January 10, 2017
By: Evan Osnos
Ladies and gentlemen, proud, hardworking fellow-Americans, good people who just want to play by the rules and believe that people should get a fair shot in life, there is no gentle way to put this: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President-elect Donald Trump think you are very, very stupid.
A little more than a week after congressional Republicans tried to dismantle the Office of Congressional Ethics—they relented only after the public swamped the switchboard to such a degree that even Donald Trump joined the criticism—the Party is back with a related gambit. On Tuesday, over the objections of government-ethics officials and Democrats, Senate Republicans will convene the first of a rapid-fire series of eight confirmation hearings in five days, with four of those in a single day. The strategy appears to be intended to speed the approval of Trump’s Cabinet with as little scrutiny as possible—and it will succeed, unless the public objects again.
McConnell’s schedule insures that reporters will be spread thin, details will go unexamined, and a share of the public already addled by a Presidential transition marred by Trump’s denigration of the intelligence community will be overwhelmed with noise. Most important, McConnell and the Trump transition team have ignored the complaints of the Office of Government Ethics, which is tasked with overseeing ethics and potential conflicts in the federal government. The Trump transition has largely deflected the office’s attempts to get in touch. In an astonishing public statement, ethics-office director Walter Shaub e-mailed Trump aides in November to say that “we seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election.” Shaub warned the transition that, by not producing enough materials with which to review the candidate’s financial information beforehand, they could end up breaking the law on conflicts of interest. “They run the risk of having inadvertently violated the criminal conflicts of interest restriction at 18 USC 208,” Shaub wrote to the Trump transition aide Sean Doocey.
Then, in a letter to Senate Democrats released on Saturday, Shaub wrote that his staff was unable to do its work in time for the hearings, which “left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues.” He 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.”
McConnell’s actions look especially brazen when one considers his own past statements. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released a letter signed by McConnell, in 2009, in which he demanded that “financial disclosures must be complete” before any Obama Administration nominees could receive a hearing. Pressed about that, McConnell dispensed with the usual decorous wind of nonsense about procedure and declared a blunt belief in zero-sum politics. “What this is about, the Democrats are really frustrated that they lost the election,” McConnell said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We need to sort of grow up here and get past that,” he said.
But the most remarkable thing about McConnell’s desire to “get past” the process of vetting before the vetting has happened is not what it says about his commitment to political tribalism above all other values. That was already well-established, after all. No, the truly remarkable story it reveals involves the sheer recklessness of the incoming Administration. The vetting process is not, as some of Trump’s neophyte advisers might suspect, just a ritual performed for weak-kneed “goo-goos,” the good-government types in comfortable shoes. On the contrary, it is meant to be a cold-eyed political demolition derby: a controlled explosion that can protect an Administration by preventing a problem appointee from getting inside the inner sanctum.
For the past twenty-five years, every President, Democrat and Republican, has lost one or more Cabinet choices because of vetting before they entered the Administration. In 1989, the Senate rejected President George H. W. Bush’s pick to head the Defense Department, former Senator John Tower, of Texas, after he was accused of heavy drinking and womanizing. (Tower even offered to abstain from drinking; that wasn’t enough.) Bill Clinton lost two picks for Attorney General—Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood—over discoveries about the immigration status of their household employees. Two of President George W. Bush’s proposed appointments—Bernard Kerik, for Secretary of Homeland Security, and Linda Chavez, for Secretary of Labor—had to drop out for similar reasons. And Barack Obama lost former Senator Tom Daschle, his first choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services (he had failed to pay income taxes on a car and driver), and Governor Bill Richardson, of New Mexico (allegations, later disproved, of improper political financing), a would-be Commerce Secretary.
Trump is making an astonishing bet that he will be the first President in a quarter century to manage not to have a single nominee disqualified. And he is betting that the American people, having just elected the first modern President to refuse to release his tax returns, are, in effect, done with ethics. He is betting that, like his oft-cited prediction that he could shoot someone and not lose votes, virtually nothing that could come out after a nominee is confirmed will undermine his Presidency. He is betting, in effect, that we’re too dumb or too demoralized to care.
Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit government watchdog group, has, for more than four decades, monitored the intersection of money and politics. He told me that the transition team’s decision to ignore potential conflict-of-interest problems is “highly unusual, very dangerous, and has a real capacity to backfire on the Trump Administration.” He continued, “This is especially the case because an unusual number of wealthy individuals have been proposed for the Trump Cabinet. Conflicts of interest can easily end up in corrupt decision-making; they undermine the integrity of public officials and government action, and public confidence in the honesty of an Administration.”
A glance at the hearing schedule suggests that the risks to Trump, and to the American public, are considerable, given the range of issues already raised about his nominees. On Tuesday, senators will question Trump’s Homeland Security choice, retired General John Kelly, who has questioned the policy of allowing women to serve in combat jobs, and would oversee the building of the wall on the southern border that Trump has promised. On Tuesday, senators will also face the proposed Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, who years ago was rejected for a federal judgeship after witnesses described him as making troubling statements related to race. On Wednesday, senators may have to rush through a hearing with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, who has had decades of complex financial dealings with Russia. (At the last minute, they postponed, until next week, a hearing for Betsy DeVos, the designated Education Secretary, who has given money to a number of the senators who are supposed to be reviewing her.) And on and on.
The enduring question will be, Does it work? Will Trump and McConnell succeed in effectively gutting one more norm that was once erected to defend the American people from abuse by their public officials? McConnell thinks so. He has predicted that “up to” seven nominees will be confirmed by Inauguration Day, on January 20th. They may be overly confident; Seung Min Kim, of Politico, predicted one or two.
As of Monday morning, only eight of Trump’s twenty-one nominees had submitted their tax returns to committees, according to Democrats quoted in the press. Will Americans swamp the switchboards again to demand better? Republicans are betting that the answer is no.