The Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet nominees are shaping up to be a series of knock-down, drag-out fights, as the uber-wealthy, unevenly qualified picks face increasing opposition both on and off Capitol Hill.
Top Senate Democrats on Thursday demanded that each confirmation only move forward if the nominee has cleared an FBI background check; provided a complete financial disclosure; submitted an ethics agreement approved by the Office of Government Ethics; and "satisfied reasonable requests for additional information" that lawmakers have time to review.
The joint statement from 16 Democrats who will be ranking members of Senate committees next year came the same day as the New York Times reported that financial vetting for the nominees "has been unusually slow."
"Senate Democrats are concerned that their Republican colleagues will permit confirmations to proceed without the ethics safeguards that have been in place for decades," wrote reporter Jennifer Steinhauer. "If that happens, Democrats will almost certainly move to delay swift confirmations."
One nominee raising concerns in this regard is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for Secretary of State. The environmental movement has vowed to put Tillerson's climate record on trial during the confirmation process. But the millionaire's business interests could also present a stumbling block in Congress, according to the Times. "Lawmakers have already raised questions about Mr. Tillerson's seeming reluctance to turn over his personal financial information," Steinhauer reported.
Indeed, the Washington Post wrote on Wednesday that Democrats are
railing against Republicans for refusing to demand Tillerson produce his tax returns. Their frustration stems from Tillerson's response to a routine question about tax returns on the Foreign Relations Committee's pre-confirmation hearing questionnaire. According to a Senate Democratic aide and a Trump transition team spokesman, Tillerson said he stood ready to provide only "tax return information" for his wife and himself for the previous three years. That means it's possible Tillerson isn't willing to provide complete returns.
Democrats have demanded that all Trump's Cabinet nominees release their tax returns—something Trump himself steadfastly refused to do during the campaign, because, he said, the returns were under routine audit.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the GOP would not break with years of precedent to compel Tillerson to turn over his tax returns without good reason, no matter how loud the clamor from Democrats. "Unless there was a case where there’s some irregularity that's known, the committee just does not ask for tax returns," Corker said in an interview.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday he has yet to receive "three years' worth of the nominee's tax returns, which I have formally requested the Presidential Transition Team make available for review."
Cardin, who was among the Democrats issuing Thursday's joint statement, continued:
Senator Corker and I have a disagreement about the need to review the nominee's tax returns. I think it is an important part of vetting this candidate because he has never made public disclosures of this type, as he has worked at ExxonMobil for his entire career and has never been in public service. Mr. Tillerson was actively engaged with many foreign governments that could become relevant if confirmed as Secretary of State. The Senate has a responsibility to review all relevant documents during the confirmation process.
[...] Until all of these materials are received and staff has had a chance to review them, it will be difficult to lock in a nomination hearing time for the Committee to consider the nominee.
Another potentially contentious confirmation battle will be over Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump's pick for attorney general.
The Hill reported Thursday that the fight could be "explosive," with "[n]early 150 outside groups on the left mobilizing to stop Sessions." Since Trump announced his nomination, the former prosecutor's troubling record on civil rights, immigration, and LGBTQ protections has come under fire.
"People really have two choices," Rashad Robinson, executive director of online racial justice group Color of Change, told The Hill. "Either they're OK with racism or they're not. And if they're not, then they've got to stand up against Jeff Sessions."
Indeed, Scott Simpson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights described Sessions' confirmation hearings as "the first big battle to keep the country from moving backward."
That battle has also seen salvos in the halls of Congress, as Roll Call reports: "There has already been some back and forth in the Judiciary Committee, which will vet Sessions...Incoming ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said Sessions provided incomplete information, and requested the Jan. 10 and 11 hearings be delayed. Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley denied the request."
Other nominees expected to face rough confirmation hearings are Steven Mnuchin, Trump's nominee for Treasury secretary, and Education Secretary pick Betsy DeVos—though Politico noted this week that "DeVos and her husband, Dick, have donated to the campaigns of 17 senators who will consider her nomination—four of whom sit on the Senate education committee that oversees the process."