A top ethics official has warned that plans to confirm Donald Trump’s top Cabinet choices before background examinations are complete are unprecedented and have overwhelmed government investigators responsible for the reviews.
The concerns prompted Democrats on Saturday to call for delaying the confirmation process, but Republicans signaled they are unlikely to budge on the eve of a slew of hearings in the Senate.
The Trump administration-in-waiting faces its first big test in coming days, with as many as seven nominees for Cabinet positions — many of them already the subject of questions about their qualifications — scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill.
The process begins Tuesday, when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s controversial nominee for attorney general, is scheduled to begin two days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the big show is planned for Wednesday, when five hearings are scheduled, bringing a marathon of nationally televised scrutiny to the thin public records and vast wealth of many of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
Democrats have vowed to cast the hearings as a proxy test of Trump himself, in hopes of discrediting his new government before it begins. They hope to remind the public of the president-elect’s own lack of government experience and reluctance to separate himself from an entanglement of global business interests while he leads the nation.
But even Democrats acknowledge that Trump’s slate of Cabinet picks will probably sail through. The packed schedule, similar to those for nominees of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was orchestrated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Trump team. In addition, Trump has scheduled a news conference Wednesday that will overlap with several hearings, at which he has promised to talk about separating his presidency from his business interests.
Whether the schedule holds in the coming days is unclear. McConnell’s office declined to respond to warnings by Walter M. Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, who said in a letter released Saturday the current confirmation calendar is “of great concern to me” because nominees have not completed a required ethics review before their hearings.
The schedule “has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews,” Shaub wrote in response to an inquiry by Democratic senators. “More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings.”
Shaub added: “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.”
Republican aides have disputed that notion, saying that in some cases, nominees of both parties have sat for hearings before the paperwork process was completed.
But Democrats struck back Saturday, saying that hearings should be delayed until all paperwork is completed. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said consideration of GOP power broker Betsy DeVos to be education secretary should be postponed until OGE finishes reviewing her background and financial investments for possible conflicts of interest or other ethics concerns.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) condemned what he called a lack of cooperation and communication by the Trump transition and asked for a “timeout” on consideration of nominees until such basic information as an ethics agreement is available to members of the Senate.
“We should put all of these on hold until the background checks by the FBI and the ethics office reports are completed,” he said in an interview Saturday.
The OGE enforces federal ethics rules and reviews potential conflicts of interest for nominees to government posts. Shaub, a lawyer and political appointee of President Obama, took over the office in 2013. He donated a total of $500 to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, federal elections records show.
Ethics experts from both political parties expressed dismay at the possibility that confirmation hearings would proceed before the OGE reviews are completed.
“This is unprecedented,” said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who has served as counsel to several Republican presidential candidates and Cabinet nominees in the past. “This suggests that there has been a real breakdown between the transition and the Office of Government Ethics.”
Much of the attention this week is expected to focus on Sessions and his controversial record on civil rights, and on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, who has never served in the public sector.
Tillerson is scheduled to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday. The health and education panel is set to consider DeVos the same day, while the Senate Intelligence Committee has announced plans to review the nomination of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Trump’s nominee for CIA director. Elaine Chao — a former secretary of labor who is married to McConnell — is set to appear before the Commerce Committee to discuss her choice as transportation secretary.
On Tuesday, in addition to Sessions, retired Marine general John Kelly is scheduled to testify at a Homeland Security committee hearing to review his nomination to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
In a statement, the Trump transition team said Saturday that the president-elect “is putting together the most qualified administration in history and the transition process is currently running smoothly.”
The statement added that “it is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country. This is a disservice to the country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president.”
McConnell had already vowed Wednesday that “all the president-elect’s Cabinet appointments will be confirmed.” He called on Democrats to not delay votes on Trump’s less controversial choices for national security posts, including Kelly and retired Marine general James Mattis, the nominee for secretary of defense.
“Basically, they can delay the process. They can’t stop it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said of his Democratic colleagues.