White House lags on appointments for key Michigan posts

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump

Washington — Michigan Republicans are frustrated that President Donald Trump has not nominated anyone for key Michigan posts more than two years into his administration, including the top law enforcement job for West Michigan. 

The White House has yet to nominate anyone for U.S. attorney in the Western District of Michigan, which includes the Upper Peninsula, or either of the two federal marshal positions in Michigan.

Trump also has not nominated anyone to fill the state's two vacant judgeships in the U.S. district courts — one of which dates to October 2016 and the other to January 2017.

"We as the Republican delegation have been frustrated that we haven't seen any movement, now that we're two years in. We raised it again just in the last month, and we're all waiting," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Michigan's senior Republican in Congress. 

"It doesn't seem as though they're prepared to send any names to the Senate. As far as I know, they have no names to submit that have cleared their process, which means it will probably be a little longer." 

In the meantime, career officials have filled the positions, many in an acting capacity.

Andrew Byerly Birge has led the U.S. Attorney's Office in Grand Rapids since January 2017. He was appointed by the federal court nearly a year ago to continue heading the office until until a Senate-confirmed candidate takes office. 

Fred Upton

Birge is not alone. Michigan's Western District is among at least a dozen of 94 districts where a top federal prosecutor has either not been nominated by the White House or not confirmed by the Senate, according to the Department of Justice website. No one has been confirmed for any of New York's four districts. 

While Trump's White House lags in nominations, the Republican president has decried that more than 300 "highly qualified nominees who are still stuck in the Senate — some after years of waiting."

"The Senate has failed to act on these nominations, which is unfair to the nominees and to our country," Trump said in his State of the Union address.

Just last month, the Senate confirmed Matthew Schneider as U.S. attorney for Michigan's Eastern District based in Detroit.

But the Senate has not taken up Trump's nomination of three Michiganians to ambassadorships, including John Rakolta Jr. for the United Arab Emirates and David T. Fischer for Morocco.

John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge construction company, was nominated as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in 2018.

Michigan's Joseph Cella, who was nominated as ambassador to Fiji and four other Pacific island nations, has also not been confirmed. 

They are among the 45 vacancies for 137 ambassadorships, according to tracking by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

Across the Trump administration, there were 147 vacancies (positions without a Senate-confirmed appointee) among 710 posts tracked by the Partnership, as of Tuesday. 

Upton attributed the delays for Rakolta and Fischer to a hold placed by the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, whose office did not respond to requests for comment. 

"Menendez put a blanket hold on dozens of nominees," Upton said. "I think he was looking for some answers from (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo. It was an unrelated issue."

Reason for delay unclear

The reasons for the holdup for nominations for U.S. attorney for the Western District, U.S. marshals and judges are unclear, lawmakers say. The White House declined to comment. 

"I'm not happy about it, frankly. It's been two years," said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland. "To have no action is puzzling and frustrating." 

Upton and Huizenga said Republicans in the Michigan delegation previously created a committee to research and propose names of potential candidates for the posts and forwarded those to the White House. 

"These folks aren't political. It's just all kind of hang-fire for them all and, frankly, it's just not fair to the system. It's not fair to all the judges and all the other law enforcement that they interact with," Huizenga said.

"It shouldn't be this hard two years into it. It seems to be it's reasonable to have this figured out by now." 

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said the GOP delegation from Michigan expressed its frustration to White House officials during a meeting last month in his office. 

"It's just been so slow. I don't know the full reason behind it," Walberg said. "We expressed concern to the White House that at least we be kept up to date on what the issues are." 

Walberg said he had heard that Michigan's Democratic senators had pushed back on  judicial candidates specifically, "trying to cut a deal."  

Tim Walberg

But Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township both said they've worked with the White House and are not holding up any nominations, for judges or the law-enforcement positions. 

"A lot of it is waiting on the White House," Peters said. 

"We’ve been reviewing candidates and talking to candidates, and both Senator Stabenow and I have been working with the White House. Certainly, we’d like to fill those appointments. Same with the judicial appointments, as well."

