Last month, in a ceremony presided over by Vice President Joe Biden, B. Todd Jones became the first permanent director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in six years.
It was an occasion some thought might never happen. Under withering attack during the nomination fight, Jones considered throwing in the towel.
The ATF, of which he was acting director, was caught in political crossfire over gun control. And there were personal attacks on Jones, both in his role at ATF and as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
“I love public service, and to have to run that gantlet and have shots taken at your professional reputation without an ability to push back because you have to restrain yourself, it’s difficult,” Jones said recently in his first interview since he was nominated by President Obama on Feb. 1 to head the ATF.
“And there were junctures where I was like, ‘OK, why am I doing this again?’ ”
Jones, 56, and his wife, Margaret, talked about what he should do, “a cost-benefit analysis,” as he put it.
In the end, he hearkened back to his time in the Marine Corps and decided to soldier on. “I’m stubborn,” he said. “Marines do not quit.”
After heavy-duty Democratic arm-twisting, the Senate narrowly invoked cloture to prevent a GOP filibuster. Jones was confirmed by a 53-42 vote on July 31.
Caught in the crossfire
Despite strong support from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jones’ confirmation appeared to be on life support last winter.
He was blasted by a former special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office who said he had no confidence in Jones’ leadership, by several members of his own staff in the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota, and by some in the local law enforcement community. An assistant U.S. attorney in Jones’ office filed a whistleblower complaint about how he’d been treated.
And he underwent unrelenting criticism from Iowa’s Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I do not believe we should simply rubber-stamp this nomination, and sweep the alarming allegations under the rug,” Grassley wrote three weeks before the Senate confirmed Jones’ appointment.
Jones had been brought in as acting ATF director in 2011 on the heels of the “Fast and Furious” operation, a botched sting that allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican traffickers, including one used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Jones replaced many top personnel, but Republicans weren’t satisfied.
Prof. Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond, an expert on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was apparent Jones’ confirmation was far from a sure thing.
“It wasn’t crystal clear there was going to be a floor vote in the Senate,” Tobias said, adding, “and I’m not sure it had a lot to do with the nominee.” GOP antagonism toward the agency and the debate over gun control may have been driving factors, he said.
Twice before, the Senate had easily confirmed Jones to be a U.S. attorney in Minnesota, first in 1998 under President Clinton and again in 2009 after President Obama was elected.
This time, the circumstances were different.