Donald Trump wants a Cabinet full of billionaires and ideologues. However misguided, that’s his prerogative as president-elect.
But talk about the need for “extreme vetting.”
Instead, Trump’s team and Senate Republican leaders intend to rush his nominees through confirmation hearings this week without enough time for questioning in some cases and without full financial disclosures in others.
The hearings start Tuesday with one of the most controversial nominees, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama for attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship 30 years ago over racially insensitive comments and has since compiled a hard-line record in the Senate. There are very good reasons why advocacy groups strongly oppose his nomination and why more than 1,100 law professors sent a letter to Congress declaring that Sessions will not promote justice and equality.
Sessions must reassure Americans on his commitment to civil liberties and voting rights, among other issues, and his views and his record must be dissected. But Republicans are limiting Democrats on the committee, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, to four witnesses and one day of questioning Sessions. Feinstein has properly called for additional witnesses and more time to judge Sessions.
Republicans are jamming the schedule with hearings for two more nominees on Wednesday, when attention will be focused on Trump’s first official press conference in almost six months. They’re expected to include Elaine Chao at Transportation and Rex Tillerson at the State Department.
Hearings for as many as four more nominees are on tap for Thursday: Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, James Mattis at Defense, Mike Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency and Wilbur Ross at Commerce.
There will be no shortage of topics, not the least of which is Trump’s friendliness to Russia despite its interference in the presidential election.
But the hearings are proceeding despite the independent Office of Government Ethics’ warning Friday that it had not completed several reviews – and that it would be the first time in the office’s four decades that nominees would get hearings without them.
The reviews are more complicated and time-consuming because many nominees have extensive business holdings and have not served in government before, and it’s possible they could uncover disqualifying conflicts. According to Senate Democrats, those who haven’t been cleared by the ethics office include Carson, Ross, Ross, Homeland Security nominee John Kelly, who is also up Tuesday, and Betsy DeVos at Education, whose hearing was delayed until Jan. 17.
Predictably, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dismisses these legitimate concerns about the Senate’s ability to fulfill its constitutional duty to advise and consent on Cabinet picks as mere partisan politics. He told Democrats to “grow up” and justifies the quick schedule by noting that seven of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet nominees were confirmed on his inauguration day in 2009. But McConnell conveniently ignores that he demanded the ethics reviews of Obama nominees be completed before hearings.
McConnell did say that no nominee will get an up-or-down vote until the ethics office and FBI have completed their background checks. But that bare minimum shouldn’t be the standard, especially when Trump vows to “drain the swamp” of corruption.
Instead, this is looking like an ethics-challenged administration from the start, with Trump setting a terrible example. He claimed again Monday that separating his business empire from the presidency will be “very simple, very easy.”
On Wednesday, he’s supposed to outline his plan to avoid conflicts of interest. But what he’s suggested so far – that his children will run his businesses for him – isn’t a viable solution. It’s even less clear how exactly that would work after transition officials said Monday that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will be a senior White House adviser.
While Trump isn’t covered by federal ethics laws, his Cabinet picks are. The least he can do is make sure they don’t break the law and are worthy of the public’s trust.