Senate’s advice and consent process seriously.”

The other nominees currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are: Jennifer Barber, nominated to be U.S. envoy to the U.N. Economic and Social Council; Natalie Brown, nominated to be ambassador to Uganda; Jason Chung, to be U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank; Sandra Clark to be U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso; Joseph Manso to be U.S. envoy to the U.N. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; C.J. Mahoney to be the State Department legal advisor; Richard Mills to be deputy permanent representative to the United Nations; Ramsey Day to be assistant administrator for Africa at USAID; J. Steven Dowd to be U.S. director for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; Henry Wooster to be U.S. ambassador to Jordan; William Grayson to be U.S. ambassador to Estonia; Alex Wong to be alternate U.S. representative for special political affairs at the United Nations; and Aldona Wos to be U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Senior administration posts require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Other committees in the Senate are also scrambling to sort out how to vet and vote on nominees, in part waiting for direction from Senate leadership and the Senate Rules Committee. 

Even before the pandemic struck, many senior State Department posts languished for years without nominees from Trump. Other nominees were held up in the Senate over questions over their suitability or partisan disputes. Former senior diplomats say filling these positions during a global crisis is critical—lower-level officials temporarily filling those roles in acting capacities don’t have the same clout or authority within Washington or with foreign counterparts. 

Some of the nominees who are caught in limbo were put forward as early as summer or fall of 2019, well before the pandemic hit the United States and derailed business as usual on Capitol Hill. Democratic aides say Risch has not scheduled enough regular committee hearings and business meetings, contributing to the backlog in nominees sitting in the committee. Republican aides say the Democratic-led impeachment trial against Trump earlier this year contributed to the delays. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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