The Senate on Tuesday will begin the work of vetting President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet, starting with eight separate confirmation hearings in a span of three days. The Republican-controlled chamber’s ambitious (albeit not unprecedented) schedule will lay the groundwork for up-or-down votes for each of the nominees in the coming weeks. Democrats have plenty to complain about when it comes to Trump’s handpicked team, but there’s little reason to believe they can actually derail any of his nominations.
The GOP currently holds 52 seats in the Senate, enough to force through any of the nominations simply by limiting defections from within their own ranks to fewer than three. They also have precedent working in their favor. In its history, the U.S. Senate has only ever formally rejected nine Cabinet-level nominees and has done so only once in the past half-century: John Tower, who was nominated by George H.W. Bush for secretary of defense in 1989, was doomed by allegations of his alcohol abuse and womanizing. (Nonetheless, Tower still came within three votes of confirmation.)
On the rare occasions that Cabinet-level picks have failed in recent decades, the nominations have been withdrawn before the Senate's up-or-down vote over questions about embarrassing or controversial details of their personal or professional lives. That’s theoretically still possible in a Trump administration, but it strains the imagination given the president-elect’s steadfast unwillingness to back down in the face of political norms or even public pressure. In administrations past, wounded nominees stepped aside rather than become a distraction. In Trump’s, distractions might be part of the plan.
Below is a list of the 10 most recent Cabinet-level nominations to fail, and why they went down, starting with the most recent. The administration or the transition team publicly announced each selection, but not all were formally nominated by the president or the president-elect. None ever got a full vote in the Senate.
Nominated by Barack Obama to be secretary of the Department of Commerce.
Withdrawn on Feb. 12, 2009.
Why: Gregg, then a Republican senator, unexpectedly bowed out of contention early in Obama’s first term citing “irresolvable conflicts” with the president over his economic stimulus plan. “I’m a fiscal conservative, as everybody knows, a fairly strong one,” Gregg explained at the time. “And it just became clear to me that it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this Cabinet or any Cabinet.” He added: “It was my mistake, obviously, to say yes.”
Nominated by Barack Obama to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Withdrawn on Feb. 9, 2009.
Why: Daschle’s nomination was withdrawn after he acknowledged that he had failed to pay roughly $140,000 in back taxes. The announcement came one day after Obama had suggested he’d stand behind the former Senate Democratic leader despite the criticism. Compounding Democrats problems, however, was the discovery that another Obama appointee for a non-Cabinet-level position had also failed to pay taxes.
Nominated by Barack Obama to be secretary of the Department of Commerce.
Withdrawn on Jan. 4, 2009.
Why: Richardson, then the governor of New Mexico, stepped aside amid an ongoing federal investigation into whether his administration unfairly awarded more than $1 million worth of state consulting contracts to a company run by one his donors. Richardson suggested that the investigation would have “forced an untenable delay” in his confirmation. Federal prosecutors later dropped the case after a yearlong investigation into the pay-for-play allegations.
Nominated by George W. Bush for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Withdrawn on Dec. 10, 2004.
Why: Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, withdrew from contention amid concerns about the immigration status of one of his former housekeepers, as well as a related tax issue. Kerik had been seen at the time as perhaps the most vulnerable of Bush's second-term nominations given a post-NYPD track record that included a stint as interim minister of interior for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
Nominated by George W. Bush for secretary of the Department of Labor.
Withdrawn on Jan. 9, 2001.
Why: Chavez, a conservative commentator, withdrew from consideration after it was discovered that she had previously given housing and money to an immigrant from Guatemala who was in the country illegally. Chavez maintained she was doing a good deed when she provided the shelter and cash to the women, while her critics suggested she was illegally employing the woman as a live-in housekeeper.
Nominated by Bill Clinton for secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Withdrawn on Oct. 27, 1997.
Why: Gobel, then deputy secretary of the VA, withdrew after it became clear that his confirmation hearings would relive allegations that he had sexually harassed two women during a public reception in 1993 at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. An administrative complaint about the incident had been filed with the department, which found it unwarranted after investigating it twice. The first probe, however, was conducted by the agency’s then–general counsel, whom Gober would later marry, raising concerns about a possible conflict of interest in the case.
Nominated by Bill Clinton for director of the CIA.
Withdrawn on March 18, 1997.
Why: Lake called it quits after protracted confirmation hearings that focused on his time as National Security Adviser, a role in which, among other things, he failed to inform Congress that the White House had tacitly approved Iran's arming of Bosnian Muslims. According to the New York Times, Republicans in charge of his confirmation process planned to stall for at least another month in hopes that “some bombshell would explode in Mr. Lake’s face.” After learning that, Lake reportedly told Clinton that he was “not going to spend the next months being a dancing bear in a political circus.”
Bobby Ray Inman
Nominated by Bill Clinton to be secretary of defense.
Withdrawn on Jan. 19, 1994.
Why: Inman abruptly dropped out after complaining that his reputation was under attack and suggesting that New York Times columnist William Safire and Senate GOP leader Bob Dole were plotting against him. Safire had penned a column the previous month that described Inman as a “tax cheat” for not paying Social Security taxes for a housekeeper, but Inman nonetheless appeared on track for a relatively easy confirmation. “I did not want this job,” Inman declared in a rambling news conference announcing his decision to withdraw. “I'm at peace with myself.”
Nominated by Bill Clinton to be attorney general.
Withdrawn on Feb. 6, 1993.
Why: Wood, then a federal judge in New York, withdrew after the White House discovered that she had previously employed an undocumented immigrant as a child care provider—even though it did not appear to be illegal to do so at the time she did. The problem, as the Clinton administration saw it, was that the president’s first choice for the post, Zoe Baird, had been forced to drop out only weeks prior for similar reasons.
Nominated by Bill Clinton for attorney general.
Withdrawn on Jan. 22, 1993.
Why: Baird was on track to become the first ever female U.S. attorney general when her nomination was unexpectedly derailed by the revelation that she had hired a Peruvian couple to perform domestic tasks, despite knowing they could not work legally in United States. Baird and her husband also failed to pay Social Security taxes on the couples’ wages. Democrats were surprised by the public backlash, and Baird ultimately stepped down after a bipartisan group of senators announced they would oppose her confirmation.
Among the issues to have derailed a nomination, then, are the actual or alleged: failure to pay federal taxes, illegal employment of immigrants, involvement in a pay-for-play scheme, and sexual harassment of women. Democrats can hope to find similar skeletons in the closets of Trump’s nominees. It’s unclear, though, why that would matter to Republicans who rallied behind Trump knowing he’d bring similar ones to the White House himself.