Candidates for top jobs in President Donald Trump’s administration are getting spooked after Andrew Puzder’s nomination was scuttled, and they fear the White House isn’t doing enough to protect them from grueling confirmations, according to several sources involved in the process.
The concerns are affecting not only some of the highest-profile nominations, including agriculture secretary pick Sonny Perdue, but also candidates for ambassadorships, judicial positions and other posts. The chill that’s settled in even has some people considering bowing out of contention, meaning Trump’s attempt to quickly fill his government could drag out even more.
Some potential nominees are especially focused on the botched and slow-moving confirmation process of Puzder, the former labor secretary nominee, as a cautionary tale of what could go wrong if the administration isn’t closely engaged in nomination fights.
While nominees like Perdue don’t have the same sort of baggage Puzder had. Perdue and others are concerned about his lack of contact with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and his office, according to two sources close to him. They’re also concerned about what their critics might dig up if their nominations linger in the Senate for weeks amid slow-walking by Democrats.
“It’s been a month since inauguration. Why are some Cabinet nominees waiting on return calls from the White House?” said a GOP operative with knowledge of the process, who, like other people quoted in this story, requested anonymity to speak freely about the issue.
“We’re reaching a point where nominees like Perdue are concerned. Potential ambassadors and judges are wondering how are you going to handle my confirmation? Very few people at that level don’t have skeletons in their closet, so you [need to] get confirmations done lickety-split.”
Others have complained that the White House has not mounted a strong enough defense of its nominees amid a string of negative stories — including the tape that POLITICO resurfaced of Puzder’s ex-wife appearing on a 1990 “Oprah” program in disguise to accuse him of domestic violence, allegations she later recanted. They say the White House is often taking hours to respond to requests for comment from reporters and sometimes not responding at all.
Like most administrations, Trump’s has barred nominees from talking to reporters, leaving them unable to defend themselves. And many of the nominees’ staffers are not authorized to speak to the media on record either.
A White House official strongly disputed the notion that the administration isn’t supporting the nominees, adding that there are staff dedicated to working with Trump’s picks. “The slow-moving process is due to the Democrats constantly blocking our nominees,” the official said. “We are very proud of our nominees and looking forward to having all of them confirmed.”
Many of Trump’s Cabinet picks have already been confirmed, but several await the green light from the Senate, including former Sen. Dan Coats, Trump’s pick for director of national intelligence; investor Wilbur Ross, his choice for commerce secretary; and Florida law school dean Alexander Acosta, his new pick for labor secretary.
Acosta is expected to win Senate approval, but he could face tough questions from Democrats about allegations that, when he was a prosecutor, he cut a sweetheart plea deal with a billionaire accused of having sex with underage girls.
Democrats are likely to put many of Trump’s remaining nominees through the wringer as they seek to undercut the White House. Republicans held up many of Barack Obama’s second-tier nominees for months over disagreements with his policies.
Trump himself seems to have taken personal offense at the rough treatment many of his nominees have gotten.
“I’ve also worked to install a Cabinet over the delays and obstruction of Senate Democrats,” Trump said during his news conference on Thursday. “You’ve seen what they’ve done over the last long number of years. That will be one of the great Cabinets ever assembled in American history.”
But allies of some of the nominees believe they’re being put in unnecessarily vulnerable positions — and that the situation has gotten worse.
During the transition, Trump’s aides set up a “war room” to help prepare his Cabinet hopefuls for their confirmation hearings, recruiting dozens of outside policy experts and public relations veterans to run nominees through a grueling series of practice sessions.
Since Trump took office, nominees have received less attention from top White House officials, who are focused on managing a chaotic first few weeks in office, according to people close to the process. With the transition team winding down, and the duties of getting nominees confirmed falling more heavily on the White House chief of staff and his deputies, potential ambassadors and other nominees say they fear their reputations will be tarred.
Puzder’s decision Wednesday to withdraw as nominee for labor secretary after a series of damaging revelations came to light in recent weeks has further rattled some people considering taking Senate-confirmed jobs.
They worry that Democrats’ efforts to delay votes on nominees give opponents more time to shine a light on embarrassing opposition research and put pressure on moderate Republicans to vote “no.”
“We knew Puzder was going to be tough; there should have been a strategy to move ahead on the other ones,” said a former Trump transition official. “If you hang out on the ridge line, you’re going to get shot.”
One person working for a Cabinet nominee complained that the nominee struggled to get White House officials on the phone and saw little public support from Trump even as the nominee was coming under constant fire from Senate Democrats.
An executive at a group that worked closely with one of Trump’s nominees said the White House made little effort to coordinate its message with outside organizations.
“It’s their nominee. They have to run point. And they just weren’t,” the person said. “Usually you’ve got a White House political and communications operation that is reaching out to their allies as the ebb and flow transpires and asking groups to amplify or downplay or recharacterize certain things that are happening to their nominees. And that just wasn’t happening.”
Trump has only occasionally used his Twitter feed, which often sets the day’s agenda in Washington, to defend his Cabinet nominees, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed among the team of people hired to shepherd his nominees through the Senate confirmation process.
“How many tweets were sent in December and January and how many were focused on the Cabinet picks?” asked another person close to one of the nominees, noting that Trump used his Twitter feed to opine on everything from Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech to the size of his inauguration crowd.
Indeed, in the run-up to a vote on Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as secretary of education, Trump’s personal account was largely silent about her confirmation, save for a Jan. 17 tweet saying DeVos has the “talent, commitment, and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools.”
The morning of the Senate vote onwhether to confirm DeVos, during which Vice President Mike Pence would cast a historic tie-breaking vote, Trump’s official Twitter account called DeVos “a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!”
One former transition official blamed Trump’s lobbying ban for what he called an “ad hoc” process of preparing nominees, arguing the restriction cuts out experienced former congressional aides who are now lobbyists.
“That means that people have been left trying to navigate congressional meetings, congressional hearings and congressional votes,” the person said, “mostly without the help of anyone who knows anything about Congress.”
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