On paper, Brian Bulatao, President Trump’s nominee to serve as under secretary of state for management, should have been a slam-dunk confirmation who sailed through the Senate months ago.
Bulatao is one of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s best friends and business partners; the two attended West Point together and went on to found a Kansas-based company that manufactures airplane parts. When Trump tapped Pompeo to serve as his CIA director, Bulatao became the clandestine service’s chief operating officer, a job he held for more than a year without a blemish.
Democrats have expressed zero reservations about Bulatao’s qualifications or background, unlike their responses to other Trump nominees. And Bulatao also would appear to be the perfect beneficiary of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision last week to go “nuclear” and blow up Senate rules to make it easier to break through Democrats’ obstruction on Trump’s nominees.
But this is Trump’s Washington, where nothing is predictable.
Bulatao’s nomination has languished in the Senate for more than nine months as Sen. Bob Menendez, the scandal-scarred ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has pressed Pompeo on a completely separate matter. The New Jersey lawmaker wants internal documents related to media reports that political appointees at the State Department were scouring social media sites for signs of Trump criticism or disloyalty among career or Obama holdover officials in order to punish or fire them. The media reports helped launch an ongoing inspector general investigation into the allegations of political retribution.
Menendez’s tactic would seem to have limited impact. There’s zero chance Pompeo, or any other Trump administration official, will voluntarily hand over documents that could give Democrats’ greater ammunition to target more members of Trump’s skeleton crew at the State Department. And with McConnell’s decision to go nuclear, reducing the amount of debate time required to proceed to an up-or-down vote on a nominee from 30 hours to two, Menendez can no longer block Bulatao and other key nominees.
But whether the full Senate will quickly take up his nomination, and push through dozens of other non-controversial top Trump picks across the federal government, appears to depend largely on McConnell’s own legacy-building priorities. Though the Kentucky senator is committed to confirming conservative judges to lifetime appointments – something Trump touts as a major administration success — the president’s allies worry he has been far less committed to confirming executive nominations that will help Trump fill out his team in the final two years of his term, a key need with his re-election up in the air.
“Everyone in Washington complains about unconfirmed nominees at agencies and Obama appointees still hanging on, but it’s hard for the White House to fill these roles when the Senate leaves them in limbo for years,” a senior administration official told RealClearPolitics.
After Democrats spent two years blocking even those nominees who ended up with broad bipartisan votes, Senate floor time is still severely limited — even after McConnell invoked the nuclear option to accelerate the process. This issue now hinges on the majority leader’s priorities.
The Trump administration set a record for the number of appointments to influential appeals courts during the president’s first year in office. But district court judges have taken a back seat, with some waiting more than seven months for a vote. Trump officials and his supporters now worry McConnell will prioritize district court nominees for floor votes while other top executive branch nominees are left hanging, administration officials and some Senate GOP sources say.
For conservatives taking the long view, this is a no-brainer.
Sen. John Cornyn, who previously held up a key Trump nominee in exchange for administration commitments on Texas disaster aid, said judges are the clear top priority.
“Yeah, lifetime tenure,” he said bluntly when asked whether confirming judges takes precedence over executive nominations.
A top Senate staffer said it would be unwise not to prioritize judges, even though it’s always a balancing act and the Senate “should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” especially after McConnell went nuclear.
“If you want to push this, quote-unquote, transformational work on confirmations, then you would be foolish to do anything other than judges and the occasional top-tier executive nominee,” said a senior Senate staffer.
Undoubtedly, some of Trump’s non-judicial nominations will get through, especially when it comes to Cabinet secretaries and other major posts. And Cornyn has said Republicans in the Senate will try to get “as many” executive nominees confirmed as they can.
In the first few days after invoking the nuclear option, the chamber swiftly approved Trump’s choice to helm the Federal Housing Finance Agency, along with a district court judge. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed David Bernhardt to be the interior secretary along with four Justice Department nominees and three for State; earlier this week it confirmed John Abizaid to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, filled a senior Labor Department post, and approved four more district court judges.
Of course, there is also the Trump churn factor to consider. On Monday, a mass exodus began at the Department of Homeland Security with Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation and Randolph “Tex” Alles departing as head of the Secret Service, with several other top DHS officials expected to soon follow.
In other words, the Senate’s work of trying to finish up assembling the president’s team — especially those in charge of the hot-button signature Trump issue of immigration — just got a lot tougher.
McConnell acknowledged as much earlier this week.
“Well, of course, who he sends up is his decision, not ours,” McConnell told reporters. “We have our hands full with what was backed up on the executive calendar.”
“As you can see, we’re now able to process nominees that are largely without controversy in pretty rapid-fire order, and we will get a new Cabinet member, the secretary of interior, confirmed this week. And we’ll take the nominations as they come.”
But after the initial post-nuclear honeymoon phase wanes between the administration and Senate Republicans, the president and this team will have to really push to ensure that more of his lower-profile nominees – people such as Bulatao — get through, other Senate sources warn.
