Senate Democrats Question Vetting Of Cabinet Picks With Slew Of Hearings | KERA News

Senate Democrats Question Vetting Of Cabinet Picks With Slew Of Hearings

Jan 9, 2017
Originally published on January 9, 2017 6:12 pm

The Senate is set to hold confirmation hearings starting on Tuesday for several of President-elect Trump's Cabinet choices. Democrats say majority Republicans are jamming the nominees through — nine of them scheduled just this week — and that several of them haven't yet completed or submitted all of the financial disclosure and ethics paperwork required.

It's a big challenge since many of the Trump nominees are wealthy business people with complex financial dealings. The vetting process is complicated because each committee that holds a hearing for nominations has its own set of rules about the information it requires, and each has its own way of making that information public.

Senate rules do require nominees to file a "background and financial disclosure statement" before being referred to the full Senate (though not necessarily before committee hearings take place).

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday. Tillerson's records are complete regarding an FBI background check, the necessary Office of Government Ethics paperwork and his financial disclosure form.

Democrats, however, also want Tillerson to submit his income tax records for the past few years, because of how complex the former Exxon CEO's financial dealings have been. Republicans are not going along with that.

To take another example, the Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for retired Gen. John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday. And not all of Kelly's records are in.

Are the vetting issues being raised by Democrats sour grapes?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly thinks so.

On CBS's Face the Nation Sunday, McConnell said then-minority Republicans confirmed seven Cabinet appointments the day President Obama was sworn in in 2008. "We didn't like most of them either," McConnell said. "But he won the election. So all of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration in having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate. I understand that, but we need to sort of grow up here and get past that."

After meeting with Trump at Trump Tower on Monday, McConnell also said that all nominees will be properly vetted, as they have been in the past.

Democrats have been pointing out that when roles were reversed, and McConnell was the minority leader, he sent a letter to then-majority Democrats saying financial disclosures must be complete prior to the confirmation hearing.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer read some of the letter on the Senate floor and mailed a copy of the letter back to McConnell.

Some of this is the old axiom, "Where you stand depends on where you sit," and now Republicans are sitting in the majority.

There are a few reasons Republicans are stacking up so many confirmation hearings this week.

One point McConnell makes is that President-elect Trump needs to have his national security team in place on Inauguration Day. Another reason is that the rush gives Democrats less time to prepare for and possibly delay some of the hearings.

What's more, with so many scheduled at once, including five of them on Wednesday (when, by the way, Trump is scheduled to have a long-awaited news conference), there will be less attention focused on any of them, and less opportunity for organized opposition to develop.

In a letter sent to Senate Democrats over the weekend, the head of the Office of Government Ethics says in the past most Cabinet nominees have been pre-cleared by his office before their nominations were made public and that the hearings are putting undue pressure on the agency officials.

Another Trump appointment is raising its own ethics issues: Trump is naming his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior adviser to the president.

The appointment has been rumored for weeks. Kushner, as a member of the president's staff, would not need Senate confirmation. But the New York real estate developer has deals with foreign countries, including China, raising further questions, including possible nepotism issues.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Senate has quite a week ahead. Republican leaders have scheduled confirmation hearings for nine of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet choices. Democrats say Republicans are trying to jam the nominees through the process without proper vetting.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Many of Trump's nominees are wealthy businesspeople with complex financial dealings, and several of them haven't yet completed or even submitted all of the financial disclosure and ethics paperwork required. Joining us now in the studio is NPR's Brian Naylor. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So what is required? What are the rules regarding financial disclosure?

NAYLOR: It's complicated because each committee that's going to be holding hearings has its own set of rules about the information they require, and each has its own way of making that information public.

So for instance, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday. Towson's records are complete regarding his FBI background check, the Office of Government Ethics paperwork, his financial disclosure form. Democrats also want Tillerson to submit his income tax records for the past few years because of how complex his financial dealings have been. Republicans, however, are not going along with that.

To take another example, tomorrow, the Senate Homeland Security Committee holds a confirmation hearing for retired General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Not all of Kelly's records have been submitted so far.

CORNISH: So is this nitpicking or Democrats griping? Or are there real issues at stake here?

NAYLOR: Well, I think it's fair to say there's a little of both. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly thinks it's sour grapes. Here's what he said yesterday on CBS's "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

MITCH MCCONNELL: We confirmed seven Cabinet appointments the day President Obama was sworn in. We didn't like most of them either (laughter), but he won the election. So all of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House but having lost the Senate. I understand that, but we need to sort of grow up here and get past that.

NAYLOR: Now, McConnell also said today after meeting with Trump at Trump Tower that everyone will be properly vetted as they have been in the past. Democrats have been pointing out that when the roles were reversed and McConnell was the minority leader, he sent a letter to then majority Democrats, saying financial disclosures must be complete prior to the confirmation hearing for Obama's nominees. Here's Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor this afternoon reading from that letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Financial disclosure statements and applicable tax returns for applicable committees are complete and submitted to the committee for review prior to a hearing being noticed.

NAYLOR: So some of this I think is the old axiom, where you stand depends on where you sit. And now Republicans are sitting in the majority.

CORNISH: But why this week? Why the rush to have all these confirmation hearings at once?

NAYLOR: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One point that McConnell makes is that President-elect Trump needs to have his national security team in place on Inauguration Day. Another is that the rush gives Democrats less time to prepare for and possibly delay some of the hearings, and by scheduling so many of them at once, including five on Wednesday when, by the way, Trump is scheduled to have a long-awaited news conference, there will be less attention focused on any of them.

But the head of the Office of Government Ethics sent a letter over the weekend to Senate Democrats saying, you know, in the past, most of these Cabinet nominees have been pre-cleared by his office before their nominations were even made public and that they're feeling a little bit of undue pressure now on their staff people.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.