WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says Democrats are holding up his judicial nominees, but almost nine months into his presidency, he has had more judges confirmed than President Barack Obama did in the same time period, and his numbers aren't far off those of other recent presidents.
Trump counts the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as one of his signature achievements. But on Monday he charged that Senate Democrats are holding up confirmation of his other judicial nominees "beyond comprehension." A top Senate Democrat said claims Democrats are obstructing judicial nominees are false.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Monday afternoon, Trump said "something that people aren't talking about is how many judges we've had approved, whether it be the court of appeals, circuit judges, whether it be district judges."
"The Democrats are holding them up beyond anything. Beyond comprehension, they're holding them up," Trump said. Earlier in the day, at a Cabinet meeting, Trump said his judicial nominees are "some of the most qualified people ever, and they're waiting forever on line."
Since taking office in January, Trump has nominated 61 people to federal judgeships, according to information available on the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts' website. Approximately 100 more seats are open and awaiting a nominee.
Seven of Trump's judicial nominees, including Gorsuch, have been confirmed by the Senate.
According to statistics available online from the Federal Judicial Center, the judicial branch's research and education agency, Obama had three judicial nominees confirmed at the same point of his presidency, just shy of nine months in, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. President George H.W. Bush had four confirmed. President George W. Bush had eight. President Bill Clinton, who had a number of nominees confirmed in October of his first year, had nine, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And President Ronald Reagan had 13, including Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top-ranked Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Monday that Obama's first four appeals court nominees waited an average of 213 days from nomination to confirmation while Trump's first four appeals court nominees waited an average of 84 days.
"Republicans appear to believe they can compensate for their stalled legislative agenda by attacking Democrats with false claims about judicial nominations," the statement said.
White House spokeswoman Kelly Love repeated in a statement Wednesday that Democrats continue to obstruct the confirmation process for judges and also for other presidential nominees.
"The President has delivered on his promise to nominate highly qualified judges, starting with Justice Gorsuch. Now, it is time to confirm the outstanding nominees because it's what the American people deserve," the statement read.
Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies judicial nominations, said Trump has made many more judicial nominations than Obama in the same window. But Wheeler said it's too soon to talk about the rate at which Trump's nominees are confirmed. At the same point in their first terms, Obama had nominated 22 people to federal trial and appeals courts and George W. Bush 59, about the same as Trump, Wheeler said.
"I don't put too much stock in his comments that Democrats are obstructing," Wheeler said of Trump.
Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies judicial selection and confirmation, said he thinks "Trump is doing very well," in terms of getting his nominees confirmed. He said it "strains credulity" to say Democrats are responsible for any obstruction. Republicans, he said, "hold almost all the cards."
That's in part because in 2013, then-majority Democrats changed Senate rules so judicial nominations for trial and appeals courts are filibuster-proof, meaning it takes only 51 votes, a simple majority in the 100-member Senate, for confirmation. Republicans currently hold 52 seats.
The only thing left for Democrats, Goldman said, is a longstanding Senate tradition that home-state senators must sign off on a judge before a Senate vote. By tradition, senators return a so-called blue slip to sign off on a home-state judicial nominee. Without the blue slip, nominees are not given a vote in the Judiciary Committee. As a result, Democrats only have sway over judicial nominees in states where they hold at least one Senate seat.
The Senate's top Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has said the Senate should no longer abide by the tradition. But how to apply the blue slip tradition is up to Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
"Senator Grassley has said that he expects senators and the president to continue engaging in consultation when selecting judicial nominees," Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said in a statement.