Key disclosure reports for four out of nine of Donald Trump’s nominees subject to Senate confirmation hearings this week had yet to be made public by late Monday, underscoring concerns from the Office of Government Ethics that it is being rushed to approve the documentation.
The first nomination hearing is slated for Tuesday, for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, whose ethics report has been completed. But paperwork for some other nominees was not available. For example, the ethics report had yet to be made public for Betsy DeVos, the billionaire who is nominee to head the Department of Education. Devos’ confirmation hearing was originally set for Wednesday, but was postponed on Monday night to Jan. 17.
RELEASED PRIOR TO HEARINGS
Even if all the reports are released just before the hearings, some ethics specialists said the process is too hurried for the public and senators to appraise the information. The reports focus on potential financial conflicts of interest and agreements to divest certain holdings.
“The whole point of ventilating this stuff is to enable the American people and senators to ask questions of the nominee about how you are going to address conflicts,” said Norman Eisen, who served as an ethics lawyer in the Obama administration. Eisen cited a letter written in February 2009 by then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that called on the Obama administration to promptly provide all ethics disclosure material “in time for review and prior to a committee hearing.”
On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to use McConnell’s letter against him, sending him a tweaked copy in which he crossed out McConnell’s name as the signatory and swapped in his own.
Antonia Ferrier, a spokesman for McConnell, said Monday that his 2009 letter had been written after most Obama nominees had been confirmed. She said Republicans are providing all the needed information for the Trump administration’s nominees in a timely manner.
By late Monday, the Office of Government Ethics had released reports for five top picks subject to hearings this week: Sessions, defense nominee James Mattis, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, CIA director nominee Mike Pompeo and transportation nominee Elaine L. Chao.
A spokeswoman for the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the panel had ethics paperwork for Kelly, but it had not been made public by the ethics office as of Monday night. Kelly’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
The documents show that Mattis, a retired Marine general, has received millions of dollars in income since leaving the military, including through lucrative speaking engagements with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Northrop Grumman, and paid positions with Theranos, Stanford University and General Dynamics.
Mattis, who retired as chief of U.S. Central Command in 2013, said in a memo to the Pentagon dated Jan. 5 that he would not participate “personally and substantially” in any matters in which he knew he had a financial interest without seeking a legal waiver.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Mattis’s most significant forms of income since retiring, according to the documents, include a salary of $419,359 as a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and fees of $242,000 as a member of the board of directors at the defense contractor General Dynamics.
Mattis also received $150,000 in fees as a member of the board of directors at Theranos, a controversial Silicon Valley blood-testing firm. He pushed for its technology to be incorporated while chief of U.S. Central Command, according to emails obtained and previously detailed by The Washington Post. But the effectiveness of the firm’s technology was called into question, and Theranos has since fallen from grace and laid off dozens of employees.
In addition to the ethics reports, the FBI conducts background checks of top nominees. The bureau has completed checks for five of the nine Trump nominees with confirmation hearings this week, according to Republican aides.
NOT ALL REVIEWS WERE COMPLETE
Walter M. Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, said in a Friday letter that it was “of great concern to me” that confirmation hearings were scheduled before all the reviews were complete. “It has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings.”
The agency declined to say whether Shaub’s concerns had been allayed since Friday. Shaub did not respond to a request for comment.
SLOW TO COMPLETE BACKGROUND PAPERWORK
Since his surprise victory in November, Trump has been quick to name his nominees but slower to complete the background paperwork that the Senate requires for them to be confirmed.
In 2008 and 2009, Obama’s transition officials began vetting potential Cabinet nominees before the election, in an effort to move them through the process as quickly as possible and identify potential problems with their nominations before they became public. As a result, all of Obama’s nominees had completed their background check, ethics and committee paperwork before their confirmation hearings.
“We had developed a pretty detailed confirmation plan before Election Day,” said Caroline Chambers, who served as the director of confirmations for Obama’s transition team. “I suspect the Trump transition did not.”
“They did get a late start, and they probably didn’t have as much institutional support in the beginning,” she added.
Obama’s precedent was followed by Hillary Clinton’s transition team, which began requesting FBI background checks for potential nominees in the months leading up to the election. It is not clear when Trump began vetting his Cabinet nominees, and transition officials did not comment on their vetting process.
Trump’s approach is not unprecedented.
In 2001, at least a handful of George W. Bush’s Cabinet appointees entered their congressional confirmation hearings without having certified ethics agreements with the Office of Government Ethics.
BUSH COMMERCE SECRETARY
One of those nominees was Bush’s pick for commerce secretary, Donald Evans, who went though a confirmation hearing on Jan. 4, 2001, but did not submit a completed ethics form until Jan. 19, 2001, a day before the Senate confirmed his appointment by voice vote.
But the approach could lead to headaches for Trump’s team. Democratic groups have already created war rooms to unearth damaging or embarrassing information about Trump’s nominees.
VETTING LIGHT AND INCOMPLETE
“Our sense is that the vetting was light and incomplete,” said David Brock, who runs a number of Democratic groups that plan to go on the offense against Trump’s nominees. “There’s a potential vulnerability here on the ground. They didn’t follow precedent and really do the kind of vetting that is normally done. There’s room for error.”
Some Democrats have called for more of the top Trump nominees to supply their tax returns. But Republicans said that, in the end, the Trump administration will send just as much information about its nominees as prior administrations have. There is no law requiring that Cabinet nominees submit their tax returns, but by Senate tradition, they have been requested for a few positions such as treasury secretary, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service.
Democrats are pushing for more disclosure from Trump nominees, like DeVos, who have complex and large financial assets.
Trump’s incoming press secretary, Sean Spicer, said it is “ridiculous” for Democrats to demand new information not required of past nominees.
“These are long-standing practices by these committees that they had no problem upholding twice though President Obama’s nomination process,” Spicer said. “It is 100 percent politics, and that’s it.
“Everything that they’ve additionally asked for is not only out of practice, but it is blatantly political,” he said.
SEN CORY BOOKER
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Trump and more of his nominees should release their tax returns. Trump said during the campaign that he would release his returns when an IRS audit was complete.
But McConnell said on the same program that Democrats are being sore losers.
“We are still in the process of getting the papers in,” McConnell said. “I think at least five of the nominees have all of their papers in. You know, what this is about . . . the Democrats are really frustrated that they lost the election. I was in [that] position eight years ago. I know how it feels when you are coming into a new situation that the other guys won the election.”