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Trump vs. Senate Democrats, the battle over the president’s most controversial nominees, explained

Trump most recently accused Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of trying to obstruct his VA secretary nominee, Ronny Jackson.

Sen. Jon Tester Meets With Veterans Affairs Secretary Nominee Ronny Jackson
US Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson meets with Sen. Jon Tester. Jackson recently withdrew his nomination for VA secretary.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As new allegations swirled fast and furious on Capitol Hill Wednesday about Ronny Jackson, the White House doctor and President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Senate Democrats weren’t biting.

“I’ve been hearing rumors for a couple days, and I don’t like the rumor mill,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as she stepped into a Senate elevator. “I think we need to know the facts.”

What was supposed to be an uncontroversial Cabinet pick for Trump turned into a full-blown mess earlier this week. By Thursday morning, Jackson had withdrawn his nomination while maintaining the allegations against him were false.

Jackson’s problems began on Tuesday, when Sen. John Tester (D-MT), the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, revealed that about 20 people had approached his committee with allegations that Jackson was routinely drunk on the job, and that he dispensed sleep medications including Ambien “like they were candy” on overseas trips.

“In the White House, they called him the Candyman,” Tester told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a Tuesday night interview. In response to the eye-popping allegations, Tester and the Republican chair of Veterans’ Affairs Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) took the step of postponing Jackson’s confirmation hearing until they received more information from the White House.

Then a new report surfaced on Wednesday night with allegations that Jackson gave a “large supply” of the narcotic Percocet to a White House staff member, wrote himself prescriptions, and once “wrecked a government vehicle” while intoxicated at a Secret Service going-away party (a claim Jackson refuted).

Still, Senate Democrats avoided talking about these accusations. They were more interested in talking about Jackson’s lack of management experience.

Jackson served as a combat surgeon before he became the White House doctor, but neither position has involved the kind of management experience required for the VA — the second-largest government agency, behind only the Department of Defense.

In his past jobs, Jackson has managed a staff of about 70 people in the White House medical office and around a dozen as a combat surgeon. At the helm of the VA, he’d have had a nationwide staff of around 375,000 people and a budget over $185 billion. Democratic and Republican lawmakers both sounded the alarm about this discrepancy when Jackson was first nominated.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin echoed Heitkamp on Wednesday, saying he’s only heard “rumor-mongering” against Jackson. But absent the rumors, Durbin questioned whether Jackson was ready for the VA job.

“He may be the best doctor and a great combat surgeon, but managing this behemoth of a department, the second-largest in the government, is a massive administrative challenge,” Durbin said. “And if he has any experience to prepare him for that, I don’t know what it would be.”

Jackson is just the latest Trump Cabinet pick to elicit controversy, which ultimately tanked his nomination. But as 10 Senate Democrats face midterm elections in states where Trump won, some may be tempted to vote “yes” on Trump’s next pick for secretary of the VA.

Senate Democrats have stood firm on many of Trump’s controversial nominees

Senate Democrats have largely stuck together to vote against some of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks; all of them voted against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

Red-state Democrats including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and North Dakota’s Heitkamp have defected from their party and voted with Republicans on a few key nominees, including embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In past years, Senate nominations typically take a back seat to bigger pieces of legislation, but they’re consuming a lot of the political oxygen under Trump. There are two reasons for this: First, nominations are pretty much the only thing the Senate is working on these days, in lieu of basically any other major legislation (except perhaps the farm bill).

Second, with the near-constant turnover in the Trump White House, senators are having to confirm a lot more nominees than usual. Tillerson, Price, and former VA Secretary David Shulkin were all fired in the last year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been rumored to be on the outs with the president for months, and Pruitt, the EPA head, is facing increasing scrutiny over alleged ethics violations.

“This president came to office saying he was going to drain the swamp. Some of the people that he’s nominated, like EPA ... really?” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) with a chuckle. “Is this the guy you’re going to drain the swamp with? I don’t think so.”

In addition to confirming Shulkin’s replacement, the Senate will have to vote on CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state, as well as on Gina Haspel, the CIA official Trump nominated to replace Pompeo. The dizzying pace of new Cabinet nominations has irked some senators.

“I’d probably prefer that not happen, but [Trump’s] got his decision-making and his process,” Heitkamp said.

Trump constantly rails about Democrats “obstructing” his nominees, but as the minority party, they don’t have the power to tank a candidate. Even when Senate Democrats have all banded together to vote against a Trump nominee, it usually doesn’t matter. Democrats only have leverage on nominees if one Republicans defector joins them, which almost happened last week with new NASA director Jim Bridenstine.

Led by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), a former astronaut, Democrats unanimously opposed Bridenstine, a Congress member from Oklahoma and a former Navy pilot, because they were concerned he was too political and had no relevant experience to run a massive government agency. Bridenstine’s most relevant qualification was that he once ran the Air and Space Museum in Tulsa, and he’s the only sitting member of Congress to become NASA administrator.

Democrats were almost able to sink Bridenstine when it looked like Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona would join them in voting no. But Flake flipped his vote at the last minute, and Bridenstine squeaked through.

Will opposing Trump nominees hurt red-state Democrats in 2018?

Trump lashed out at Tester during a Fox & Friends interview Thursday morning, accusing the senator of trying to kill Jackson’s nomination to the VA. Tester is up for reelection in Montana in 2018, and Trump said flat out he would pay a price during the midterms.

“Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in [the] state,” Trump said. “People in Montana, the admiral is the kind of man they respect and admire. For him to be doing this to this man and his family, I think Jon Tester has a big price to pay in Montana.”

Senate Democrats banding together to oppose some of Trump’s nominations underscores an overall theme: Senate leadership has been very good at keeping their caucus together on big votes, including the failed Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, the GOP tax bill, and most major nominations.

This was especially noticeable during the tax bill; unlike with the Bush tax cuts, no moderate Democrats voted on the GOP plan last year. Many were furious that Republicans didn’t even try to reach out to them, instead ramming through the bill on a party-line vote.

It’s a record that some vulnerable Senate Democrats, like Tester, will have to defend during their reelection campaigns. Many are trying to highlight examples of times they’ve worked with Trump and Republicans as they campaign in their home states.

The Democrats who sometimes break with their party to vote for Trump nominees are typically from red states, such as Manchin and Heitkamp. The two are already said they will vote for Pompeo during a full vote in the Senate, and fellow Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN) and Doug Jones (AL) have joined them.

Still, some of the most vocal voices against Trump confirmations have been red-state Democrats who are facing tough reelections in November. Nelson is staring down a competitive challenge from Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the fall, and Tester, the senator from Montana, is often talked about as one of the most embattled Senate Democrats.

Tester has voted with the Democratic caucus many times this year; he’s been very outspoken in the case of Ronny Jackson, has voted against most of Trump’s other controversial nominees, and was the lone red-state Democrat to cast a vote to shut down the government briefly earlier this year, frustrated about the lack of a long-term budget and no funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and community health centers.

If the campaign ad of one Republican vying to replace Tester come November is any indication, this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the senator’s votes against Trump.