Democrats plan to put Trump on trial through his nominees
They're threatening to make life painful for the GOP if they move too fast on confirmations
Senate Democrats are unveiling their strategy in fighting President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to his Cabinet, even as they have little hope of blocking any of them: Show us your papers.
Democrats are maneuvering to claim the interests of the American people on their side, with a rallying cry of transparency. They’re decrying a combination of quick hearings – several key nominees will testify next week – with what they say is a slow pace of nominees returning standard paperwork for vetting.
They want to put Trump on trial through his nominees, using the billionaires he’s nominated to his Cabinet to call attention to conflicts of interest, and using conservative nominees to show how Trump has reversed course from previous campaign promises, according to aides and senators.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats want at least two days to review each nominee, full paperwork, tax returns for many of the nominees with complex financial records, and hearings spread out so members can attend as many as they want.
“There are a lot of questions about these nominees,” Schumer said. “And I would like to succeed in negotiating something but we get full and fair hearings. … There are so many issues about so many of them that to rush them through would be a disservice to the American people.”
With a majority in the Senate, Republicans have a strong chance of confirming virtually all of Trump’s nominees and are able to set the schedule and pace for the confirmation process. Several key nominees are set to testify next week, including Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and James Mattis as secretary of defense.
One senior Democratic leadership aide maintained that stacking up the hearings and nominees is “exactly the kind of thing that can cause trouble” for the GOP with Democrats.
Democrats are already getting backup from the progressive base. On Wednesday a progressive group launched an advertising blitz on television stations targeting vulnerable Republican senators to vote against Trump’s nominee to run the Treasury Department, Steven Mnuchin. And more than 1,000 law school professors from across the country wrote a letter to the Judiciary Committee opposing Sessions, raising money to place the letter as a newspaper ad in senators’ hometown newspapers. As of Wednesday evening, the effort had raised more than $15,000.
Republicans say that they are following precedent in moving quickly on the President-elect’s nominees. Several of President Barack Obama’s nominees were confirmed in a voice vote on Inauguration Day and most of the rest of them soon followed, noted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart.
“When President Obama was elected, Republicans and Democrats worked together and expeditiously to carefully consider his nominees,” Stewart said. “Sen. Schumer and others approved wholeheartedly of this approach at the time, so surely they won’t object to treating the incoming president’s nominees with the same courtesy and seriousness with which the Senate acted on President Obama’s nominees.”
McConnell told reporters on Wednesday that he hoped national security positions could move quickly.
But Democrats say speed wasn’t a problem for the Obama nominees because his team provided adequate background on nominees, while Trump’s camp has not.
“We are only expecting from the Trump nominees what the Obama nominees provided,” said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is the top Democrat on the committee that will confirm Trump’s homeland security and budget picks. “All the Obama confirmations that occurred in the early weeks of the Obama administration, all of those things had been done. Only one nominee right now has that done, only one.”
Democratic lawmakers repeatedly cited conflict of interest forms from the Office of Government Ethics, financial disclosures and background checks from the FBI that are mandatory for nominees.
“As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Facts are stubborn things,’ and ultimately I think if there is enough outcry and uproar about qualifications, that will have an effect,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said.
Democrats don’t have much say in when hearings are scheduled, but they can respond to a rushed hearing process by dragging out votes. Using procedural measures, Democrats could force each confirmation vote on the floor of the Senate to take up to a week, by insisting on cloture votes and full debate time for each nominee. That would string the confirmation process out over months and prevent any other legislation from getting done in the meantime.
Republicans have in turn suggested they could make life just as painful for Democrats if they choose to stall, including holding votes in the middle of the night or early morning hours if that’s when procedural time runs out, according to Politico.
Democrats aren’t backing off their demands, saying if the stall tactics come into play, Republicans will “own it,” per No. 3 Senate Democrat Patty Murray.
“If the Republicans can’t come to a reasonable agreement and throw their first month or two into total chaos, it’s on their back. We’re willing to be reasonable,” Schumer told CNN Wednesday. “We have a good deal of leverage. We hope we don’t have to use it, but we have a good deal of leverage.”
At least one Democrat up for re-election in 2018 in a state carried by Trump this November, McCaskill, said she wasn’t concerned about being labeled an obstructionist in opposing nominees.
“That didn’t seem to be a problem for (Sens.) Pat Toomey or Rob Portman – and my recollection is they engaged in a whole lot of obstructionism,” McCaskill said of two Republicans re-elected in battleground states this November. “I’m not going to be an obstructionist, but I’m going to do my job.”
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.