Without big, well-organized campaigns from the White House and his legislative affairs team, “forget about Trump getting his lower-level nominees confirmed, forget about getting people in the administration who will actually execute the will that brought Trump to power in the first place,” the Senate staffer said.
Meanwhile, Trump appointees and other supporters throughout Washington are operating without key leaders committed to the president or his “America First” agenda and ongoing campaign promises to drain the Washington swamp.
The political appointees describe a world where they have to constantly watch their backs and are regularly hamstrung or sidelined in their efforts by career officials. That problem is particularly pronounced at the State Department, which even Democrats complain has been hollowed out because of vacancies and where very few under secretaries are Trump appointees.
On the Iran issue alone, not having Pompeo’s team in place is exacerbating existing tensions between Trump loyalists committed to the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Tehran and those trying to find ways to outlast the administration and piece the Obama-era nuclear deal back together.
“Democrats can control foreign policy by controlling appointments,” one conservative foreign policy expert told RCP. “I don’t think [Democrats] are in any hurry to release nominees, and I don’t think the leadership of the Senate wants to waste political capital on the State Department.”
The problem was far worse for the department last year when then-Sen. Bob Corker, an ardent Trump foe within the GOP, chaired the Senate Foreign Relations panel. Oftentimes, Corker would team up with Menendez and other Democrats on the committee to prevent nominees from getting confirmation hearings.
Now that the Sen. Jim Risch is helming the panel and McConnell has gone nuclear, there are fewer internal GOP obstacles and the committee is beginning to push the nominees through. Last week, the panel voted out 23 nominees, including Abizaid and Matthew Tueller (to serve as ambassador to Iraq). The panel also moved R. Clarke Cooper, Keith Krach and Brig. Gen. David Stilwell to fill under secretary and assistant secretary roles at State.
Bulatao’s nomination was not one of them, but a Foreign Relations Committee spokeswoman said he is “definitely a high priority for the chairman and we hope to schedule a business meeting” on his nomination and others after the April recess.
In an interview last week, Risch told RCP that he believes the nuclear option applies to both judicial and non-judicial nominees, but deferred to McConnell on questions about the balance he wants to strike.
“I applaud the majority leader for doing this,” he said of the nuclear option. “Sen. Menendez and I have been respectfully debating this. The numbers are stunning.”
Risch was referring to the percentage of nominees confirmed under Presidents Clinton, Obama and now Trump at the two-year mark of their presidencies. Clinton had 95 percent of all nominations approved by the Senate, Obama had 89 percent and Trump has only 65 percent confirmed at last count, he said.
“I’ve had significant conversations with my colleagues on both sides because everyone is frustrated with this,” Risch said. “When you’re dealing with these foreign relations matters, when you’re dealing with other countries, it is really important to have your team on the ground that is the president’s team. Everybody gets that, but today everything is about Donald Trump – it’s not about the substantive issues that are really important.”
He added, “I will tell you that people on the committee are acting in good faith to try to get there — to get the State Department stood up with 100 percent of its ambassadors.”
A White House official applauded Risch’s work.
“Committee Democrats have been obstructing many of the president’s extremely well-qualified nominees — greatly hurting the State Department’s ability to carry out its mission,” the official told RCP. “Thankfully, Chairman Risch has moved forward by voting 25 nominees out of committee, and we look forward to them getting a floor vote soon.”
The continuing clash over Trump’s nominees was on full display Wednesday during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said it’s a “disgrace” that the nomination of someone as talented and qualified as Balatao has languished for nine months.
“It’s a disgrace, particularly when you have Sen. Menendez discuss the hollowing out of the State Department, which you have rightly disputed,” Johnson said in addressing Pompeo, who was there to testify on the department’s budget.
Menendez later fired back at Johnson, arguing that he “invoked my name in disdain” and said he hopes that Johnson is as concerned about “political firings and retribution at the State Department as he is about some of these nominees.”
The three-term senator then went on to blame Trump for failing to nominate someone to the post for 142 days after firing Patrick Kennedy, a 45-year career official whom Republicans have implicated in key Benghazi-related decisions and the scandal involving then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
During Rex Tillerson’s time as secretary, Trump nominated Eric Ueland, a longtime respected Senate GOP staffer, for Kennedy’s post. But Ueland didn’t have the credentials for the position, which is to function as the chief operating officer of the sprawling, 92,000-employee agency. When Pompeo took over for Tillerson, Trump nominated Bulatao.
Menendez, who was sidelined from his role as the ranking Democrat on the panel for two years while the Justice Department pursued a corruption case against him, went on to blast Trump for some of his more controversial nominees, who have later been shown to have previously undisclosed ethical and legal issues.
“So we have some real vetting issues,” he said. “I hope we can get to a better place because I want you to be staffed, but I’m just not going to rubber-stamp nominees that have some of these problems. … If I can get the information that the committee deserves on oversight, Sen. Johnson can have Mr. Bulatao.”
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.