Ethics office accuses GOP of rushing Trump Cabinet confirmations
The director of the federal Office of Government Ethics on Saturday accused Senate Republicans of rushing confirmations for nominees in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
In a letter to leading Senate Democrats, Walter Shaub, Jr., the ethics office director, said the busy hearing schedule had overwhelmed his office. He said it had not completed ethics screening reviews on several nominees, which he described as a concern.
“As OGE’s director, the announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” Shaub wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews.”
Shaub’s letter to the senators comes just days before the Senate is set to hold a flurry of confirmation hearings beginning on Tuesday. In the letter, Shaub said that the schedule could leave some nominees with “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues,” though he did not mention any names.
“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,” said Shaub, who was appointed by President Obama to his position in 2013.
Trump’s transition team swung back at the office on Saturday, accusing officials of “politicizing” the confirmation process.
“President-elect Trump is putting together the most qualified administration in history and the transition process is currently running smoothly,” the transition team said in a statement reported by CBS News.
“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 the country. This is a disservice to our country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president.”
The Senate is set to hold hearings for seven of Trump’s Cabinet appointees, including some of the president-elect’s most controversial picks, such as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Trump tapped for secretary of State, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general.
Shortly after the letter was released Saturday, Schumer accused Senate Republicans of trying to “jam through” nominees before the vetting process was complete.
“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,” Schumer said in a statement.
“The Senate and the American people deserve to know that these Cabinet nominees have a plan to avoid any conflicts of interest, that they’re working on behalf of the American people and not their own bottom line, and that they plan to fully comply with the law. Senate Republicans should heed the advice of this independent office and stop trying to jam through unvetted nominees,” he added.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Saturday called for GOP lawmakers to delay the hearings, suggesting that the reason for the rapid succession of hearings is a strategy to hide potential ethics violations.
“It is unprecedented and deeply worrisome to hold confirmation hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees before basic ethics reviews are completed,” DNC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
“These rushed hearings must be delayed until the ethics reviews are finished, and if Trump and the GOP-led Senate fail to do so, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that they are concerned about what will be exposed.”
Warren also took to Twitter to accuse Senate Republicans of trying to “run out the clock” on ethics paperwork, joining the call to hold off on hearings.
This is ridiculous. @realDonaldTrump’s noms can’t drag their feet on ethics paperwork while their Senate friends try to run out the clock.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 7, 2017
Cabinet officials must put our country’s interests before their own. No conf hearings should be held until we’re certain that’s the case.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 7, 2017
Under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation must file financial and employment disclosures with the OGE, a process that Shaub said “is measured in weeks, not days.”
“This normally intensive process has been complicated by both the Senate hearing schedule and the announcement of nominees prior to consulting OGE for an evaluation of any ethics issues,” Shaub said in the letter. “In the past, the ethics work was fully completed prior to the announcement of nominees in the overwhelming majority of cases.”
Nominees under Senate consideration are required to file employment and financial disclosures under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, a process that Shaub said takes “weeks, not months.”
Four appointees have not yet filed disclosures with OGE, according to a Democratic Senate aide: Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson, Education secretary pick Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security nominee Michael Kelly and Commerce secretary pick Wilbur Ross.
Kelly is scheduled to go before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, while DeVos is slated to have her confirmation hearing Wednesday and hearings for Carson and Ross are expected to occur Thursday.
Senate Democrats have also indicated that they would seek to delay DeVos’ confirmation amid concerns of the billionaire’s financial entanglements. And while DeVos submitted her disclosures to the OGE last month, she is still in the process of completing the screening process, Politico reported Friday.
“We have received all of the HELP committee paperwork that is required to have a hearing on Mrs. DeVos. Our committee precedent is that we require the OGE paperwork to be submitted before the committee holds a vote on the nominee, not before the committee holds a hearing on the nominee,” a GOP Senate aide told The Hill.
The upcoming whirlwind of hearings isn’t the first time the Senate has pushed for such quick confirmations. In 2009, the Democratically controlled Senate confirmed seven of President Obama’s Cabinet picks in a single day. But a planned vote on Hillary Clinton’s nomination for secretary of State was put on hold after Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called for more financial information on the Clinton Foundation.
— Tamara Keith (@tamarakeithNPR) January 7, 2017
Updated: 5:40 p.m.