And they haven’t even started contradicting the president-elect yet.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
With ethics reviews steamrolled, financial disclosures uncertified, FBI background checks incomplete, and nine confirmation hearings squeezed into three days, President-elect Donald Trump faces the very real possibility that few of his cabinet picks will be in place by the time he’s sworn in next Friday.
You wouldn’t know it for Trump’s assessment Monday. “Confirmations going great,” the president-elect said in a Trump Tower gaggle. “I think they’ll all pass.”
Before the Senate confirmations have even begun, the process of approving Trump’s picks for the top perches in his administration has been rushed and disorganized, fruit of the dysfunction of his transition team, plus an uneasy relationship with Congress. Trump’s team is pushing back against criticism, saying political opponents are trying to “politicize the process.”
Tuesday kicks off the first leg of the confirmation marathon on Capitol Hill this week, beginning with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), the nominee for Attorney General, followed by retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the pick for Director of Homeland Security.
Sessions will be back on the Hill the next day, when the bulk of Trump’s nominees head to Congress. That will include hearings for secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, and the choice to run the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo, (R-Kan.). On Thursday, Trump’s pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, will have his day in the Senate.
It’s no accident that the hearings for crucial foreign policy and security posts on Wednesday will compete with Trump’s first press conference since July. And they may compete for more than just air time: Trump has often been at odds with his own picks on issues from torture to Russia to U.S. military engagement overseas. Added to the mix: a “Vote-A-Rama” of amendments slated for Wednesday night, when Republicans will try to pass legislation to repeal Obamacare.
Democrats warned the Republican majority in the Senate not to schedule the hearings on the same day and to allow for sufficient time for answers to be given and responses reviewed. Instead, a handful of committee members from both parties sitting on multiple panels are now confronted with the impossibility of being in two places at once.
On Monday, after an independent ethics official called unprecedented the failure of Trump’s nominees to complete an ethics review, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, (D-NY), turned up the volume on criticism that Trump’s team was colluding with the Republican majority to ram nominees through without proper vetting.
“We’re not doing this for sport,” Schumer said on the floor, citing conflict of interest and security issues that had yet to be resolved. Rex Tillerson, for instance, did loads of business with Russia while running Exxon, and argued for economic sanctions on Russia to be removed. Jeff Sessions, the pick for attorney general, couldn’t secure a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of his history of racism.
“They need to be thoroughly vetted,” Schumer said, “even if it takes a few weeks to get through them.” Schumer said his caucus won’t agree to any floor time for the nominees until the completion of the FBI and OGE checks, financial disclosures, and all committee questionnaires. That could push back their ultimate confirmations, which require a floor vote by the full Senate.
On Sunday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky) said Democrats were retaliating for having lost the election and should “grow up.” McConnell and other Republicans have cited national security concerns in warning their colleagues across the aisle to not delay the confirmations.
Only three Senate committees require tax returns from a nominee, though given the wealth amassed by the Manhattan real-estate magnate’s picks, and Trump’s own refusal to release his tax returns, Democrats are pushing the issue. All nominees must undergo an FBI background check and a review and certification of their finances by the non-partisan Office of Government Ethics.
OGE Director Walter Shaub wrote to Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), in a letter released Saturday that he had “great concern” over confirmation hearings being scheduled for several nominees who hadn’t completed the ethics review process.
“I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process,” Shaub wrote. As long as he remained director, the office “will not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest.”
As of Monday afternoon, the OGE’s site showed submitted paperwork for Sessions, Mattis, Tillerson, and Pompeo, though it was unclear whether those submittals had been certified. Neither Kelly nor Trump’s latest cabinet pick, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, slated to be the Director of National Intelligence, appeared on the list. But not everyone’s on the same page — a Trump transition official said Kelly’s paperwork had been completed, and an Armed Services aide confirmed Mattis was set. But a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said late Monday the panel had yet to receive notification of the completed FBI check on Tillerson.
“Everybody will be properly vetted,” McConnell said on Monday after meeting with the self-described billionaire in New York.
The GOP points to the unanimous confirmation of seven of President Obama’s nominees on his first day in office in 2009, when Republicans were in the minority. One big difference, as Schumer noted: all those picks actually submitted their ethics paperwork on time — as requested by McConnell himself.
Even some GOP stalwarts have expressed concerns about the nominees.
Mattis is well-liked, but Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and fellow panel member Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), are expected to grill him on the threat from Russia as Trump continues to deny the U.S. intelligence community’s findings about election hacking. Additionally, since he only retired three years ago, Mattis needs a waiver to serve as Pentagon chief. According to his financial disclosure, he’s worth some $10 million — much of it earned in those three years since his retirement working for defense contracting giants such as General Dynamics.
Tillerson, who has resigned from Exxon, also faces tough questions about his cozy and personal and financial relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow, as well as the degree to which he might relegate human rights concerns to the backseat of U.S. diplomacy.
Sessions’ problems with racism in the past will probably dominate his hearing, and Schumer said he will press him on immigration reform and calls to limit Muslim immigration. But Sessions, as attorney general, could also play a crucial role in national-security decisions, such as authorizing new government surveillance, enhanced interrogation techniques, and adding detainees to the population at Guantanamo.
Photo credit: DON EMMERT / Staff