By President Joe Biden’s own account, former federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach has a tough-on-crime record of getting “violent criminals off the street.” He’s an attorney with decades of experience tackling organized crime and corruption, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to his previous role as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.
But Dettelbach has yet to experience the intensity of his next challenge: confirmation hearings to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Trade, Firearms and Explosives.
It’s historically been a particularly quixotic nomination to lead the agency that Republicans have loathed to empower. The ATF has had only one confirmed director in the past 15 years, with acting leadership becoming the norm as nominees are admonished in the Senate—often to the point of withdrawal.
Even during the Trump administration, Republicans forced the former president to withdraw his nominee—Chuck Canterbury, a former police-union official—over concerns that he wouldn’t go far enough in protecting the Second Amendment.
It’s a dramatic showing for a role in a mid-level agency. But when the Second Amendment is part of the conversation, the gloves quickly come off and lawmakers don’t tend to hold back on the nominee.
Just ask the last guy.
David Chipman, Biden’s first nominee to lead the ATF, had his nomination withdrawn seven months ago after his record as a gun-control activist, combined with a massive effort by the gun rights lobby to sink him, solidified dissent among Republicans and Democratic swing-vote Sen. Angus King (I-ME). But it was more than debate about his stance on the ins-and-outs of gun policy that took him down.
The attacks were personal. Chipman received death threats and faced false accusations of being present during the 1993 government siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
“You live with these sorts of false stories that bring you and your family under constant attack,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview.
Chipman said he never heard from the White House again after receiving the call that his nomination was being withdrawn. But he has spoken to Dettelbach, telling The Daily Beast he was “concerned on a personal level for him and wanted him to understand what he and his family were going into.”
In spite of his experience, Chipman is hopeful for Biden’s new nominee to be confirmed. He has some thoughts on what needs to happen differently this time around, however.
“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “Members of the Senate who want a confirmed ATF director know how critical it is to do their level best to come out strong and support early.”
Chipman added that the White House would have to have “all their cards on the table.”
Since Chipman’s nomination was quietly withdrawn, he hasn’t been quiet about what he saw as shortcomings from the White House during the confirmation process. He characterized his ATF nomination as being somewhat under the radar, whereas with Dettelbach, it’s been more of an open launch.
“It started out differently. You know, this nominee was invited to speak at the White House when his name was announced. So, that’s good. That’s not how they played it with me,” he said.
Chipman was the Biden administration’s second high-profile nominee to be withdrawn. Last year, Neera Tanden was nominated to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget—until GOP operatives and random Twitter users highlighted her past tweets bashing Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) made it clear he wouldn’t support Tanden, and that was that.
This time around, Chipman said he’s hopeful the White House will repurpose the playbook they successfully used to get soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed earlier this month to Dettelbach’s benefit.
Like Chipman, Brown Jackson faced constant attacks from Republicans, mainly focused on a bad-faith effort to make an issue of her record of prosecuting child pornography cases. The White House and the Democratic Senate stood by her. Senators gave riveting speeches in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will also vet Dettelbach’s nomination before sending it to the full Senate. The Democratic National Committee hyped up Brown Jackson online and in supporter emails.
Chipman says lawmakers need to put that same energy toward Dettelbach this time around.
“Whatever that playbook was… It’s that fight that they’re going to need to make. It’s going to take impassioned speeches in [the Senate Judiciary Committee] in support of the nominee…” Chipman said. “It seemed like the impassioned speeches that I witnessed during my confirmation were Republicans lining up to bash me.”
Chipman added recent staffing changes at the ATF were a smart strategic move by the administration to weaken the gun lobby’s attacks. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported current acting director of the ATF Marvin Richardson was being demoted, and that Arizona prosecutor Gary Restaino will be tapping in as acting director.
Richardson has drawn attention for having a seemingly cozy relationship with gun trade groups, including after attending a weapons manufacturers’ convention in January.
But those behaviors have made him relatively likable to the gun lobby—to the point that some, like the pro-gun National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Larry Keane, have insisted Richardson should have been the nominee.
By removing Richardson from the acting position, Chipman said, the gun lobby loses that argument.
“They can’t point to, ‘Oh, there’s a great person already at the helm representing their interests.’ Now, they have just another, you know, Biden person, right?,” Chipman said. “So it changes the dynamic. Now, they’ll have to figure out some other way to at least publicly try to undermine these nominees.”
Chipman has since returned to work for the gun-control group Giffords, which was founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who left office after being shot in the head during an assassination attempt that left six people dead.
In many ways, Chipman’s selection gave hope to gun safety activists who’d hoped for transformative change under the Biden administration, like a ban on assault weapons and expanded background checks. But like most of the president’s agenda, those goals have shrunk amid roadblocks in the 50-50 Senate. Dettelbach’s role seems tailored in tandem.
In announcing Dettelbach’s nomination, Biden highlighted Dettelbach’s record of working closely alongside law enforcement. And the president seemed to center the future of Dettelbach’s role on the mildly less controversial issue of “ghost guns,” which are privately made firearms that lack serial numbers.
“Steve’s record makes him ready on day one to lead this agency,” Biden said.
White House spokesperson Mike Gwin also told The Daily Beast in a statement, “Steve Dettelbach served for decades as a prosecutor, working hand-in-hand with ATF agents to take down gangs and convict criminals, and he has the support of law enforcement and former federal prosecutors from both parties—including appointees of both President Trump and President Bush.”
Gun-control groups have been pushing Biden for months to re-nominate an ATF nominee, hoping that new leadership in the agency could revitalize some of the Biden administration’s priorities on gun reforms. The ATF declined to comment on Dettelbach’s nomination.
“Asking ATF to halt the rising tide of gun violence without a director is like sending someone into a fight with one hand tied behind their back,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told The Daily Beast in a statement. “Every senator who claims to care about law enforcement and public safety needs to back up that rhetoric with action, and vote to confirm Steve Dettelbach as ATF director.”
But the gun rights activists are already on the attack, with the National Rifle Association calling Dettelbach a “rinse and repeat” of Chipman.
Another pro-gun-rights group called the Firearms Policy Institute has been running ads on Facebook calling for individuals to “fight” against Dettelbach’s nomination, which they’ve described as the “Biden administration’s attempt to appoint someone with the same radical values as David Chipman, but with a less embarrassing public paper trail.”
And while many senators are still in the process of reviewing Dettelbach’s nomination, some Republicans are already throwing punches. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) called Dettelbach a “gun-grabbing radical that will put Montanans’ Second Amendment rights in jeopardy.”
Some Democratic senators also remain wildcards. A spokesperson for King, who opposed Chipman’s nomination, told The Daily Beast the senator is still reviewing Dettelbach’s track record. Unlike Chipman, the White House vetted Dettelbach’s nomination with King before announcing, according to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has yet to weigh in on the nomination, and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), another moderate in the Senate majority, is also still reviewing the nomination, a spokesperson said.
But as the midterms draw near, the clock is ticking.
“I don’t think we have to spend much time debating, ‘Is this person good or qualified’… The real question is, ‘Can the Biden administration and DOJ rally enough votes in the Senate to provide leadership at a critical agency at a critical juncture in our history?’” Chipman said. “And time will tell.”