Something's missing: Senate confirmation hearings will proceed without nominee background checks

Customary clearances and ethics evaluations bypassed for some appointees; Democrats prepare to filibuster nominees

By Alli Joseph
Published January 8, 2017 7:45AM (EST)
FILE - Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., calls for halt to confirmation hearings until cabinet nominees pass standard ethics and background checks. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (AP)
FILE - Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., calls for halt to confirmation hearings until cabinet nominees pass standard ethics and background checks. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (AP)

According to the New York Times, Senate Republicans will begin a long series of confirmation hearings this week without actually completing background checks and ethics clearances of some cabinet nominees.

In a clear case of rushing to put Trump's team in place, more than five appointees are expected to be pushed into position starting on Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are preparing to stand in the way of any appointment they can, citing no historical precedents for such rule-breaking. Richard W. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who served as chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, told the New York Times he thought that "none of the nominees could receive a full vote on the Senate floor before the vetting was complete." Further, the Times quoted Norman Eisen, President Obama’s first-term ethics counsel, as stating that proceeding without proper documentation was “totally unheard-of.”

On Saturday afternoon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressed frustration with the hasty work-around, and called for the Senate to postpone confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet picks until after ethnics screenings were completed - as in past administrations.

"Cabinet officials must put our country's interests before their own. No [confirmation] hearings should be held until we’re certain that’s the case," the Massachusetts Democrat tweeted.

After reading a letter of concern from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) addressed to Warren and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, the agency that oversees ethics reviews of Cabinet nominees, Warren further tweeted,

"This is ridiculous. @realDonaldTrump's noms can’t drag their feet on ethics paperwork while their Senate friends try to run out the clock."

Sen. Chuck Schumer responded to the letter in a similar fashion to Warren, issuing a statement on Saturday.

“The Office of Government Ethics letter makes crystal-clear that the transition team’s collusion with Senate Republicans to jam through these Cabinet nominees before they’ve been thoroughly vetted is unprecedented,” he wrote.

A portion of the letter from OGE Director Walter Shaub reads, "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."

The Trump transition team in turn issued a statement on Saturday evening, asserting that "the transition process is currently running smoothly."

It continued, "In the midst of a historic election where Americans voted to drain the swamp, it is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country." Republicans appear to have a "don't worry, be happy" attitude about the missing documents, which they say would be submitted "eventually".

Starting with Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama on Tuesday for attorney general, other Tuesday nominations will include Gen. John F. Kelly for homeland security secretary. Wednesday's nominations are Rex W. Tillerson for secretary of state; Betsy DeVos for education secretary; and Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, who is expected to run the C.I.A.

Democrats have told press they may or may not filibuster, but do still intend to use any and all procedural moves they can - such as extending questioning of each nominee to 30 hours of time - in order to prevent all the confirmations from occurring before the inauguration.

Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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Confirmation Hearings Republicans Sen. Elizabeth Warren Senate