Trump needs a full cabinet, and Democratic boycotts are failing

Published 9:00 am Friday, February 3, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Frustrated as Democrats may be over President Trump’s Cabinet nominees, boycotting confirmation hearings is the wrong tactic.

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As evidenced by recent events, this is a president who must have his Cabinet in place as quickly as possible. Whatever the concerns about some of the nominees, the absence of a full Cabinet seems to have given political strategist Steve Bannon an alarming level of influence over a president still new to the business of governance.

Trump, like most presidents, is eager to act on his agenda and make good on at least some campaign promises. That he wanted a quick start is understandable. But every president needs a functioning Cabinet, and the absence of trusted officials who could provide a thorough vetting appears to have resulted in too-small a circle of confidants unable or unwilling to see the broader consequences of recent actions. In the case of the temporary travel ban, where Trump eschewed the normal channels before his surprise launch, the result was a display of incompetence and confusion that has marred the opening weeks of his administration.

There is no way to know whether having Rex Tillerson in place as secretary of state earlier would have prevented either that or the less-than-diplomatic phone calls to Mexican and Australian leaders that have kicked off a new wave of anxiety about growing international tensions.

Given Trump’s inexperience in government and his get-it-done-now impulses, it is critical that Cabinet members start developing protocols, advising the president and, it is hoped, providing a tempering influence. At the very least, they will have skilled career staff reporting to them who can offer context and help vet proposals before they are enacted helter-skelter.

There is another reason Democrats should abandon their boycott strategy.

It’s not working.

Thursday’s unanimous Senate panel approval of Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt is the latest proof. Democrats boycotted the hearing, as they did with hearings for Steven Mnuchin, the Goldman Sachs executive nominated to take over Treasury, and Sen. Tom Price, R-Georgia, Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services.

Republicans on those panels responded by suspending the rules — as is the majority’s prerogative — and quickly passing those nominees on to the full Senate for confirmation, undoubtedly relieved that Pruitt, Mnuchin and Price would be able to avoid further questioning.

And the service Senate Democrats most need to provide the public right now is as thorough a vetting as possible on those nominees. Trump is going to get most of his picks — nearly every president does. But the public at least deserves to know, with specificity, where those nominees stand on issues.

Equally important, in light of the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, is determining how nominees will balance their loyalties to their agency, the public, the Constitution and the president.

On that latter point, it is hoped that Trump will increasingly realize that advisers willing to question and push back, as discomfiting as that may be, are the voices he needs most.