WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump marveled Thursday at all the federal court vacancies he gets to fill and wondered why President Barack Obama left him so many ― apparently unaware that Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s judicial nominees to those seats for years in hopes that a GOP president would fill them.
“You know, when I got in, we had over 100 federal judges that weren’t appointed,” Trump said at an infrastructure event in Ohio. “I don’t know why Obama left that. It was like a big beautiful present to all of us. Why the hell did he leave that? Maybe he got complacent?”
The whopping 108 court vacancies Trump inherited when he took office was a present ― that’s double the number that Obama inherited when he became president ― but it wasn’t from Obama. It was from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose record of blocking Obama’s judicial nominees will go down as his greatest legacy.
Under McConnell’s leadership, Republicans leaned on every procedural rule in the book to stop Obama’s court picks. They refused to recommend judicial nominees to Obama’s White House. They slow-walked committee hearings. If a nominee cleared the committee, Republicans made the person wait three times longer for a Senate confirmation vote than did President George W. Bush’s nominees. Their efforts to deny judicial nominees the ability to even get a vote on the Senate floor ultimately led Democrats to change the rules in order to make it easier to advance nominees.
When Republicans won control of the Senate in the fall of 2014, it got even harder for Obama’s judicial nominees. By the fall of 2015, the GOP was confirming judges at the slowest rate in more than 60 years and had left the federal bench emptier than it had been in decades. By the end of Obama’s presidency, Republicans had driven up the number of judicial emergencies ― when a court is so overburdened it can barely function ― from 12 to 43 in the span of two years.
McConnell, of course, also prevented Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat in early 2016. Trump’s first major achievement as president was confirming Neil Gorsuch to that seat ― the final step in a plan that McConnell had set in motion a year earlier.
This was the strategy all along by McConnell: hold open as many court seats as possible under Obama so a future Republican president could fill them. It worked.
But for now, Trump is just mystified at how he got so lucky.
“We were left a present!” he told the Ohio crowd. “It was like the gift from heaven. We were left judges .... Amazing. It was the gift. Thank you very much, President Obama. We all appreciate it. What happened? How did he do that? How did he do that?”