Former George W. Bush administration official Steven Bradbury, who wrote the legal memos authorizing the use of torture by the CIA, was nominated in early June to be President Trump’s general counsel for the Transportation Department — but his nomination has been put on hold.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) placed a hold on Bradbury’s nomination after members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee questioned Bradbury during a preliminary nomination hearing on Wednesday.
During the hearing, Duckworth led the charge against his nomination, drawing on her own experience working as an Army National Guard helicopter pilot in Iraq. In 2004, her helicopter was shot down and she lost both of her legs.
“When you’re stuck bleeding in a helicopter behind enemy lines like I was, you hope and pray that if the enemy finds you first, they treat you humanely,” she said. “Mr. Bradbury lacked moral conviction in the Bush White House, and I don’t think he can be trusted to stand up for the values I fought to defend, especially not in a Trump presidency.”
Duckworth went on to say that Bradbury placed American troops in danger by writing what became known as the torture memos. “The actions you helped justify put our troops in harm’s way, put our diplomats deployed overseas in harm’s way, and you compromised our nation’s very values,” she said.
Bradbury wrote the three memos in 2005 when he worked as the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during Bush’s second term. Even though the Bush administration had already developed its torture program before Bradbury was in government, the memos provided the legal framework for the government’s program, which included the use of 13 different techniques including waterboarding, cramped confinement, and dietary manipulation, according to Politico.
During the nomination hearing, Bradbury said that while working in the Office of Legal Council, he didn’t advocate for any policies.
“Every opinion I gave for OLC represented my best judgment of what the laws in effect at that time required,” he said during the Wednesday hearing, according to the New York Times. “I certainly recognize and respect that some of the questions we addressed during my tenure in the office raised difficult issues about which reasonable people could disagree.”
What happens next?
In order for Bradbury to be confirmed, he has to make it through two votes — one in the Senate Commerce Committee, which hasn’t been scheduled yet, and the other in the Senate as a whole. Duckworth’s hold would need to be broken by a simple majority vote.
As Vox’s Jeff Stein explained, the Senate formally operates through “unanimous consent,” meaning that one senator has the power to prevent consideration of a presidential nomination from reaching the floor. Holds on presidential nominees can only be broken by a successful cloture vote to cut off debate on a given motion. It takes 51 votes, or a simple majority, for that to happen.
If Duckworth’s hold is broken, then Bradbury’s nomination would head to the entire Senate floor, where his nomination would be debated and would then go to a vote. In the Senate, Bradbury would also have to win a simple majority to be confirmed.
A debate over the use of torture is reemerging nationwide
The pushback over Bradbury’s nomination is just the latest incident in a nationwide debate on torture that has been reintroduced by Trump’s presidency.
The president’s nomination of Bradbury falls in line with his own views on torture. Trump has made clear he has no moral objections to the use of torture, believes it generally works, and has only held back from authorizing it because of strong pushback from his national security team.
“Would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire,” said Donald Trump in a January interview with ABC News.
But many Democrats and human rights activists have spoken out against Bradbury’s nomination because of his role in the CIA torture program.
Several senators released statements opposing his nomination, including Dianne Feinstein of California. And veterans and anti-torture activists seated in the committee hearing room disrupted the hearing to protest Bradbury’s nomination, according to a press release by Code Pink, a women-led antiwar organization.
“Anybody whose moral compass is so broken that they would condone torture doesn’t deserve a position in the US government,” said veteran Ken Ashe during the protest, according to the press release.