WASHINGTON — Hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, the Senate confirmed the first of his cabinet nominees.
They were probably the new president’s least controversial picks: retired USMC Gen. James Mattis for Defense secretary, and retired USMC Gen. John Kelly for director of Homeland Security.
The outgoing director of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, was the designated survivor during the noontime inauguration as none of Trump’s cabinet nominees had yet been confirmed.
The vote on Mattis was 98-1, with the lone “no” vote coming from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who grilled the former CENTCOM commander at his Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about his views on women in combat and gays serving openly in the military. Gillibrand had argued against granting a waiver for Mattis to be able to take the job — he has been retired for three years while law requires the Defense secretary to be out of the military for at least seven — saying that maintaining civilian control was necessary.
The vote to confirm Kelly was 88-11.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he went ahead and voted for both generals because “in a Trump cabinet likely to be loaded up with right-wing extremists, all of whom I will oppose, I hope General Mattis and General Kelly will have a moderating influence on some of the racist and xenophobic views that President Trump advocated throughout the campaign.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), nominated for attorney general, abstained from both votes.
The Senate also voted 89-8 to move forward on debate regarding the nomination of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) to serve as CIA director. Six hours of debate will begin Monday, and privacy advocates in the upper chamber have indicated they’ll put up a fight.
“The future of Americans’ privacy and security are at issue. No rubber stamps,” tweeted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “The Senate has one chance to consider the suitability of the CIA director.”
Senate GOP leaders had been trying to get the same number of day one nominees approved as President Obama had in 2009: seven.
“When President Obama first took office Republicans took the high road and worked with our counterparts to confirm nearly all of his Cabinet within two weeks,” Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said today. “The election is over, and it’s time for Democrats to drop this divisive strategy for the good of the country.”
At a congressional luncheon before the Senate votes, President Trump recognized “my generals” among his cabinet nominations. “Those generals are gonna keep us so safe. They’re gonna have a lot of problems, the other side,” Trump said. “They’re gonna look at — they’re gonna look at a couple of them — these are central casting. If I’m doing a movie, I pick you, General Mattis… even Chuck [Schumer] likes General Mattis.”
After the confirmations, Trump said in a statement issued by the White House that “these uniquely qualified leaders will immediately begin the important work of rebuilding our military, defending our nation and securing our borders.”
“I call on members of the Senate to fulfill their constitutional obligation and swiftly confirm the remainder of my highly qualified cabinet nominees, so that we can get to work on behalf of the American people without further delay,” he added.