Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has come under fire after signaling a fight over President-elect Joe Biden's likely nominees' past comments and business ties. Cornyn's critics suggest he has spent the last four years defending President Trump and his appointees over even bigger ethics scandals.
Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, repeatedly criticized Democrats for delaying confirmation proceedings for Trump's nominees in 2017. Even as Trump attempts to contest the results of the 2020 election, Cornyn has already pushed back on Biden's Cabinet and White House selections.
The majority whip slammed Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and Biden's pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, as perhaps the "worst nominee so far" over her "combative and insulting comments." Spokesman Drew Brandewie went further, declaring on Twitter that Tanden "stands zero chance of being confirmed" over her "endless stream of disparaging comments about Republican Senators." These comments quickly drew charges of hypocrisy. Cornyn has personally attacked numerous Democrats and spent years defending, downplaying and dismissing Trump's Twitter invective, itself occasionally aimed at Republicans.
Cornyn has also raised questions over Biden aides' ties to consulting and investment firms and their undisclosed clients, tweeting that the "Senate is not obligated to confirm anyone who hides this information."
"We have simply no idea what kind of business or financial relationships these individuals have with foreign powers that can influence their actions as high-ranking government officials," he said on the Senate floor.
The comments were in significant contrast to Cornyn's complaints that Democrats hurt government readiness by slow-walking Trump's conflict-plagued nominees despite numerous ethics questions.
"After years of fighting tooth and nail against any transparency and scrutiny measures surrounding President Trump's Cabinet nominees, Cornyn's recent threats and newfound focus on the Senate's role in scrutinizing nominees doesn't pass the smell test," Mairead Lynn, a spokesperson for the progressive government watchdog Accountable.US and its "Senate War Room," said in a statement to Salon. "This is an obvious partisan stunt in an attempt to delay and deny President-elect Biden a functional government that is ready on day one to start cleaning up Trump's disastrous pandemic response and rebuilding our economy in a way that puts workers and families ahead of corporate donors and special interest allies."
Strikingly, Lynn's comments seem to echo Cornyn's complaints during the confirmation battles over Trump nominees like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which the group detailed in a new report.
The report listed a dozen statements Cornyn released in early 2017 hammering Democrats for "stalling" Trump's nominees, "undermining" the transition of power and "obstructing" the federal government's work.
But many of Trump's nominations were delayed because of ethics concerns raised inside the White House.
The Trump transition team effectively ignored then-White House ethics chief Walter Shaub, a holdover from the Obama administration, when he warned that various nominees could face confirmation problems.
"I am not sure whether you are aware that announcing the cabinet without first coordinating with OGE is unprecedented and creates unnecessary risk for both the President-elect and the prospective nominees," Shaub wrote in a letter to Trump's transition team. "[M]y goal here is to protect the President-elect, the prospective nominees and the executive branch ethics program by preventing real and apparent ethics issues."
The New York Times later reported ahead of Trump's inauguration that he had assembled "the wealthiest Cabinet in modern American history, filled with millionaires and billionaires with complicated financial portfolios" but that the confirmation process had fallen "behind where it should be in ... disentangling conflicts of interest," which contributed to the delays.
Cornyn dismissed potential ethics concerns over DeVos' nomination, criticizing opposition to her selection as a "stunt" aimed at impressing the Democrats' "dysfunctional base." DeVos had reached an agreement with ethics officials to divest from 102 companies that posed potential conflicts of interest, but government watchdog groups said she had failed to provide "accurate information" about her ties to outside groups and had not disclosed her holdings in trusts where she was a co-trustee.
DeVos' "extensive financial holdings present significant — and unresolved — conflict of interest issues," warned Norm Eisen, the co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Richard Painter, the group's former vice-chairman, in a joint op-ed in 2017. "She also failed to provide the Senate with accurate information about her involvement with outside organizations. We have regretfully come to the conclusion that these concerns disqualify DeVos for that cabinet position."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, criticized Republicans for rushing DeVos' confirmation through the panel before senators had her ethics paperwork, and then rejecting follow-up hearings after the paperwork was submitted.
"She has simply not provided the Committee with the required financial disclosures," Murray said at the time, citing DeVos' "tangled finances and conflicts of interest."
Cornyn also strongly pushed back on concerns over Sessions' nomination as attorney general, arguing that holding up his confirmation was "irresponsible" and "dangerous." He also dismissed concerns raised by Democrats that they needed more time to review material Sessions submitted to the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, submitted a letter calling for additional time to review Sessions' documents after saying the records he had provided "were not complete." Among other things, Sessions failed to disclose his ownership of oil interests for more than 600 acres in Alabama as required by federal law.
Cornyn also spent years dismissing calls by Democrats for Trump to release his tax returns, arguing that presidential tax returns were "not a legitimate scope of oversight," and blocked Democratic efforts to pass a bill that would require all presidential candidates to release their tax documents.
Cornyn's office did not respond to questions from Salon about his change in tone on Cabinet appointments.
Kurt Bardella, a former Republican House Oversight Committee aide, predicted that Cornyn and fellow Republicans' attacks on Biden's early picks were "just a taste" of the obstruction he was likely to face from Senate Republicans.
"Don't let Republicans rewrite history. We can't allow them to impose a standard of decency, morality or scrutiny that they refused to hold Trump or his Cabinet to literally for years," wrote Bardella, who joined the anti-Trump Lincoln Project after leaving the GOP. "Every time a Republican senator discusses conduct unbecoming a would-be representative of Biden's presidency, Democrats need to respond with a laundry list of Trump's and his Cabinet's unethical, immoral and even dangerous actions."
But some on the left have warned that simply attacking Republicans for their hypocrisy on Trump's swampy Cabinet would backfire, given the valid questions raised about Biden nominees' ties to firms that don't disclose their clients.
"Trump was the most corrupt president ever," argued Jeff Hauser, the head of the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group focused on conflicts of interest among presidential nominees. "Nonetheless, any competent political pro knows that if Biden's team plans to rely on 'hypocrisy' as a shield, they'll fail completely."