President Donald Trump spent this weekend baselessly accusing federal law enforcement of secretly colluding with the Obama administration to undermine his campaign, ushering in what could be a week of significant tension between the White House and the Department of Justice.
The fact that Trump has hardly bothered to nominate anyone to top DOJ positions won’t exactly help ease the strain.
Besides choosing cabinet secretaries, every president is responsible for naming hundreds of lower-level officials throughout the sprawling executive branch, including the Justice Department. The president can appoint a dozen assistant attorneys general who head the department’s various divisions. All those appointments must go through the Senate confirmation process before assuming their new positions.
They are critical leaders at the Justice Department—and Trump has hardly named any of them.
According to the Senate’s list of Nominations in Committee, Trump has only sent one assistant attorney general nomination to the Senate for confirmation: Steven Engel, on Feb. 1, to head the Office of Legal Counsel. In the meantime, career Justice Department officials—who have less clout and prestige than attorneys general appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate—are leading the various divisions.
A White House spokesperson did not provide comment on the timing of the president’s DOJ’s nominations.
Perhaps most importantly, the president has yet to nominate the head of the National Security Division. That division has drawn significant attention since the president tweeted on Saturday alleging then-President Barack Obama had his campaign wiretapped. Lawyers in the DOJ’s National Security Division are responsible for helping the FBI file affidavits to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides the legal authorization for surveillance of U.S. persons. And the assistant attorney general for the National Security Division usually signs off on those affidavits. But since that person hasn’t been named yet, any legal surveillance requests have to be signed off by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Trump’s effort to fill that role is more than a month behind Obama’s. Obama announced his pick to head that division, David Kris, on Jan. 22, 2009—just two days after his inauguration. The nomination was officially sent to the Senate on Feb. 11 of that year, and the Senate confirmed Kris on March 25.
Obama took longer to name some of his other assistant attorneys general. He nominated the heads of the antitrust division, civil division, and criminal division on Feb. 23, 2009, and the head of the civil rights division on March 31, 2009.
Trump allies—including Roger Stone and Newt Gingrich—have ominously suggested that Obama holdovers at federal agencies are undermining his presidency. But the reality is that the president hasn’t even named many of his own people to fill those agencies—in particular, to fill these top slots at the powerful Justice Department.
It’s a situation that pleases some alums of the Obama-era DOJ.
“If you’re someone like me, you’re not so sad that career people are setting the priorities rather than Trump appointees,” said Matthew Miller, a spokesperson at the DOJ during Eric Holder’s time as attorney general. “But that said that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”
And one of the most vociferous critics of Obama’s Justice Department, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, told The Daily Beast he hopes Trump would move faster to fill those positions.
“There’s urgency to getting political appointees throughout the administration,” he said. “From our perspective, the Justice Department was ruined by President Obama, so it’s especially urgent there.
“I’m hoping things will speed along, but even if he made the appointments yesterday the way things are proceeding in the Senate, they’re on a pace for getting some of these positions filled agency-wide in three years,” he added.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently gearing up for a confirmation hearing for one of the first few Justice Department officials Trump has named: Rod Rosenstein, who is nominated to be Deputy Attorney General—Sessions’s second in command.
At first, Rosenstein’s nomination was extremely non-controversial; he was seen as professional, non-partisan, and above the fray of Trump World controversies. But since Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any investigations of the Trump campaign and since Trump went on his weekend tweetstorm, Democrats on the committee are preparing for what could be a more contentious confirmation process.
“I’ll use every possible tool to block DOJ Deputy AG nominee unless he commits to appoint independent special prosecutor,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Sunday.
Blumenthal is a member of the Judiciary Committee, and will question Rosenstein at his confirmation hearing on March 7. That hearing looks like it will be much more interesting than initially expected—and “more interesting than expected” is quickly becoming the norm in Trump’s America.