Rewire, February 3, 2017
A potential education secretary who seems to know nothing about the public education system.
A secretary of state whose involvement in ethically questionable deals with Russia were so great that its president, Vladimir Putin, “personally bestowed” upon him “Russia’s Order of Friendship” in 2013.
A labor secretary who has repeatedly ducked confirmation hearings and whose company has seen numerous allegations of workplace violations and harassment.
President Trump’s nominees are very much in the news. And unlike so much Trump news, nominees in the news are as they should be. Figures as different as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have noted “personnel is policy”—rightly so. The biggest story in politics is often not, “How does a bill become (or not become) a law,” but “How are old laws being interpreted and enforced?”
While the White House and its direct staff (including the odious Steve Bannon and General Michael Flynn) matter enormously, presidential appointees have immense discretion.
As the Women’s March and the national rush against Trump’s #MuslimBan evolve from protests to movements with staying power, fights over Trump’s Cabinet and other appointments will be a key front.
Here’s an overview of Trump appointments and what they—and legislators’ responses to them—mean.
The Erosion of Self-Respect in the Senate: Lying to the Senate used to elicit bipartisan outrage. Yet two nominees before the Senate Finance Committee, former Goldman Sachs partner Steve Mnuchin and Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), seem on a path to confirmation despite apparent law-breaking and overt disrespect to Congress.
Keeping up with all of the ethical issues of Trump’s treasury secretary pick takes a lot of time. For instance, it’s bad enough that Mnuchin is known as the “foreclosure king.”
But let’s also note the “oversight” in his financial disclosures of massive and shady international investments calls into sharp question his integrity or basic competence. Mnuchin initially failed to disclose his hedge fund’s overseas accounts, then downplayed how much foreign investment they contained when asked about these during his confirmation hearing.
Lying to Congress is a felony: The unambiguous evidence supporting a conclusion that Mnuchin lied about his bank’s robo-signing is particularly worrisome.
Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, observed about Mnuchin’s party-line Republican support: “The majority on the Senate Finance Committee has chosen to ignore lies and evasions, to ram through the Mnuchin nomination in defiance of its own procedures, and to all vote YES despite both the known facts about his bank’s abusive and sometimes illegal foreclosure practices, and serious unanswered questions other matters.”
Mnuchin twice told Congress his shady bank never engaged in the discredited practice of robo-signing, but “the guy is just lying. There’s no other way to say it,” said Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio Executive Director Bill Faith.
Corruption: What we’ve witnessed so far is a corrupt Senate majority greasing the skids for a crooked and unvetted Cabinet.
You might say—wow, that’s … harsh rhetoric. True, and merited.
Politico summarized Trump’s approach with this scabrous headline: “Weak Vetting Led to Cabinet Confirmation Surprises: Team Trump has been blindsided by potentially scandalous revelations about Cabinet nominees.”
Trump’s obsequious Republican allies on the Senate Finance Committee did the country the dishonor of “suspending” their own rules to push through the nominations of not only Mnuchin but Congressman Tom Price.
It would have been bad enough that as the prospective Health and Human Services Secretary, Price is an ideologue deeply committed to an agenda of crushing the Affordable Care Act and slashing Medicare and Medicaid, which could leave millions without needed health-care services.
However, Price’s nomination has made a mockery of efforts to rein in congressional corruption like the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act. The STOCK Act seeks to end any ambiguity about whether members of Congress could profit from playing the stock market based on the insider information they had as members of Congress capable of moving markets with so much as a tweet or press release. And yet, while trying to deny people accessible health care, Tom Price is also seemingly perpetually on the lookout for hot stock tips.
Price has not only made investments in specific health-care stocks whose interests he was supporting legislatively—Price was also credibly accused by the Wall Street Journal of distorting the nature of his purchase. In other words, he testified to Congress that he had paid the market price for a stock being talked up by a fellow Republican Member of Congress, but instead he seems to have been “one of fewer than 20 U.S. investors” to receive a 12 percent discount.
Donald Trump claimed he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. How many of his voters believed he meant promoting members of Congress who receive stock market discounts?
Hypocrisy: Nominee scandals used to matter. For instance, when former President Bill Clinton nominated a potential U.S. attorney general who had failed to pay employer taxes for her nanny, it was a very big deal. Somehow, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC)—nominated to the Office of Management and Budget—must have missed the Clinton-era controversies. Mulvaney has “admitted to failing to pay taxes for his children’s nanny for several years—an oversight he said was made because he did not view the woman as a household employee but as a babysitter,” according to Politico.
There is real irony that the man set to be entrusted with managing the nation’s budget failed to pay taxes, particularly since it is a failure that has sunk Democratic and Republican nominees in the past. What’s especially infuriating is that this tax-dodger is a budget “hawk” who helped shut down the government in the past while professing concerns about the national debt.
