Trump confirmations day two: What to watch

Trump confirmations day two: What to watch
© Getty Images

Republicans have lightened the Senate’s confirmation hearing workload, but members will continue dissecting a handful of Trump administration nominees on Wednesday. 

Former ExxonMobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson visits the Foreign Relations Committee for what’s likely to be a rowdy fight over the secretary of State nominee’s ties to Russia. 


Senators on the Judiciary Committee will resume deliberations on Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos Garland strikes down Trump-era asylum decisions MORE’s (R-Ala.) nomination to be attorney general, and they’ll hear historic testimony against Sessions from one of their own. 

At a third hearing, another Trump nominee, would-be Transportation secretary Elaine Chao, is set to get a much friendlier reception when she goes before senators on Wednesday morning. 

Here’s what to watch for during Wednesday’s confirmation hearings: 

Tillerson's topic du jour: Russia

The Foreign Relations Committee’s meeting with Tillerson is likely to be dominated by Russia, as members of both parties probe the nominee’s ties to the country following his career at oil giant Exxon. 

Tillerson is close with Russian business and government officials who have increasingly come under the spotlight amid revelations that Russia hacked Democratic groups during election season. 

Tillerson’s ties often have had political implications: He received Russia’s Order of Friendship Award from Vladimir Putin in 2013, and he opposed sanctions against the country following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. 

Democrats will make sure he answers for that, but they’re not the only ones concerned about Tillerson’s Russia views. Key Republican Russia hawks, including Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham quips key to working with Trump: We both 'like him' Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (S.C.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (Fla.), have taken cautious early positions on Tillerson, meaning the stakes are especially high when questioning turns to the U.S.’s relationship with Moscow.

Conflict of interest and climate change

A series of news stories about Exxon’s international work under Tillerson — including controversial operations on Iraq and Iran — will likely come up during the hearing, and he’s certain to face questions about the impact of Trump administration policies on his former company. 

Democrats have long raised conflict of interest concerns about several Trump nominees, with Tillerson among the top targets.

Democrats are also prepping questions about Tillerson’s views on climate change. Exxon acknowledged the phenomenon under his leadership, but that position is out of step with Trump, who doubts the science behind man-made global warming. 

Tillerson’s approach to climate change will have major implications for international work on the matter, an issue spearheaded by President Obama and close to the hearts of most Senate Democrats.

Booker to take on Sessions

Sessions himself isn’t scheduled to testify Wednesday on his nomination to be attorney general.  

But fireworks are certain when the Judiciary Committee meets again to consider his nomination.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) will testify against Sessions on Wednesday, and he promises to highlight “deeply troubling” aspects of the Alabama senator’s record, including his positions on race and federal protections for minorities, and his opposition to criminal justice reform proposals.

Booker will be the first senator to testify against a cabinet nomination of a fellow member, a historic step that he said on Monday he does not take lightly.

“Sen. Sessions’s decades-long record is concerning in a number of ways,” Booker said in a statement. “The attorney general is responsible for ensuring the fair administration of justice, and based on his record, I lack confidence that Sen. Sessions can honor this duty.”

Sessions defended his record on race on Tuesday, calling concerns about him a “caricature” and insisting, “I do not harbor those kinds of animosities and race-based ideas I was accused of.”

Less stress for Chao

Compared to Sessions and Tillerson, Trump’s Transportation nominee, Elaine Chao, likely won’t break a sweat at her Wednesday hearing. 

In the Transportation Committee, Chao will face a friendlier audience, even among Democrats. A former cabinet official under George W. Bush and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham quips key to working with Trump: We both 'like him' The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Democrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl MORE (R-Ky.), Chao is a known quantity among members, and even some Democrats have been supportive of her nomination.

Even so, there are big issues on the table. Wednesday’s hearing will give senators the chance to probe one of Trump’s biggest campaign promises: an effort to rebuild the country’s infrastructure worth up to $1 trillion.

Chao may have to discuss how to pay for such a proposal. Trump wants to rely on private financing versus direct federal funding, something that has rankled Democrats. 

In her nomination questionnaire, Chao committed to enforcing federal safety regulations, expediting the process for infrastructure projects and ensuring equal access to transportation in rural and urban areas, all key concerns for Democrats and fertile ground for questions.

Labor groups have raised some concerns about Chao’s time running Bush’s Labor Department. But Democrats have mostly held their fire on her nomination. 

“Though I remain concerned about several actions she took as secretary of Labor that hurt working families across our nation, Secretary Chao and I had a good conversation this morning about the importance of investing in our nation's infrastructure and creating good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said on Monday. 

Waiting for Thursday

Republicans have tweaked this week’s confirmation calendar several times, yielding to Democrats who complained that the GOP is moving too fast on a complicated confirmation process and that members don’t have enough information on several nominees. 

Wednesday was originally slated to feature five hearings, not just for Tillerson, Sessions and Chao. But the rest of the week is still set to be a busy one.

Rep. Mike Pompeo’s (R-Kan.) selection to head the CIA will go before senators on Thursday, as will Trump’s nominees to lead the Departments of Defense (Gen. James Mattis) and Housing and Urban Development (Ben Carson). Tillerson might be called back to Foreign Relations as well. 

Betsy DeVos was expected to testify on her Education secretary nomination on Wednesday, but she’ll appear next week instead. Andy Puzder, nominated by Trump to be Labor secretary, was initially scheduled to testify on Jan. 17, but he will now go before Congress in February.

— Melanie Zanona contributed.