Trump enters pivotal stretch as Cabinet hearings begin

Trump enters pivotal stretch as Cabinet hearings begin
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It’s a big week for President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea can bury the trade barrier hatchet this week OPINION: Trump's right — GOP health bill is mean, mean, mean Pelosi on criticism of leadership: 'This is such a small item, it isn't about me' MORE, and likely the most consequential since his election victory in November.

Events will be coming thick and fast. Trump is set to give his first formal news conference since July on Wednesday morning; there will be a slew of confirmation hearings for his Cabinet-level nominees; and President Obama will deliver his farewell address from Chicago on Tuesday evening — an event that is likely to heighten the contrasts between the outgoing president and his successor.

Trump could settle nerves within his own Republican Party if his news conference and the confirmation hearings go well. But if things go awry, it could deepen anxieties among fellow Republicans and voters more generally.

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Asked about the importance of the news conference, Republican strategist Kevin Madden said, “I think it is a big deal for that day. I expect we’ll probably have another day's news coming out of it.” 

But, Madden added, “one of the things that really works to Trump’s advantage is that a lot of controversies tend to be washed out by a very fast-moving news cycle that sort of reinvents itself the next day. I’m sure that whatever he tweets on Thursday morning has the potential to get as much attention as anything that comes out of the news conference.”

On one hand, Trump is flying high after his election win, apparently relishing Twitter conflicts with everyone from Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerThis week: Senate races toward ObamaCare repeal vote Schumer jams to Diana Ross at New York party Warren cautions Dems against infighting MORE (D-N.Y.) to actor Meryl Streep. On the other hand, a plurality of the American public views him unfavorably, according to most polls — an unprecedented situation for a newly elected president in recent times. 

For those on the left, the sheer volume of news revolving around the Trump transition this week demands a strong and overarching response. 

“Our side will be at its weakest if we have a different answer for every crazy thing that Trump proposes and we will be at our strongest if we have one thematic answer that works across the issues, so that voters hear a unified message,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.  

Green argued that the message, encompassing everything from Trump’s nominees to his specific policies, should be that “Trump is betraying his own voters by siding with giant corporations at the expense of American workers.” 

Amid the attacks, Trump continues to do things his way, thrilling supporters who are hoping for wholesale change in the White House.

"Watching the transition so far, it is a continuation of what we saw during the campaign: the normal rules are not being followed, and he is rewriting the expectations and the rule book as he goes,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University. 

Reeher added that there were clear tensions between Republican leaders and Trump, especially on the issue of alleged Russian interference in the election.  

“Normally, we would say this is a disastrous way to start — but that doesn’t seem to be the case in this instance.”

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who writes for The Hill's Contributors blog, said it was unlikely that Trump would fundamentally change his basic mode of communication at any point. But, he added, “the question to watch is whether he will stop behaving like a candidate and start behaving like a president — that goes to things like how careful you are with language and the choice of words you use.” 

The confirmation process for Trump’s nominees gets underway in earnest on Tuesday, when Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsRussia recalling ambassador at center of Trump campaign controversy: report Justice Department developing strategies to shut down ‘sanctuary cities’: report Sally Yates slams Sessions on criminal justice reform MORE (R-Ala.) and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly begin their hearings. They are nominated to be attorney general and secretary of Homeland Security, respectively. 

The process shifts into high gear on Wednesday as the Sessions hearings continue and three other nominees begin hearings, including secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. The other two nominees slated for Wednesday are Elaine Chao, for secretary of Transportation, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), for CIA director. 

Democrats are picking their fights. Sessions has been widely criticized by civil rights groups, including the NAACP, but most observers expect him to win confirmation comfortably, in part because senators are generally loath to take a hard line against one of their own.  

Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for secretary of Education, may encounter stronger opposition from Democratic senators. On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats must end fiery rhetoric against AT&T-Time Warner merger Trump: Calling Warren Pocahontas ‘an insult to Pocahontas’ GOP vows to use Pelosi against Democrats in 2018 MORE (D-Mass.) released on open letter to DeVos asserting, “There is no precedent for an Education Department Secretary nominee with your lack of experience in public education.” DeVos's hearing had originally been scheduled to begin Wednesday, but has now been delayed until Jan. 17.

Tillerson’s will be among the most closely watched hearings this week, especially since Republican Sens. John McCainJohn McCainCongress needs to support the COINS Act GOP’s message on ObamaCare is us versus them Frustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response MORE (Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting MORE (S.C.) have expressed wariness of his perceived closeness to Russia.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO received an honor from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013 and has had extensive business dealings in that nation. However, Republican sources suggest that he has been effective at easing some of those concerns in one-on-one meetings on Capitol Hill.

On a conference call with reporters Monday morning, Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer said that the president-elect’s nominees “understand how to lead organizations to success, and I think you can see this reflected in their approach to the hearings occurring this week; they’re listening, they’re learning, they’re preparing.”

Other Republicans suggest that the “strength in numbers” element of the Trump transition team’s approach is paying dividends.

“I’ve heard it said that the transition team seems to be running a spread offense,” Madden said. “It is very up-tempo, there is a lot of activity and that has seemed to work to their advantage. They have so much attention and scrutiny being spread across so many different nominees, it is hard for opponents to concentrate their fire on any individual and effectively derail the nomination.”  

The wild card in the coming days is Obama’s farewell address in Chicago, the city where he began his political career. Few expect Obama to mount a full-frontal attack on Trump, given how strongly the incumbent has emphasized the need for a straightforward transition of power.

But the outgoing president will almost certainly mount a robust defense of his record — something that Trump might feel obligated to push back upon.

“[Obama] hasn’t been confrontational so far and I think this will be an attempt to cement his legacy,” said Green. “In terms of our strategy going forward, it has to be about contrast; about Democrats standing with backbone. President Obama has made clear he is going to yield to others in delivering that message. Senators Warren and [Bernie] Sanders will be the lead spokespeople for that.”

Still, among Republicans, there is not much discomfort over Obama’s address.

“The Obama speech is pretty meaningless,” said Mackowiak. “He’ll be trying to write the first draft of history, and it’s not up to him. It’s up to historians.” 

Lisa Hagen contributed.