Donald Trump’s Cabinet parade marches to the Capitol this week, as Republican leaders are vowing to plow ahead with a slew of confirmation hearings despite a sharp warning from the government’s top ethics watchdog.
Ten of Trump’s Cabinet picks are slated to come before Senate committees for vetting this week: two on Tuesday, five on Wednesday and three more on Thursday. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is encountering resistance not only from Democrats but the chief of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, who said over the weekend that some of Trump’s nominees have yet to complete required financial disclosures and ethics documentation.
Democrats were quick to demand that Republicans pump the brakes on the hearings, several of which were scheduled on Wednesday, same day Trump will hold his first press conference since July.
But on Sunday, McConnell said dismissed the complaints as partisan griping and vowed to press ahead.
“We confirmed seven Cabinet appointments the day President Obama was sworn in,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “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.”
If McConnell holds to his schedule, the hearings will kick off Tuesday with Trump’s homeland security pick, John Kelly, as well as his choice for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Sessions’ hearing is set to continue Wednesday, along with hearings for Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state pick; Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary designee; Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary nominee; and Rep. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s choice to lead the CIA. On Thursday, Trump’s labor secretary designee Andrew Puzder, housing secretary pick Ben Carson and commerce pick Wilbur Ross are slated to trudge to the Hill.
Walter Shaub, the director of the independent Office of Government Ethics, ratcheted up the pressure on Republicans Saturday with a letter to Democratic leaders warning that several of Trump’s Cabinet selections potentially have “unknown or unresolved ethics issues.” He described it as an unprecedented situation in his office’s 40-year history.
Democrats are certain to make hay of any missing ethics disclosures. In fact, it’s the second ethics battle for Hill Republicans in a week, after House Republicans backed — but then pulled under pressure — a plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, which critics said had been overly aggressive and lacked controls and due process.
The battle over the hearing schedule is likely to dominate the Hill this week, but not before the conclusions of federal spy agencies about Russian interference in the election land on the Capitol.
The leaders of the FBI, CIA, NSA and national intelligence bureaucracy will come before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday to elaborate on their ominous findings, setting the tone for a week that is otherwise expected to feature the frenetic final push to prepare for Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
For Republicans leading the intel hearing, it’s a delicate tightrope walk between condemning foreign meddling and supporting the president-elect. Trump has repeatedly rejected the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind a series of cyberattacks and propaganda campaigns intended to harm Hillary Clinton and boost Trump. (After being briefed by intelligence officials Friday, Trump seemed to indirectly acknowledge that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee, though he grouped the country with other bad actors and denied it had any effect on the election.)
The report on Russian intervention — which intelligence authorities asserted was authorized by President Vladimir Putin — presents an early test for the relationship between Trump and his allies in Congress. Two of Trump’s GOP critics on the issue, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, took to NBC’s “Meet the Press” in an interview aired Sunday and urged a concerted effort to hit back.
Graham said he believed federal agencies were still investigating whether Trump’s campaign had any contact with Russian officials.
“I believe that it’s happening. But you need to talk to them because I don’t want to speak for them,” Graham said. “Here’s what I think we should do as a nation. We should all, Republicans, Democrats, condemn Russia for what they did. To my Republican friends who are gleeful, you’re making a huge mistake.”
Both men have also been critical of Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state nominee, because of his close relationship with Russia.
The focal point of the week will come on a manic Wednesday, when five of Trump’s nominees hit the Hill and Trump holds his press conference. The scheduling of a cluster of high-profile hearings on the same day as Trump’s press conference is designed partly to overwhelm any single controversial moment and prevent Democrats from dragging out the confirmation process.
Though Republicans will drive the news this week, President Barack Obama will deliver his farewell address to the nation from Chicago on Tuesday, amid a fight to preserve a legacy that Republicans are intent on dismantling. Obama is working to stave off Republican plans to gut his signature policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act. He’s also unleashed a flurry of last-minute regulations intended on slowing efforts by Trump to unwind his policies.
The House will be mostly quiet this week, as the primary action takes place in the Senate. But there’s potential turmoil brewing among the House’s hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus. After an appeal from Sen. Rand Paul for a more fiscally conservative approach to the federal budget, some caucus members are now second-guessing whether they should back the fiscal 2017 blueprint that will, essentially, empower Congress to repeal Obamacare.
After the election, the group said they were willing to vote for a budget that doesn’t cut as much spending as they’d prefer, just to unlock a fast-tracking tool that allows Republicans to gut the signature health care law. But now they want assurances from GOP leadership that the next budget for fiscal 2018 will cut drastically more government spending. One member also suggested renaming the bill to more explicitly describe it as an Obamacare repeal vehicle rather than a spending document, a move intended to get more caucus members to vote for the document.
Rachael Bade contributed reporting.