A tiff between New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slowing down the confirmation of nominees for the nation’s diplomatic corps, already understaffed at a time of mounting global challenges.
Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, is objecting to some State nominees over their qualifications even as he continues to press Pompeo to fulfill long-standing oversight document requests.
At the same time, Democrats are waiting for Pompeo to provide information about what exactly President Donald Trump discussed earlier this year with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
In an unusually charged four-paragraph statement on Oct. 10, Pompeo accused Menendez of “putting our nation at risk” by holding up Senate votes over 60 department nominees, representing more than a quarter of all senior-level Senate-confirmable positions at Foggy Bottom.
In two memos released this month, Menendez accused Pompeo of exaggerating the facts and greatly misrepresenting others.
The feud comes 21 months into the Trump administration while a number of countries with security concerns that directly touch on the United States still lack a permanent U.S. ambassador. They include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Australia and Mexico.
Menendez’s office noted that the Foreign Relations Committee has only 39 nominations before it. The rest have been advanced to the floor where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sole control over which nominees from across the federal bureaucracy will get floor time and in what order. The Kentucky Republican has made clear his priority is advancing judicial nominees.
Additionally, Democratic Hill staff took umbrage at Pompeo’s characterization of all of his nominees as “excellent” and “outstanding” candidates.
“There are qualified career nominees and some qualified political, but we have an unprecedented number of politicals who have serious problems in their backgrounds, raising questions about whether they should ever be confirmed to be representatives of the U.S. government,” said one senior Senate Democratic staffer, who was not authorized to be quoted.
Added a second senior Democratic aide, “The political appointees they’re putting forward are full of pus.”
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Menendez’s office highlighted as particularly problematic one nominee who failed to disclose sexual harassment allegations against him and another who was not forthcoming about being under an FBI investigation for a “pay-to-play” scheme.
Other nominees, according to Democrats, failed to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest. In particular, the nominee to serve as ambassador to Malta — publicly identified as Christine Toretti — had a restraining order taken out against her a decade ago for leaving a bullet-riddled target sheet in the office of an Arizona doctor she was upset with.
Menendez’s office also is unhappy with many of Trump’s diplomatic nominees’ “track records of deeply offensive public statements, unbefitting of an official representative of the United States, including derisive comments about current sitting U.S. senators, extremist views on immigrants, and demeaning comments about women,” according to a Thursday press release rebutting State Department talking points.
Just before leaving last week for a monthlong congressional break for the midterms, senators cleared a slew of diplomatic nominees, bringing the total number of appointees awaiting votes to 48.
Those confirmed include the assistant secretaries for the Western Hemisphere, Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and Legislative Affairs; the head of the anti-human trafficking office; and ambassadors to Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Somalia and Suriname.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert last week acknowledged the lack of nominees for key ambassador positions and attributed part of the problem to the length of time it takes to vet a potential nominee.
“It’s a lengthy process,” she told reporters. “We’ve got people identified. We’re pushing to get them through just as quickly as possible.”
Still, some nominees already before Capitol Hill appear to not have been vetted closely such as Illinois state Sen. Kyle McCarter, nominee for ambassador to Kenya.
The Republican lawmaker was rebuked by committee Democrats at his July confirmation hearing for writing on Twitter after Trump’s 2016 election win, “Hillary for Prison? No, really.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, said he was “completely perplexed” at why McCarter would ever write such a statement.
“When somebody in this country, especially in a position — a titled position of trust, which you hold — suggests … not that somebody is bad, shouldn’t be elected, glad they lost etc., but they should be put in prison,” the Virginia Democrat said.
Transparency and oversight
Pompeo specifically highlighted his unhappiness with the lack of a Foreign Relations confirmation vote for the State Department’s third-highest ranking position — the undersecretary of management. The nominee for that position, Brian Bulatao, is a longtime personal friend of the former three-term Kansas lawmaker.
Bulatao has followed Pompeo throughout much of his career, The duo attended West Point together and went on to co-found Thayer Aerospace, a Kansas-based company that manufactures airplane parts. And Bulatao worked as CIA’s chief operating officer when Pompeo was the agency’s director.
Pompeo singled out Menendez for using Bulatao and others’ nominations as a “political football,” which Democratic aides said was unfair as Republicans have also delayed votes on diplomatic nominees.
It is longstanding bipartisan practice for senators to delay confirmation votes in order to extract unrelated policy concessions from Foggy Bottom and other agencies. In July, Foreign Relations member Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said he would place a hold on department nominees until he received long-delayed answers on aspects of administration policy toward Cuba. And Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio on multiple occasions has held up nominees over policy disagreements.
Menendez is pressing Pompeo for internal documents requested months ago relating to reports of political appointees using information turned up from social media searches to penalize career officials for being insufficiently loyal to Trump, which the department’s inspector general is also investigating.
At a House Foreign Affairs hearing in May, the secretary promised to provide lawmakers within a matter of days a timeline for getting access to those documents on “political targeting” but has thus far failed to come through, according to Menendez’s office.