Biden likely to nominate new ATF head after first one pulled

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Hours after formally pulling the president’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, White House officials said on Thursday that they would name a new candidate for the post. But it’s unclear when.

The second nomination will not come anytime soon, aides cautioned, as they first were going to take stock of the failure to get President Joe Biden’s first choice, David Chipman, confirmed by the Senate. But aides also stressed that they were unbowed by the pulling of the Chipman nomination after key Democratic Senators signaled they would oppose his candidacy for the post.

“We certainly would at an appropriate time," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday when asked whether the president would nominate someone new.

The defeat of the Chipman nomination marked a low point for White House gun safety efforts marked by legislative setbacks and limited executive actions that pleased some, but not all, activists.

White House officials from the Domestic Policy Council and Office of Public Engagement, including Stefanie Feldman, senior adviser to the director of the DPC and point person on gun safety, spent Thursday afternoon calling advocates and survivors to talk about the withdrawal after POLITICO reported it was imminent. During some of those calls they did not specifically commit to nominating a new director, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

But White House officials later on Thursday said that Biden was likely to put forward another ATF nominee, pointing to Psaki’s remarks. The issue, they added, was that he had spent time focusing on winning support for Chipman from skeptical senators, not figuring out a Plan B option for the possibility of his confirmation failing.

“It’s very unfortunate that the White House’s statement did not offer a plan forward for advancing the comprehensive gun violence prevention platform the president campaigned on while running for office,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of the advocacy group Guns Down America.

The White House did say it would not create an office of gun violence headed by a Cabinet-level aide who does not need Senate confirmation — a demand that several groups made as it became increasingly clear that Chipman did not have the votes for confirmation.

“We have an office in the White House on gun policy, which is the Domestic Policy Council,” a White House official said. Aides “are working every day on gun violence, and have made this a top priority, so we feel like we do have an office working on gun violence.”

Chipman’s confirmation was always a difficult task. A former ATF agent himself, he served as a top official at the gun violence prevention group Giffords, during which he advocated for a host of gun control policies that made him persona non grata among the Second Amendment activist crowd. In recent weeks, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) had signaled to the White House that he would oppose the nomination, citing the opposition from constituencies in his home state.

The White House made a self-imposed Labor Day deadline to see whether it could find the 50 Senate votes needed for passage, according to one of the people familiar with the discussions. When it couldn’t, aides informed Chipman that his nomination was being pulled. The conversation took place earlier this week.

“I think we tried to push every lever we could to see if this thing could budge, until we felt like we had really exhausted our options because we really want to get him over the finish line,” the official said. “It was this week we finally felt like we had really exhausted our options.”

The Department of Justice, which had shepherded Chipman’s nomination, is in talks with him about taking on a senior adviser role. White House officials have told gun safety activists that they do not believe they have the legal authority to name Chipman as head of the ATF through a recess appointment when the Senate is not in session, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The Senate has confirmed only one ATF nominee, B. Todd Jones in 2013, a sign of how controversial the position is.

Po Murray, who chairs the Newtown Action Alliance, created in the wake of the 2012 school shooting in Connecticut, said she hopes the White House nominates someone else.

“Sadly we haven't had a Senate-confirmed ATF director since Todd Jones,” she said. “That's a huge disservice to our country. With gun violence ticking up, more lives are being lost and we need a director.”

Biden has spoken repeatedly about the need to curb violence and announced a series of executive actions in April and June. The White House official said the administration would continue to work on the issue even without Chipman leading the ATF.

“I am not going to sit here and say that having Chipman at ATF would not have a huge advantage in our effort to make our communities safer, but that doesn't mean that isn't an end to the work we are doing,” the official said.

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