President Joe Biden was dealt a serious political setback on Thursday when he withdrew his pick to head the ATF.
That leaves the administration’s executive branch gun-control push without its planned shepherd. And it leaves the gun-control groups that have staunchly backed Biden without one of their own in a key administrative position at a time when their hopes for passing legislation are at an all-time low. So, what comes next?
The president could choose to nominate somebody else immediately, or he could decide to hold off until after the midterm elections. He could try to nominate a less-controversial candidate, or he could try to find another gun-control activist with less baggage to fill the role.
The nomination of David Chipman, a former ATF agent, and gun-control activist, faced immediate opposition from gun-rights advocates and industry representatives alike. After a contentious confirmation hearing, he remained in limbo, but the White House and gun-control advocates alike believed they could convince Democratic holdouts. As the months dragged on, though, damaging stories about Chipman’s past emerged.
The Reload found current and former ATF agents in July who corroborated the existence of a claim Chipman made racist remarks implying black agents cheated to gain promotions. That prompted Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to call for a new hearing and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to call for Chipman’s withdraw. Chairman Dick Durbin (D., Ill) refused and instead attacked The Reload as an “extreme anti-gun safety website.”
In August, a black former ATF agent told The Reload Chipman accused him of cheating on a promotion assessment and said he believed the incident was racially-motivated. The story caused Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) to initiate an investigation that resulted in a whistleblower report. Grassley is still seeking the release of the complaints filed against Chipman and the report on the investigation his allegation against the black agent initiated.
With Chipman now out of the running, there is no clear path forward for the White House in the short term.
It’s possible the White House withdrew his nomination after making a deal with moderate Democrats who were on the fence about his nomination. Perhaps they’ve already agreed on a potential replacement. A source with knowledge of the situation told me Senator Angus King (I., Maine) suggested current acting director Marvin Richardson or former acting director Tom Brandon as potential nominees.
Even then, though, it’s difficult to see how they could get a nomination through before the end of the year. The process will take several weeks of legislative work, even if they can get solid commitments to vote yes from all 50 of the Senators in the Democratic Caucus. You’d have to go through the background process, the formal nomination process, the confirmation hearings, the votes to move the nominee to the floor, and the procedural votes to get to the final floor vote.
That all takes a lot of time, even without the inevitable opposition Republicans will present to any nominee Biden does put up.
And the question becomes: would it be worth it? It would be an election year by the time you could get a nominee pushed through the procedural hurdles. That will make moderate Democrats even warier about voting on a contentious issue like guns.
Is getting a career ATF official as the confirmed head, instead of just an acting head, worth that kind of fight? Richardson and Brandon aren’t Chipman. They aren’t committed gun-control activists with strong backing from the gun-control groups that are part of the President’s base. Getting either of them confirmed may be possible, but it would also provide little political upside to the president.
So, it seems the best move left for the President is to wait for the midterms to pass and hope his party can retain control of the Senate. Then, perhaps, he can try to put a different nominee favored by the gun-control groups at the head of the agency. But that would likely require either Democrats actually picking up seats to make the vote easier or the White House finding a candidate less offensive to gun-rights advocates but equally appealing to gun-control advocates.
It’s not likely the President’s party will pick up seats, and I’m not sure a candidate like that exists in reality. It’s fair to wonder at this point if Biden’s opportunity to appoint an ATF director during his first term is now gone. And, of course, there’s no guarantee he’ll get a second term to regain the opportunity.