With the departure of John Kerry as “climate czar,” President Biden has announced that he will be replaced by John Podesta, a Democratic powerbroker and Washington insider.
Podesta, however, will take the power and not the title. He will be appointed as “coordinator,” thus sidestepping and confirmation by the Senate, which could have been brutal.
Such action will shield Podesta from questions about Kerry’s work and expenses as climate czar. Before leaving office, Kerry refused to turn over information on his staff to Congress and the public. The Biden Administration is now being sued over the secrecy.
It would also spare Podesta from answering questions over his own past work as well as his brother’s ties to Chinese companies. Likewise, senators, including Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, have criticized Podesta for comments favoring payments to Chinese companies in the energy sector.
Sen. Josh Hawley objected that “John Podesta runs a think-tank funded by big tech, he’s spent years working for dark-money climate activists, and has said he has the ‘highest regard’ for CCP officials.”
Biden is not the first president to avoid confirmation fights. Former president Donald Trump often kept officials in “acting” capacities both to avoid confirmation as well as to make the termination of such officials easier.
It is not a good practice given the constitutional role that the Senate is supposed to play in the approval of high-ranking executive branch officials.
Worse yet, Congress expressly sought to guarantee that this position would remain subject to the confirmation process. In the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated (and Biden agreed to) a prohibition from appointing any State Department special envoy “without the advice and consent of the Senate.”
That was important given the controversies over Kerry pledging sweeping changes to U.S. policy, including his assurance to world leaders that the Biden Administration was “phasing out” fossil fuels — a move that some view as ruinous economically.
Podesta also has other unfinished business with Congress.
A confirmation hearing might have allowed Senators to get public answers on one of the least discussed aspects of the debunked Steele dossier that factored greatly in the Russian investigation during the Trump Administration.
Podesta was the chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which secretly funded the dossier while denying that fact to the public and the media.
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The Federal Election Commission found that Clinton campaign and DNC payments to Fusion GPS were funneled through Perkins Coie and its general counsel, Marc Elias. As the campaign denied funding the dossier, Elias paid out $1,024,407 for the dossier in 2016 as “legal advice and services.”
Sitting beside him was Elias, who reportedly said nothing.
It is clear that the denial of campaign funding was false and critics have charged that Elias knew it at the time. The question is whether Podesta knew it. He might not have.
Podesta is the ultimate D.C. power broker. He is smart and respected. He knows the value of asking the right questions and when not to ask questions. He may have been in the dark about Elias’ work, even if it was a case of willful blindness.
None of these issues will now be subject to the scrutiny of a confirmation investigation and hearing. The move will also shift much of the authority into the White House and shield Podesta from the added scrutiny. It is the perfect move for a Washington insider. Podesta knows that government is about the power, not the title.
It is the Rasputin effect. Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a Russian mystic who held huge influence over the Russian Czar and Czarina without holding office. In other words, you do not need to be czar to act as a czar.
Jonathan Turley is an attorney and professor at George Washington University Law School.