Controversies Mount as Senate Begins Hearings for Trump Cabinet

By Nancy Ognanovich

Senate confirmation hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks are set to begin Jan. 10 as Republican leaders work to clear at least a half-dozen of the top nominees before Inauguration Day.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that he will go ahead with more than a dozen hearings this week in order to be able to have “six or seven” Cabinet picks approved in a week's time.

McConnell downplayed Democrats’ growing concerns that the Senate has yet to receive background checks and standard paperwork on many of the Cabinet picks but suggested those requirements will be met before the confirmation votes. Separately, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats are continuing to press for those materials and are negotiating the matter with McConnell.

“Everybody will be properly vetted as they have in the past,” McConnell said after a meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower to discuss the status of the nominees as well as this year’s legislative agenda.

McConnell said he wants early action on key picks in order to ensure the new president has essential personnel on “Day One.” He told reporters he still is pushing for members of the new administration’s national security team to be among the first to be confirmed (see schedule of Senate hearings below).

Schumer said talks with McConnell on the timing and details of the hearings are ongoing, even as the first of several confirmation-related hearings the week of Jan. 9 are set to begin. He defended Democrats’ requests for the nominees to have completed background checks and submitted standard paperwork before being considered by the Senate, saying McConnell made the exact same demands when the Obama Cabinet picks were announced.

“The majority leader is fond of mentioning that many Obama nominees passed quickly in 2009 and he asks that we do the same,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Back in 2009, every Obama Cabinet nominee had an ethics agreement in before their hearing. Every Obama Cabinet nominee underwent a full FBI background check before the Senate considered their nomination. President Trump’s nominees are way behind that mark.”

Three Days of Hearings

McConnell met with Trump for what an aide said was an hour-long meeting to discuss this year’s Senate agenda, which includes advancing the nominations Trump so far has announced. Among them is former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who is Trump’s pick to serve as secretary of transportation.

The meeting occurred even as Senate officials were still working out the details of the hearings, including whether the Senate would still have multiple hearings for key nominees the same day McConnell is planning a lengthy “vote-a-rama” on the fiscal year 2017 budget resolution that he plans to use to initiate the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

However, by day’s end, officials had scheduled at least a dozen hearings over three days aimed at advancing Trump’s picks.

McConnell acknowledged in an appearance the previous day on CBS’s Face the Nation that background reports and materials related to the Cabinet picks still had not been forwarded to Capitol Hill. McConnell estimated that only five of the nominees so far had all of the required documents sent to the relevant committees.

But McConnell said Democrats’ concerns are more motivated by politics than any genuine concern about the Senate’s advise-and-consent role.

"[A]ll of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate,” McConnell said. “I understand that, but we need to, sort of, grow up here and get past that. We need to have the president’s national security team in place on Day One. And papers are still coming in. And so I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to get up to seven nominees on Day One, just like we did eight years ago.”

But Schumer said Democrats’ concerns are based on more than politics. And he said the documents that Democrats are demanding are exactly the same ones that McConnell insisted the Senate have before Republicans would allow Obama’s Cabinet choices to advance.

Schumer brought up a letter McConnell sent to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) eight years ago, in which McConnell said Republicans would require extensive background information on Obama’s nominees—including FBI checks and financial disclosure statements—even before hearings were held. Schumer said he would simply update the letter and return it to McConnell this week with the exact same request.

“These standards don’t indicate a lack of maturity,” Schumer said. “They show an abundance of common sense, just as [McConnell’s] letter said. And I remind the majority that several, if not most of the nominees, have actually failed to meet the qualifications laid out by this letter, given the hearing schedule.”

Sessions at Kickoff Hearing

Among those who have already provided many of the required materials is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s attorney general pick. The Judiciary Committee plans to begin two days of hearings on his nomination Jan. 10.

Democrats object to Sessions’s conservative agenda, but Schumer said the complicated financial dealings of many other nominees—many of them billionaires—are presenting a different kind of challenge for senators as they work to understand whether nominees may have conflicts of interest when they take the helm of federal agencies.

Among them is Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, whose selection for secretary of state is scheduled to be the subject of hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee beginning Jan. 11. Former banker Wilbur Ross, Trump’s choice to head the Commerce Department, will have a hearing at the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Jan. 12.

Chao, who is also McConnell’s wife, is among the minority of Trump Cabinet picks with previous high-level government service. Her confirmation hearing at Commerce is scheduled for Jan. 11.

“Trump’s nominees pose particularly difficult ethics and conflict-of-interest challenges,” Schumer said. “They come from enormous wealth, many have vast holdings and stocks, and very few have experience in government, so they have not been appropriately vetted for something like a Cabinet post before.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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