Stabenow said she's had discussions with the White House and "would very much like to see the nominations." 

She noted there are 150 positions for which the White House has nominated no one. 

"They need to move forward with that, and I'm certainly willing to work with them in filling the positions in Michigan," Stabenow said. 

High volume of positions

Some experts argue that too many positions require Senate confirmation, including Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service. 

"Given the volume of positions that need to go through that very complicated, arduous process, by default there will be delays and vacancies and some of those vacancies will be long term," Simmons said. 

That means every administration must prioritize, Simmons said, given their resources, where the needs are greatest, as well as what they think they can accomplish with the Senate, and whether they can find the kind of nominees they want. Political factors also come into play.

"For example, if there’s a particular constituency that’s important politically they will try to fill positions that are important to that constituency. This is true for all administrations, not just the Trump administration," Simmons said. 

Trump did nominate a Michiganian, Robert C. Sisson of Sturgis, last year to serve on the International Joint Commission for United States and Canada, a bi-national agency overseeing the Great Lakes. 

And the Senate in 2017 confirmed former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The White House did not consult Larsen's home-state senators, Stabenow and Peters, before her nomination, as is customary, initially delaying her consideration by the Judiciary Committee.

Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law said two years is “far too long” to wait for judicial nominees, U.S. attorneys and marshals. 

“The caseloads are large in Michigan, so the courts need all the judicial resources that they can muster," said Tobias, who studies federal judicial selection. 

"Trump has been very slow on district nominees and especially states with two Democratic senators, and there are now 125 vacancies, nearly 20 percent nationally."

The administration has instead focused on appeals courts, setting record for appellate confirmations.

“As to U.S. attorneys, any president should want permanent people in place to promote the administration’s policies and coordinate with" the Department of Justice, Tobias added.

Both judicial vacancies in Michigan arose when judges took senior status — a semi-retired position.

Republican-nominated judges have a 4-0 edge in the Western District, while Democratic-nominated judges hold a 14-6 advantage in the Eastern District of Michigan. 

Upton said a number of names have been floated for the judicial vacancies, and he expects the White House will eventually reach an agreement with Peters and Stabenow. 

"It seems like that's where it's headed, but we haven't seen much traction," Upton said. 

Senate backlog

With the start of the new Congress in January, the Senate had to return the names of individuals nominated during last session to the White House, which started over the process of submitting their names to the Senate. 

Fischer's nomination to Morocco was initially announced in November 2017. He is chairman and CEO Suburban Collection, one of the largest automotive dealership groups in the country.

Trump announced Rakolta's appointment to the UAE in March 2018. He is chairman and chief executive of the Walbridge construction company in Detroit and has served as co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children.

Cella's appointment to Fiji was announced in February 2018. He is a consultant who helped coordinate Catholic outreach for Trump’s campaign and founded the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2004.

Fischer, Rakolta and Cella were each renominated Jan. 19. 

Gary Peters

Peters said he's met with both Fischer and Rakolta and spoken to Menendez to encourage the committee to act on their nominations. 

"I think they got tied up with a lot of things that got delayed at the end of last year, so now the process has to start over again," Peters said.

"But I support both of them and their nominations and will work with the committee to move them forward."

The Republican-led Senate is attempting to reduce the backlog of lower-level executive branch nominees by limiting the time for debate.

The Rules Committee last week voted 10-9 along party lines to cut post-cloture debate from 30 to two hours for nominees to be district judges and for many executive branch positions.

Ron Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, says the holdup for ambassadorships hurts the United States. 

"The Democratic leadership has put a hold on all these nominations. I consider that a great problem because when you don't have an ambassador, the country that doesn't have an ambassador feels dissed," said Weiser, who served as ambassador to Slovakia under President George W. Bush from 2001-05. 

"Even though there’s a chargé d'affaires there, who’s a career person substituting in, they don’t have the cache that an ambassador does, nor are they perceived to have the relationship to the White House that an ambassador has. Those are very, very important things to countries." 

Weiser said he hopes the situation gets "cleaned up for the sake of the country."