Billionaire vulture capitalist Wilbur Ross has largely sailed under the radar, despite his complex and controversial business dealings in the United States and across the globe, including helping run the Bank of Cyprus with a close ally of Vladimir Putin. But if a Democratic presidential appointee had hired an undocumented worker, one might imagine a merciless crusade against him from xenophobic sources of filth like Breitbart.
There is even stench related to “non-controversial” Elaine Chao, confirmed as transportation secretary (and conveniently married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch “I blocked Merrick Garland from getting a hearing” McConnell). Chao is receiving a “golden parachute” from Wells Fargo https://www.wellsfargo.com/about/corporate/governance/chao/+&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us">for five years of “service” helping direct the corrupt bank. The hypocrisy here is that Senate Republicans have been very harsh on Wells Fargo’s rampant misconduct, which is spiraling out of control on several fronts right now.
President Trump Organization: Recall this Cabinet is supposed to head up the team of people charged not only with implementing our laws, but reining in a president with unprecedented conflicts of interest. Indeed, compiling Trump’s conflicts is nearly impossible, given the series of shadowy “shell companies” he operates and his unwillingness to tell the world if he is still a hedge fund investor, let alone release his tax returns.
Competence Is Optional: Although former Texas Gov. Rick Perry famously couldn’t recall the Department of Energy as the third agency he wanted to eliminate during a campaign debate, he is set to be confirmed to lead the department. Did I mention he accepted the position not understanding its primary mission (keeping secure the country’s nuclear energy apparatus)?
And Housing and Urban Development Secretary nominee Ben Carson is set to be confirmed to a position for which his close confidante Armstrong Williams has admitted he lacks qualifications. Williams told CNN in November, after Carson declined Trump’s invitation to head the health department, that Carson has “never run an agency and that’s a lot to ask” since he’s “a neophyte and [management is] not his strength.”
Democratic Spine Is Growing: Democrats came back to Washington, D.C., in January thinking more was normal than not … and they ended the month mostly aware that nothing was in the same solar system as normal. What changed? Not Trump—he’s remained Trump. But the Women’s March, the airport protests, the bird-dogging of even the most progressive of senators has sent a clear message to Senate Democrats that a fighting spirit was not just preferred but demanded by their constituents.
And from machinations within the Senate Finance Committee to steadfast opposition to an anti-civil rights attorney general nominee, Senate Democrats who entered January like lambs have begun February like lions.
Beware Politicians Seeking to Con Voters: The news broke mid-day Wednesday: After providing the decisive votes to send Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to the full Senate, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would oppose her nomination.
As the first Republican senators to announce opposition to a Trump nominee, this seemed like big news. And it was—despite the Trump team’s lack of credentials, integrity, or vetting, breaking down unanimous Republican support underscores the growing energy of team decency’s activists.
And yet journalist David Dayen warned on Twitter that after years of following Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), he was wary of taking Collins and Murkowski’s opposition to DeVos seriously. And sure enough, Politico soon reported that “Republicans said privately that Collins and Murkowski waited to announce their opposition once the rest of the votes for DeVos were locked up. They said that the rest of the GOP is firmly behind DeVos.”
The lesson? Voter pressure matters, and it needs to be maintained until politicians bend to their will in meaningful ways. The half-measure of Collins and Murkowski ought to embolden their constituents to keep up their pressure until Collins and Murkowski break meaningfully with Trump’s unvetted Cabinet.
Beware False Equivalencies: President Obama’s transition was far from perfect. Far too many protégés of former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin secured plum positions in a transition run in no small part from the offices of (genuinely!) failing Citigroup.
Nonetheless, the Obama transition operated seriously and hand in glove with the FBI for background checks and the Office of Government Ethics.
And it basically worked—under serious scrutiny there were some hiccups, like Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle, and those hiccups were taken seriously. Despite being a well-liked former Senate Majority Leader, Daschle’s Cabinet nomination was withdrawn for a scandal not as far-reaching as what has been proven, for example, about Steve Mnuchin.
Because the Obama administration both took vetting seriously and was willing to admit mistakes, whatever view one takes on issues of substance, over eight years their government was essentially free of genuine scandals or incidents of large-scale incompetence.
That’s not happening now. Trump has only put forth a few dozen names to the Senate and yet a half-dozen or more already have greater red flags than the most troubling Obama nominees in two terms.
The irony that Trump’s transition process frequently bypassed FBI background checks before choosing nominees, after excessive and needlessly public FBI scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s emails, should be lost on no one. Trump’s unvetted Cabinet is a catastrophe in the making, and Senate Republican acquiescence to his rush to approve a motley crew of the corrupt and unqualified is a permanent stain on their record.
Americans deserve better.
Jeff Hauser runs the Revolving Door Project, an effort to increase scrutiny on executive branch appointments and ensure that political appointees are focused on serving the public interest, rather than personal professional advancement.