Mike Pence Is the Oath-Administrant in Chief

Trump delegates swearing-in of Cabinet members mostly to VP

Vice President Mike Pence, far right, delivers a ceremonious oath of office to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week in the Oval Office as Tillerson’s wife Renda St. Clair and President Donald Trump look on. (John T. Bennett/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Mike Pence, far right, delivers a ceremonious oath of office to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week in the Oval Office as Tillerson’s wife Renda St. Clair and President Donald Trump look on. (John T. Bennett/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 9, 2017 at 5:07pm

President Donald Trump stood just to his vice president’s right as Mike Pence delivered a ceremonial oath of office to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The same scene played out eight days later as Pence officially swore in Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday.

One of Pence’s most regular duties, three weeks into the Trump administration’s tenure, is introducing his boss before public remarks. Almost as often, though, Pence is the oath-administrant in chief.

The White House, on both occasions, announced beforehand that the president would merely “participate” in the Oval Office swearing-in ceremonies. Both times, Trump delivered remarks, with his main task appearing to be assuring the world that Tillerson and Sessions would respectively remake global diplomacy and domestic law enforcement.

As his second in command administered the oath to Tillerson, Trump, who had just spent hours at Dover Air Force Base with the family of the first U.S. service member killed under his watch, stared downward, his mind seemingly elsewhere. While Pence delivered the oath to Sessions, Trump’s head swiveled back and forth as both men spoke.

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In fact, the vice president has carried out the ceremonial or official oath duties for all eight of Trump’s Cabinet members shortly after they have been confirmed by the Senate.

Like with Tillerson and Sessions, Trump stood nearby at the Pentagon when his No. 2 swore in James Mattis as Defense secretary. Each Cabinet member then spoke from a podium affixed with the mostly blue presidential seal.

Pence did the honors solo for Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Those five had to settle for the white vice presidential seal on the podium.

Several presidential scholars acknowledged that it seems Pence is swearing in high-level officials at a fast clip, but they said it is standard vice presidential business.

The vice president serving as oath-giver is not new to the Trump administration.

For instance, when it was time to swear in Hillary Clinton as secretary of State in early 2009, the still-new Obama administration had Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. do the honors. The same was true that year when it was time for Eric H. Holder Jr. to state his intention to uphold and defend the Constitution as the attorney general.

The practice was also common during Obama’s second term, with Biden swearing in Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch. The 47th vice president did the honors again in the Oval Office with Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, though Obama, like Trump recently, stood nearby.

But, unlike Trump during his first three weeks, Obama sometimes administered oaths of office. In April 2009, for instance, the 44th president did so after his final Cabinet member, Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services, was confirmed.

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Several Republican senators said there was no reason to think any of the secretaries would like a distance from their bombastic boss.

“We’ve all expected that the vice president would have an active role,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “I think it’s part of that.”

Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Pence taking the lead on the oaths “is probably just the role the vice president plays, other reasons have to do with logistics — we all want them to be sworn in as quickly as possible.”

“Nah, I don’t buy it,” Tillis said when asked if he believes any Cabinet member might prefer a picture with Pence rather than Trump. “They were his nominees. He’s the one who put them forward.”

Top Democrats also say vice presidents have performed the task for years.

Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed of Rhode Island said he “can recall some being sworn in by the general counsel of their department.”

“I’ve seen vice presidents do it before,” said Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who has been in the Senate since the Ford administration (1975). “I can remember Vice President [George H.W.] Bush, Vice President [Walter] Mondale, all the vice presidents, doing this. … If they wanted distance, they wouldn’t have accepted the nomination.”