Concern over Trump nominees: Legitimate or just politics?

Nomination hearings for the Trump Cabinet start this week. Democrats call eight nominees 'troublesome.' Their concerns are based on real issues, but they need to be careful about overreaching, experts say.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (left) meets with Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be secretary of State, at the Capitol in Washington last week.

Hearings for Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees begin this week, and Democrats have targeted eight as “troublesome” and deserving extra scrutiny.

That’s an unusually large number of “troublesomes.” 

Traditionally, incoming presidents are granted latitude to build their own cabinets. Being in the minority, Democrats can’t actually block the nominations on their own. But they can delay the process.

Their vocal concerns raise the question of how much scrutiny is due to legitimate ethical issues – particularly potential conflicts of interest related to the complex financial holdings of very wealthy nominees – and how much is ideological differences and the attempt to further turn up the partisan dial. 

“It’s a bit of both,” observes Amy Walter, of the independent Cook Political Report.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats were prepared for a Donald Trump win, she says, so the vetting process has been rushed and is incomplete.

On Saturday, the Office of Government Ethics warned that this week’s stack of hearings – nine so far with five on Wednesday – has put “undue pressure” on its staff to finish reviews. The jam-up has left some nominees “with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues” before their hearings.

Ethics questions are a way for Democrats not only to go after the nominees, but also the president-elect himself. “Ethics is the only chink in Trump’s armor, because he wants to ‘drain the swamp,’ ” Ms. Walter says.

On the other hand, take away the Trump factor, and Republicans would still be putting up nominees who favor school vouchers, rolling back environmental regulations, and repealing the Affordable Care Act.

“Democrats need to be careful,” Walter cautions. “Are they being constructive? Or are they being obstructionist?”

Weighing fairness with frustration

The eight that Democrats are targeting are: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama for attorney general; Rex Tillerson for secretary of State; Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia for Health and Human Services; Steven Mnuchin for Treasury; Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency; Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) of South Carolina for the Office of Management and Budget; Betsy DeVos for the Department of Education; and Andrew Puzder for the Department of Labor.

Senate committees are not uniform in the way they handle nominations. For instance, only three committees demand tax returns from a nominee. But all nominees have to go through a Federal Bureau of Investigation background check and a review with the Office of Government Ethics, including of their finances.

Democrats say they want nothing more than a “fair hearing” for the eight – that all their vetting paperwork is in before hearings start, that each nominee gets two days of hearings so senators can consider their answers overnight, that each shares tax returns (a pointed contrast with Trump), and that the hearings are spread out, rather than bunched up.

Wednesday is not only the biggest day for hearings, it is also when Trump has said he will hold a long-awaited press conference to reveal how he will handle his vast business empire as president.

And Wednesday promises to be a long night – a “vote-a-rama” of amendments in which Democrats intend to make Republicans pay a political cost as they pass their first phase of Obamacare repeal legislation.

With all this news swirling, the nominee process will get short shrift in the media, Democrats contend.

But Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky says he’s not changing anything. There will be no delay to the hearings and no change in committee practices.

“I know how it feels when you’re coming into a new situation and the other guy’s won the election,” Senator McConnell said on CBS on Sunday.

“What did we do? We confirmed seven cabinet appointments the day President Obama was sworn in. We didn’t like most of them either. But he won the election. So all of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustrations.”

The reviews only need be completed by the time of the confirmation vote on the Senate floor, McConnell said.

But Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, maintains that the start of the Obama administration differs from today’s circumstances. Those nominees got their paperwork in earlier. The Obama group also wasn’t dominated by billionaires and multimillionaires with complex finances.

“We’re not trying to be dilatory,” Senator Schumer told reporters last week. “There are so many issues about so many of them, that to rush them through would be a disservice to the American people.”

Democrats' concerns

He questioned, for instance, the strong anti-immigration stance of Senator Sessions, who has been nominated for attorney general, as well as the senator’s criticism of the Voting Rights Act – which he would be obligated to enforce. Sessions’s two-day hearing begins Tuesday.

Last week, Senate Democrats demanded that the House ethics office investigate Congressman Price’s sale of health-care stocks while pushing legislation that might favor the value of those shares.

And Democrats and Republicans have voiced concerns about Mr. Tillerson’s close business and personal ties to Russia as the head of ExxonMobil, and how that would affect his decisions as secretary of State. Tillerson in the meantime has reached an agreement to divest himself of his ExxonMobil stock. His hearings begin Wednesday.

Senators will also see that “his views on Russia are not in any way out of the mainstream,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee at a Monitor breakfast Friday.

Senator Corker, who is one of Congress’s top dealmakers and is respected on both sides of the aisle, chairs the foreign relations committee and promises ample time for questioning. He predicted Tillerson will be “overwhelmingly” supported.

Defining 'troublesome'

It’s going to be hard to stop any of Trump’s nominees unless the FBI and ethics checks turn up something damning, says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on the nomination process.

“I’m not saying you could confirm an axe murderer, but it’s hard to stop somebody without really hard evidence of wrongdoing and that’s why so many cabinet secretaries are confirmed on the afternoon of inauguration day,” says Mr. Light, who describes Schumer’s demands as “reasonable.”

But rather than scattering their fire at so many nominees, he cautions, Democrats should focus on those who threaten the programs that ordinary Americans favor and rely on – such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which would come under the purview of Price at Health and Human Services.

“You’ve got to define ‘troublesome’ and then you’ve got to pick your target,” said Light. “Eight is a very large number. Pick two.”

“Troublesome” to Light is the general lack of government experience among the nominees. It will take them six months to a year to figure out how to operate the levers of government, he says. “By that time, you’ll get people getting ready to leave.”

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