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Donald Trump
president of the United States

Supreme Court

In January 2017 Trump made good on his promise to place conservative justices on the Supreme Court by nominating Neil Gorsuch, a judge of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, to fill the seat that had become vacant with the death in February 2016 of Antonin Scalia. Although Obama had put forward Merrick Garland, a judicial moderate, as Scalia’s replacement, the majority leader of the Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to schedule a vote or even to hold hearings on Garland’s nomination, preferring to gamble that a Republican would win the election and nominate a more conservative justice. Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate in April after Senate Republicans overcame a Democratic filibuster by removing the traditional 60-vote minimum needed to end debate and proceed to a vote.

In July 2018 Trump nominated another conservative appellate court judge, Brett Kavanaugh of the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. In hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, a childhood acquaintance of Kavanaugh’s, Christine Blasey Ford, testified that he had sexually molested her when they were underage teens in Maryland and that he was “stumbling drunk” during the assault. Kavanaugh was also accused of a separate act of sexual assault by a former classmate at Yale University, Deborah Ramirez; and a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, declared in a sworn statement that Kavanaugh had attended parties at which gang rapes took place. In his own testimony, Kavanaugh angrily denied the allegations, insisting that they were the product of a conspiracy by Democrats to exact revenge on behalf of “the Clintons” for Kavanaugh’s role as a member of the legal team of independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the latter’s investigation in the 1990s of U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. A subsequent supplemental investigation by the FBI, ordered by Trump, was limited in duration and scope: Kavanaugh, Ford, and Swetnick were not interviewed; dozens of witnesses recommended to the FBI by Ford and Ramirez were not contacted; and repeated offers of corroborating evidence by numerous other persons were not acted upon. After the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee declared that the FBI’s confidential report had found “no corroboration” of the allegations, Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed by the Senate in October. Ford’s emotionally compelling testimony—and the belief among many women of both political parties that she had been treated unfairly—galvanized the #MeToo movement of survivors of sexual assault and reinforced perceptions of the Republican Party and the Trump administration as being insensitive to women’s concerns. Meanwhile, Trump defended Kavanaugh as a victim of persecution and contended that the #MeToo movement had created a dangerous climate for men.

Trump also successfully appointed a record number of appellate court judges, filling several seats that had been left vacant by the refusal of McConnell and other Senate Republicans to confirm almost all of Obama’s appellate court nominees during the last two years of Obama’s presidency. Trump’s judicial appointments were generally extremely conservative and mostly white, male, and young (less than 50 years old), ensuring that they would serve for several years or even decades. Their generally quick confirmations on usually party-line votes helped to further McConnell’s longstanding project of transforming the federal judiciary, particularly at the appellate level, into a conservative bulwark against future Democratic legislation and policy making. By September 2019 nearly 25 percent of the country’s appellate court seats were occupied by Trump appointees.

Cabinet appointments

Trump took an unusually long time to assemble his cabinet, in part because many of his nominations to positions requiring Senate confirmation were filibustered by Democrats. His cabinet was also unusual in that it was the least diverse in decades and by far the richest in U.S. history. Several of Trump’s cabinet-level appointments were closely associated with the firms or industries that their agencies were charged with overseeing or were well known for having opposed their agencies’ basic missions in the past. Particularly controversial were Trump’s choice for head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general had spent much of his career suing the EPA on behalf of the oil and gas industry, and his choice for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who had frequently expressed contempt for public education while promoting and financially supporting school voucher legislation and charter and private schools. Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, a far-right publishing platform, was appointed chief strategist but left the administration after seven months in August 2017. Trump also gave his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter Ivanka Trump prominent (though unpaid) roles as senior adviser to the president and assistant to the president, respectively.

During the first years of his administration, several of Trump’s cabinet members were accused of ethics violations and other malfeasance, including breaches of travel regulations and anti-lobbying laws, inappropriate use of their agencies’ resources, perjury, and possible contempt of Congress for failure to respond to lawful subpoenas of documents and testimony by Congressional committees (see below Russia investigation and Ukraine scandal). In September 2017 Tom Price resigned as secretary of health and human services after news reports revealed that he had spent some $400,000 on luxury chartered aircraft for trips to Europe and in the United States. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin were also criticized for inappropriate use of chartered or military aircraft, leading to Shulkin’s firing in March 2018. Zinke, who faced several federal investigations of his conduct as interior secretary, including one that was referred to the Justice Department, resigned under pressure in December 2018. Earlier that year Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, was investigated by a House oversight committee for having spent an inordinate sum on furniture for his government office. In July Pruitt was forced to resign as EPA administrator after a long series of scandals concerning questionable spending, the use of EPA employees as personal assistants, inappropriate gifts from lobbyists, and the use of undisclosed e-mail addresses for EPA business. Although he did not resign as a result, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was heavily criticized (but faced no criminal charges) for apparently lying to Congress when he told the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee in March 2018 that his decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census was made at the request of the Justice Department to help it better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act—a rationale that the Supreme Court later found to be “contrived.” (See Department of Commerce v. New York.)

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