Maybe Donald Trump should be known as the Civics Book President — since every day he offers another lesson about the norms of democracy.
Even by Trumped-up standards, the president-elect’s weekend Twitter attack on the honesty of an election he won was certifiably weird. Without offering a shred of evidence, Trump laughably claimed, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Simple arithmetic highlights the implausibility of Trump’s conspiracy-theory mindset. To erase Hillary Clinton’s estimated 2.5 million popular vote lead would have required every single Democratic vote in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego to have been cast illegally. With a conspiracy that vast, you would think that someone might have noticed.
Even if Trump is unhinged rather than the hinge of history, he will rightfully become the 45th president. And one of the first constitutional provisions that will be tested is the practical meaning of Article 2, Section 2, requiring the Senate to give its “advice and consent” to most major appointments.
Traditionally, the Senate has granted presidents wide latitude to staff their administration as they choose. But there have been occasional exceptions. It is telling that one of the most memorable political novels ever written is Allen Drury’s 1959 depiction of a Senate confirmation fight over a would-be secretary of State. Even though “Advise and Consent” is overwrought in places, it spent nearly two years astride the best-seller list.
The closest real-world counterpart to “Advise and Consent” was the Democratic Senate’s 1989 rejection of George H.W. Bush’s choice of John Tower as his secretary of Defense. Not only was this a stunning rebuff to a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but it was also the first time that the Senate had ever voted to block a Cabinet nominee of an incoming president.
The case against Tower was always vague. There were rumors about alcoholism and (to use a euphemism of the era) womanizing plus grumbles about the $1 million that Tower had been paid by defense contractors after he left the Senate. But the abiding truth was that few of Tower’s former Democratic Senate colleagues liked him or were willing to break party lines to defend him.
Sometimes, Cabinet nominees have self-destructed for reasons that, in hindsight, seem little more than misdemeanors. In 1993, Bill Clinton’s first two choices for attorney general flamed out before they got to a Senate vote. Zoe Baird had failed to pay Social Security taxes for a couple who had worked in her home and Kimba Wood had hired a nanny who was in this country illegally.
In similar fashion, Tom Daschlewithdrew his name in 2009 as Barack Obama's first choice for secretary of Health and Human Services after it came out that the former Senate majority leader owed $140,000 in back taxes.
Against this historical backdrop, the relevant question is how much deference should the incoming Senate — with a likely two-vote GOP majority — give to Trump in staffing his Cabinet and other top government posts.
It is probably not accidental that Trump’s most explosive picks so far are for White House jobs not subject to Senate confirmation. There is no way that Trump senior strategist Steve Bannon, the former chairman of the incendiary Breitbart News, could survive Senate confirmation.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, tapped as Trump’s national security adviser — probably the most important post in government outside the authority of the Senate — would also face an uphill struggle. Not only would he face scrutiny over the hyperbolic pronouncements that were known internally as “Flynn Facts” when he headed the Defense Intelligence Agency, but Flynn would also come under fire for his gullible embrace of conspiracy theories about the imposition of Islamic Sharia law in America.
The truth is that Senate Democrats will be lucky to find enough Republican support to block even one or two of Trump’s most egregious nominations. As a result, it would be prudent for Democrats to pick the targets of any major confirmation fights wisely.
In theory, attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions should be bitterly opposed to the last gasp. Whether you point to his allegedly racist comments that led to his 1986 rejection as a federal judge or the vehemence of the Alabama senator’s opposition to all forms of immigration, it is easy to paint Sessions as outside the political mainstream.
But Sessions — unlike John Tower — is personally popular with his colleagues, even Democrats. And, unless something startling emerges during his confirmation hearings, it seems almost certain that Sessions will be confirmed, despite his retrograde views on voting rights, immigration and criminal justice.
Democrats and the teachers unions are appalled at the selection of Betsy DeVos, a fervent advocate of voucher programs, as secretary of Education. But, in reality, DeVos is the type of Cabinet appointee that a normal conservative president like, say, Jeb Bush might also have made. Having DeVos in the Cabinet is what happens when you lose a presidential election.
Instead, the major confirmation fights should be directed at those Cabinet appointees who mirror Trump’s fact-free worldview about foreign policy, national security and domestic liberty.
If, say, the mercurial Rudy Giuliani ends up as Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, that choice — coupled with Flynn’s conspiratorial mindset — would all but guarantee a dangerously explosive foreign policy.
The goal for the Democrats and prudent Republicans should be to use the Senate’s confirmation powers to rein in Trump’s worst impulses. That — rather than empty symbolism — should be the goal in the troubling weeks ahead.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.