White House Withdraws Chipman Nomination

The ATF nominee was controversial for his views on gun control even before reports emerged that he’d made racist comments.

The White House on Thursday spiked the nomination of David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after it became clear the controversial pick simply lacked the votes to be confirmed in the Senate. 

The administration tapped Chipman back in April, and he immediately inspired a storm of opposition from Republicans for his long history of pushing expansive gun control measures. He also came under scrutiny for allegations, first reported by The Reload, that he made racist remarks toward other ATF workers. Chipman spent 25 years at the ATF before jumping to the gun control advocacy organization Giffords Law Center, founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, to become a policy adviser. 

This is the second time Democrats can blame division in their own ranks for the White House pulling a high-profile nomination. In March, the White House withdrew its nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget office over controversial political tweets.

“We knew this wouldn’t be easy — there’s only been one Senate-confirmed A.T.F. director in the bureau’s history — but I have spent my entire career working to combat the scourge of gun violence, and I remain deeply committed to that work,” President Joe Biden said in a statement about the withdrawal. 

In the statement, Biden sought to deflect blame from Democrats for the withdrawal: “Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have made clear that they intend to use gun crime as a political talking point instead of taking serious steps to address it. That’s why they’ve moved in lockstep to block David Chipman’s confirmation, and it’s why they side with gun manufacturers over the overwhelming majority of the American people in opposing commonsense measures like universal background checks.”

But the real reason Democrats failed to advance his nomination is because of quiet defections within their own ranks, something that the press has reported on and that White House has known about for weeks. Chipman’s nomination was eventually reported out of committee in June. But Democratic leadership couldn’t scrape together the 50 votes that would be necessary for getting Vice President Kamala Harris to be able to break the tie and secure his confirmation. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, told the administration he could not vote for Chipman, according to the New York Times. Other more moderate Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Jon Tester of Montana, had also expressed reservations.

The Dispatch reached out to those Senate offices for comment on Chipman’s withdrawal, but only Tester’s spokesperson responded. “[Tester] will continue working to ensure any future nominee supports our brave law enforcement officers and respects Montanans’ Second Amendment rights,” he said.

The ATF top spot has been  notoriously tough to secure ever since Congress made the position  one requiring Senate approval in 2006. The agency has not had a Senate-confirmed head in six years. Senate Republicans refused to support former President Donald Trump’s nominee in 2019. The only confirmed director was an Obama appointee in 2013, Byron Todd Jones. Because of the tough politics of the position, it has become the norm for the head to be an acting director.

Stephen Gutowski, founder of The Reload, told The Dispatch last month that Biden made an already tough process harder than it needed to be by going for such a controversial pick.

The events of Thursday seem to have borne his analysis out.

“It just got to a point where they knew they were going to need to turn the tide on him, I don’t know that they had much leverage left on some of these moderate Democrats to do it, and then things just got worse and worse for this nomination. They didn’t do much to push back against these stories,” Gutowski said. “It was clearly an extremely controversial pick from the get-go, and then it only got worse as more information came out about him.” 

Republicans were quick to take a victory lap Thursday. “Glad to hear reports the White House is taking my advice and pulling the terrible nomination of David Chipman. Absurd that a vocal opponent of Americans’ constitutional rights was ever picked to run ATF,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted. “This is a win for the Second Amendment and law-abiding American citizens.”

“Mr. Chipman’s long record as a partisan, anti-Second Amendment activist raised plenty of concerns about how he’d administer federal firearms laws,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement. “The employees of the ATF and the American people deserve an ATF director who carries out the mission of the agency with respect for the Constitution and for all agency employees.”

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would announce his new ATF pick “at an appropriate time,” but gave no further details. Politico reported yesterday the administration is committed to nominating a replacement, but that such a pick “will not come anytime soon.”

Gutowski hypothesized that no nominee will be put forward before the midterm elections in 2022 because of the political nature of the ATF. “It seems unlikely that they’re going to try to do this again before the midterms,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of these moderate Democrats that sunk the nomination want to start talking about guns again right before the election.”