Amid pressure from conservative groups — and the White House — to confirm President Trump’s most high-profile openly gay nominee as U.S. ambassador to Germany, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought Thursday to hold a vote on the nomination, but the effort was blocked by a Senate Democrat known for his support of LGBT rights.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) objected to proceeding with the nomination of Richard Grenell as U.S. ambassador to Germany — which blocked it from going forward under Senate rules requiring unanimous consent — citing concerns over Grenell’s tweets against women, an issue that prompted Democrats to oppose the nomination in committee.
“I cannot in good faith support a nominee who has a lengthy track record of tweets attacking both prominent Democratic and prominent Republican women,” Merkley said. “Since his nomination, these tweets have continued showing a complete disregard for the Senate confirmation process and disregard for the seriousness of the position to which he is nominated.”
Merkley also asserted Grenell had tweets disregarding the threat Russia posed to the electoral process after intelligence agencies blamed Vladmir Putin for ordering interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“Mr. Grenell has been dismissive of the threat Russia poses to U.S. democracy, and we certainly need to have U.S. ambassadors who can work with our European allies and partners now more than ever to reinforce and strengthen the institutions we have built, to protect the rule of law and democracy and to defend our Western democracies against Russian interference,” Merkley said.
It seems McConnell didn’t file cloture on the nomination after Merkley objected. That would have allowed the confirmation vote to proceed, but would have required 30 hours of debate time to pass before the vote would take place, eating up a significant amount of time on the Senate calendar. A McConnell spokesperson said he “has not yet made an announcement on the next set of nominees” when asked about cloture.
Before this time, it was known one or more Senate Democrats objected to Grenell and were holding up his nomination, but their identities were not public. Now that Merkley withheld unanimous consent on the Senate floor, at least one of the senators responsible is known.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, had been pushing for confirmation of Grenell and criticized Merkley for holding it up.
“I’d say I’m surprised, but the fact is I’m no longer taken aback by the depths to which Democrats descend in their attempt to smear a highly qualified openly gay Republican.” Angelo said. “At least now we know — it was Sen. Merkley who was holding up Grenell’s nomination, and he is going to be getting an earful from our members.”
First nominated by Trump in September, Grenell is a foreign policy expert who served in various roles as a public communications adviser and a Fox News commentator. Under the George W. Bush administration, Grenell was the longest serving U.S. spokesperson at the United Nations and served four U.S. ambassadors.
If confirmed, Grenell would be the most high-profile openly gay appointee in the Trump administration. It’s noteworthy that Merkley has become the face of the opposition to Grenell because the Oregon Democrat has been a leader for LGBT rights and is chief sponsor of the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBT people.
Grenell has faced challenges during his nomination process over his tweets about the appearance of women, which have stood out at the height of the #MeToo movement in which women are coming forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse.
One 2011 tweet directed at Rachel Maddow, a lesbian news anchor on MSNBC, said she “needs to take a breath and put on a necklace” and another compared her look to that of pop singer Justin Bieber. One tweet directed at Callista Gingrich questioned whether she “snaps on” her hair. At around the same time, Grenell tweeted “Hillary is starting to look like Madeleine Albright.”
(Those tweets echo comments he reportedly made in 1992 as a young aide for the re-election campaign of George H.W. Bush, according to a Washington Post article in 1995. A fellow staffer recalled Grenell telling a female aide wearing red shoes and a flowery dress, ‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you only whores and very small children wear red shoes?‘”)
Grenell deleted the tweets and apologized for them when he had a brief two-week stint on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. It’s unclear what Sen. Merkley meant by tweets from Grenell against women that “have continued” after his nomination in September.
That could be a reference to a now deleted tweet Grenell made in 2016 about MSNBC reporter Katy Tur, although it happened a year before his nomination as ambassador. Grenell wrote “calling yourself a journalist is offensive to real ones. Did u intern for @KeithOlbermann or date him? Either way doesn’t make u a reporter.” Grenell faced immediate criticism from other women on Twitter over the remarks.
As for Merkley’s concerns about Grenell’s views on Russia, CNN reporter Jake Tapper had previously tweeted out Democrats had privately objected to Grenell’s tweets from 2016 downplaying the impact of Russian hacking on the election.
In one tweet, Grenell wrote, “There’s a difference between hackers from Russia and hackers from the Russian government.” In another, Grenell objected to the Obama administration’s U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s criticism of Wikileaks, stating, “McFaul tells Wikileaks to not publish?!” (Ironically, McFaul has expressed support for Grenell’s confirmation as ambassador to Germany.)
The White House didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on Merkley blocking the Grenell nomination, or whether Trump still stands by his nominee.
Last week, White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short said in response to a question from the Washington Blade during the White House briefing it would be difficult for McConnell to force a vote on Grenell because he’s one of several nominees Senate Democrats are holding up.
“The challenge that Leader McConnell faces — when you’re not allowed to just bring up for a voice vote, you have to go through a cloture, then he has to prioritize these,” Short said. “And that is one more of our nominees that has simply been historically obstructed.”