As Senate Republicans embark on a flurry of confirmation hearings this week, several of President-elect Donald Trump’s appointees have yet to complete the background checks and ethics clearances customarily required before the Senate begins to consider Cabinet-level nominees.
Republicans, who are expected to hold up to five hearings on Wednesday alone, say they simply want to ensure the new president has a team in place as soon as possible. “I believe all the president-elect’s Cabinet appointments will be confirmed,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said.
But Democrats are calling for the process to be slowed and for the hearings to be spread out. That, they say, would allow more time to vet the nominees. “Our first overarching focus is getting tax returns and ethics forms,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
In a letter to Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub Jr., said Friday that “the announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me.”
He said the packed schedule had put “undue pressure” on the office to rush its reviews of the nominees and he knew of no other occasion in the office’s four decades when the Senate had held a confirmation hearing before the review was completed.
Schumer responded Saturday by saying that the letter had made clear that the Trump transition team colluded with Senate Republicans to “jam through” the nominees. Several of the nominees are millionaires or billionaires and have vast webs of financial interests that must be untangled.
The Trump transition team issued a statement Saturday evening defending its handling of the nomination process.
Richard W. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who served as chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, said he thought none of the nominees could receive a full vote on the Senate floor before the vetting was complete. Norman Eisen, Obama’s ethics counsel in his first term, said the paperwork delays were “totally unheard-of.”
The status of the background checks and ethical clearances can change by the day. Republicans say they expect the missing documents to be submitted for all the nominees eventually.
The hearings are scheduled to begin Tuesday, with testimony from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the nominee for attorney general, and Gen. John F. Kelly, the pick for homeland security secretary. On Wednesday, the parade of nominees is expected to include Rex W. Tillerson, the choice for secretary of state; Betsy DeVos, the pick for education secretary; and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., the nominee to lead the CIA.
Later in the week, the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, chosen as commerce secretary, and Andrew Puzder, the labor secretary pick, are scheduled to come before congressional panels.
While some of Trump’s nominees — notably Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the choice for health secretary and an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act — are certain to receive hostile receptions, large numbers of Democrats will probably vote for many others.
Still, Democrats are preparing a furious assault against the nominees by going after the president-elect himself and trying to drive a wedge between them over his most incendiary promises, such as banning Muslim immigrants and bringing back torture.
“Where will they come down?” Schumer, the new Democratic leader, asked in an interview. “Will they try to persuade the president that’s the wrong way to take America?”
Sessions is certain to be asked whether he, as attorney general, would make good on Trump’s pledges to get a special counsel to “jail” Hillary Clinton over her email server.
Kelly can expect questions about whether he favors Trump’s call to build a wall on the Mexican border and to create a database on Muslims.
Pompeo is likely to be asked about his views on Trump’s support for waterboarding and his skepticism about the intelligence agencies’ findings on Russian election meddling.
Tillerson will probably face a grilling over Trump’s vow to “cancel” the Paris climate accord.
Tillerson has spent hours trying to quietly assure lawmakers that he would take a more distant stance than Trump on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, with whom Tillerson had close relations as the head of Exxon Mobil.
The Trump transition team, which did not comment on the background checks, is bracing its nominees for questions about the president-elect’s more controversial positions, according to people with knowledge of the preparations. But officials would not say what tack the nominees would take in responding.
“I have no doubt that the president-elect and a number of his comments will come up,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokeswoman for Sessions’ confirmation team. “But Sen. Sessions has a long record of service himself.”
Democrats intend to use all the procedural moves available to slow the process on the Senate floor, possibly spending up to 30 hours a nominee, denying Trump a full Cabinet when he takes office.
Republicans are indignant. “Holding up confirmations just for delay’s sake is irresponsible and it is dangerous,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. He added, “This is a dangerous world we are living in, and why in the world would we want to make it even more dangerous just to let our colleagues delay for delay’s sake President-elect Trump getting to fill his Cabinet, particularly these important national security offices?”