Liberals had a real chance to defeat President Donald Trump’s CIA director nominee Gina Haspel over her ties to torture.
Instead, she skated to confirmation on Thursday — her nomination greased by a divided Senate Democratic caucus, leaders of the minority who opted not to twist arms, and advocacy groups that couldn’t mount an effective attack strategy despite what they saw as Haspel’s checkered record on human rights.
When she did prevail, winning six Democrats’ support despite three Republican opponents, the outcome did more than disappoint progressives. It shined a bright light on the political limitations of a Democratic minority that has also failed to unite members against Mike Pompeo’s bid for secretary of state and a banking deregulation bill.
“It’s more complicated” than it looks for Democratic leaders to keep the caucus together, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “We don’t have a parliamentary system … don’t have that kind of party discipline.”
Haspel’s successful confirmation vote was far from a foregone conclusion. Republicans have a slim margin in the Senate, so given some GOP opposition, Haspel needed to peel off Democratic votes. That opened the door for Democrats to topple her by holding their caucus together, as they did to stymie GOP efforts last year on repealing Obamacare.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), despite recuperating at home from cancer treatment, made an early push for more transparency about Haspel’s role in the CIA’s George W. Bush-era interrogation program, giving her foes hope that his outsized influence as a decorated veteran who endured torture would light a path for others to vote no.
Those Haspel foes weren’t wrong to hope.
“It was close,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who voted against confirming Haspel.
The anti-Trump group Indivisible made Haspel’s defeat their top federal policy ask. But beyond that, the campaign against her was driven more by policy-minded groups than by the political left that took the lead on defeating the GOP Obamacare repeal plan. Those groups weren’t as well equipped to mobilize grassroots pushback as influential interest groups such as environmentalists or gun control activists.
Perhaps more significantly, Democratic leaders, who must defend 10 seats this fall in states that Trump carried, freed centrist senators to vote as they wanted amid an intense GOP pressure campaign to confirm her. Haspel opponents point a finger at senior Democrats for that move.
“The decision by leadership and the caucus suggests they decided this was not the hill they wanted to die on, this was not the battle they wanted to fight,” ACLU national political director Faiz Shakir, a former aide to past Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, said in an interview. “And that’s unfortunate because it was a winnable fight.”
In theory, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) could have whipped his caucus to oppose Haspel. But in reality, that was never going to happen.
“Listen. There’s a mistaken idea that we do these caucus positions, duty bound by it. None of that ever happened,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the party’s chief vote-counter. “We find out what’s on the minds of members. But it isn’t like: ‘I’m sorry, 100 percent of us have to be for this.’”
“Chuck is extraordinarily skillful in maintaining unity in the caucus. But that’s partly because he doesn’t push it too far,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a member of the whip team. “If you have unending unanimity, eventually it all falls apart.”
Indeed, it appeared the shot at sinking her nomination was lost nearly two weeks before the vote — despite a report that Haspel briefly offered to withdraw her nomination — when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) appeared alongside her to praise her for visiting him in his office.
The idea that Schumer could get the vulnerable incumbent and others like him to stand against Haspel — blocking one of the president’s most crucial national security nominees at the same time as they tell voters they can work with Trump — ended up being just another pipe dream of the Democrats’ resistance movement.
“Chuck doesn’t do that with me,” said Manchin, who came out for Haspel before the classified portion of her confirmation hearing was over. “That’s just not our relationship.”
When it came to the 33-year CIA veteran Trump selected, Manchin said, “It was like, let me see for myself.”
Haspel’s critics off the Hill had assumed they were unlikely to get Manchin to oppose her. But they had high hopes for the Senate intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who is not up for reelection and had aligned early on with his party’s liberals in urging that the CIA declassify more material about Haspel’s role in the interrogation program.
But he decided to back her after Haspel said in a letter that, in hindsight, the interrogation program had been a bad move. Nonetheless, she continued to argue that the program yielded valuable intelligence.
Warner “voted to confirm her anyway despite a blatant abuse of classification power,” said Katherine Hawkins, investigator at the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. “I can’t see this nomination going the same way if Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein [D-Calif.] were still in charge of the intelligence committee.”
Warner acknowledged that supporting Haspel was a "difficult decision" and vowed Thursday to keep pressing for more disclosures about her background. "I still believe that it would have been preferable if we could have found a way to be even more transparent," he said on the Senate floor.
But by the time Haspel described the interrogation program as a mistake this week, her victory was a done deal. Washington’s intelligence establishment, including several Obama administration veterans, was behind her. And even some of the most stalwart progressives in Schumer’s caucus had no desire to make her confirmation into a fight.
“If we’re working on fall messaging, we should be worried about why we’re spending all this time talking about Haspel at the expense of health care,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who voted against confirming her on Thursday.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who opposed Haspel, acknowledged the appeal of the nominee’s decades-long service even while criticizing her conduct during the Bush-era interrogation program. Senators can “honor her service” despite their opposition, Harris said.
Voting for Haspel could help imperiled Democrats such as Manchin and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly communicate to Trump’s voters that they’ll work with him when they can. Activists off the Hill, however, point to Senate Democrats such as Jon Tester of Montana and Doug Jones of Alabama as models in how to oppose Haspel in a red state.
“She’s probably a really nice woman, but at a moment in time where she could have done something about torture, she never stepped up,” Tester said.
One Republican senator against Haspel, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, warned her red-state Democratic supporters that voters “don’t like to see people with their finger in the wind.”
“Some of them want to buy off the Republican vote in their state by appearing to side with a Trump nominee,” Paul said. “It’s probably a mistake for them politically to think it’s going to help them.”
Activists’ prodding of Democrats to oppose Trump’s nominees did have some impact: Only five of the 15 minority-caucus senators who supported Pompeo to lead the CIA last year backed him again to be secretary of state last month, and Haspel got confirmed with the lowest number of votes of any director in the spy agency’s history.
Senate Democrats, for their part, can still point to their role in derailing Ronny Jackson’s nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, another Cabinet post often seen as above politics in previous administrations.
But that isn’t stanching the discontent among some anti-Haspel activists.
"We thought and still think it was the perfect fight and test for Democrats," said Indivisible foreign policy manager Elizabeth Beavers. "They needed Democratic votes to confirm her, and Democrats gave that to them."