Column | Democrats fail, yet again, to check Trump’s nominees
President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, has been approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. A full vote in the Senate will soon confirm her to her new post – and a handful Democrats join the vast majority of Republicans in voting her through.
Time and again in nomination fights, this same pattern plays out: Left-leaning voters and activists across the country demand opposition from their elected representatives, issue advocates provide substantive reasons to vote against the nominees, and then a small cadre of Democrats inevitably rubber stamp the administration’s choices for key cabinet posts.
Haspel was a particularly egregious case facing bipartisan opposition, and therefore a more painful than usual letdown.
To be sure, Haspel had some strong qualifications for the job, including more than 30 years of service in the CIA. She also wasn’t fundamentally opposed to the mission of the institution she was meant to lead (like embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt of the EPA), or patently unqualified (e.g. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson).
But there still should have been an insurmountable obstacle to Haspel’s confirmation: her involvement with torture at the CIA. She previously supervised a ‘black site’ in Thailand where at least one detainee was tortured on her watch. Then, some time later and in a more senior position, she was involved in the decision to destroy video evidence of the same torture just as Congress was on the verge of investigating what was still being euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation.”
Of course, Haspel was far from the only person at the CIA involved in this behavior – and she should not suffer the consequences alone. Still, approving her to a top leadership post sends dangerous messages across the board: to President Trump, who campaigned on bringing back “a hell of a lot worse” than the CIA’s now illegal methods; to the CIA, who see a total lack of institutional accountability for past moral failures; and to the world, which should look to the United States as an exemplar of human rights rather than hypocrisy.
Three Republicans – including Arizona Senator John McCain, who experienced torture as a POW in Vietnam – opposed Haspel’s nomination even after her hearing, and others were on the fence. The votes existed to block her and demand an equally qualified CIA careerist with no prior involvement in torture for the directorship. So why did so many Senate Democrats fold in this fight, as they have done in so many others?
Some red state Democrats, who fear the ire of Trump supporters in their 2018 election campaigns, may think they are making a wise political choice. But few voters will be going to the polls this fall thinking about months-old nomination fights, and no Republican opponents (or super-PACs) will shy away from attacking incumbent Democrats as ‘obstructionists,’ no matter how many Trump picks they’ve backed. What’s more, every time they break with their base, these senators risk alienating the progressive voters and activists they absolutely must keep if they are to hold onto their seats.
The case is even more perplexing, however, for blue state Democrats, or those not up for election this fall. What other conditions beyond a fired-up activist base, clear values-based arguments, and ample political cover from respected Republicans do these senators need to take a stand? The Trump Administration is effectively a malevolent political black hole that grossly distorts the basic norms of human decency for all in its orbit; why, nearly 500 days in, would anyone who claims to oppose its agenda still extend the president or his nominees the benefit of the doubt?
As for Haspel, we must all hope that she upholds her promise to refuse any order, even one from President Trump, to restart any use of torture. And perhaps on down the road, the CIA will finally have a long overdue institutional reckoning with its past that puts morality before politics. But unfortunately, each of these seems less certain than the likelihood that – absent a sudden infusion of courage – some Senate Democrats seemed determined to disappoint when it comes to nomination fights.