WASHINGTON ― Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks are set to begin just hours from now. But four of the nine Trump nominees scheduled for hearings this week still haven’t disclosed key financial information to the Office of Government Ethics, which is charged with making sure they don’t break federal ethics laws.
Of the four nominees who had not submitted their ethics paperwork as of Monday afternoon, two of them ― Commerce Secretary-designate Wilbur Ross and Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos ― are billionaires who have never worked in government.
“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub wrote in a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Saturday. It would “be cause for alarm,” Shaub added, “if the Senate were to go forward with hearings on nominees whose reports OGE has not certified.”
The other two nominees who haven’t yet submitted financial disclosures are former Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, picked to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, chosen to head the Department of Homeland Security. Neither man is nearly as wealthy as Ross or DeVos.
Until 2015, Kelly received a salary from the U.S. Marine Corps and was effectively prohibited from drawing income from the private sector. Carson already submitted detailed financial disclosure forms to the Federal Election Commission as part of his presidential campaign. They reveal that Carson’s wealth is derived largely from speaking fees and book sales.
The Trump nominees’ failure to fully comply with the normal procedure for ethics vetting prior to their confirmation hearings is raising alarm bells for the OGE and independent ethicists. Federal law requires presidential nominees to divest holdings that may conflict with their official duties. The OGE works with presidential transition teams to ensure that the incoming nominees avoid potential violations of criminal conflict-of-interest laws. This process “stops potential conflicts from becoming actual conflicts,” the agency tweeted on Thursday.
“It’s enormously concerning that these nominees haven’t submitted their financial disclosures,” said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “OGE has traditionally viewed itself as a resource for nominees, working with them to resolve issues. It’s not supposed to be an adversary.”
Norm Eisen, former White House ethics lawyer to President Barack Obama, and Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush, called for the hearings to be postponed until the committees are given proper time to review the nominees’ ethics disclosures.
“This is not the way it’s supposed to be done and they know it,” Painter said. “When I was in George W. Bush’s White House, you didn’t send anybody up to the Senate unless you had a complete OGE form and they were approved by OGE.”
When Obama took office, Senate Republicans could threaten the filibuster to demand his nominees disclose information ahead of confirmation hearings and floor votes.
But in response to Republicans’ extreme use of the filibuster to prevent Obama from staffing his administration, Senate Democrats in 2013 moved to eliminate it for executive branch nominees. Now that Democrats are no longer in control of the Senate, they don’t have any procedural means to prevent those nominees from being confirmed.
“It will be very difficult for us to stop any of these nominations,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said Monday on CNN.
The task of vetting the nominees falls then to Republicans, who could step forward to call for a delay in confirmation hearings until ethics disclosures have been filed. But this scenario seems very unlikely.
“It’s less about the filibuster and more about the Republican Party having lost the ability to make any kind of decision that isn’t a political decision,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director for the progressive group Demand Progress, which is calling for a delay in the hearings until ethics forms are filed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is emblematic of this problem. On Sunday, he dismissed calls for the nominees to submit all relevant paperwork before their confirmation hearings as “little procedural complaints.” He further told Senate Democrats to “grow up and get past” their concerns about ethics and conflicts of interest.
McConnell’s cavalier attitude toward the ethics process belies the fact that it is Republicans who have the most to lose. “It’s not in anybody’s interest to confirm a presidential nominee and then have them resign because they violated [the law banning conflicts of interest],” Fischer said.
McConnell’s current position is also the opposite of the stance he took in 2009 when Obama was newly elected. In a Feb. 12, 2009, letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), McConnell called for all relevant financial documents and committee questionnaires to be disclosed to senators before hearings began or committees voted.
“These common sense standards and long standing practices will ensure that the Senate has had the opportunity to fairly review a nominee’s record and to make an informed decision prior to a vote,” McConnell wrote.
Now Schumer, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, is hoping McConnell will hold Trump’s nominees to the same standard. “Our requests are eminently reasonable, shared by leaders of both parties,” Schumer tweeted on Monday. “I’ll return this letter to [McConnell] with the same requests.”
UPDATE: 6:20 p.m. ― Retired Gen. John Kelly reportedly turned in the required disclosures Monday night, less than 24 hours before his hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
UPDATE: 6:54 p.m. ― A Trump transition official said late Monday that nominees whose hearings are this week have turned in their paperwork.
The official also issued a statement from the transition, “President-elect Trump is putting together the most qualified administration in history and the transition process is currently running smoothly. 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 our country. This is a disservice to the country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president.”
UPDATE: 9:45 p.m. ― An aide to Ben Carson said Carson’s paperwork has been submitted.
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