WASHINGTON ― The possibility of someone lying to Congress used to be frowned upon by Republicans. How can anyone forget the chairmen of two committees referring perjury charges against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the FBI over her clashing email explanations?
But that was before Donald Trump won the presidency, and before the alt-fact era.
Now two of Trump’s nominees who arguably lied to Congress are not facing perjury referrals but are on the verge of being confirmed to lead the nation’s departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services.
To recap: Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin told senators in his confirmation hearing that his bank, OneWest, did not use robo-signing, let alone use it to foreclose on massive numbers of mortgages. That was not true. The bank robo-signed hundreds and hundreds of foreclosures, including wrongful cases that were eventually reversed in court, The Columbus Dispatch reported. The bank’s robo-signing was widely reported and the subject of court actions and depositions. Even years after signing a consent decree with federal regulators, there appear to have been continued problems, according to a memo leaked from the California attorney general’s office.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who invested in companies that stood to benefit from his legislation, told senators on two committees considering his HHS nomination that he did not get any sweetheart deals when he invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in the Australian firm Innate Immunotherapeutics. Asked if he got a lower rate than what was available to the public, he told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) the rates “were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.” He told Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), “It was the same price that everybody paid for the private placement offering.” Both statements are not true, The Wall Street Journal reported, noting that Price got a discount that was available to only 16 people in the United States.
He also appears to have at least elided his ability to buy and sell his own stocks when he said all but the Innate shares were bought and sold by independent financial advisers.
It’s not that there is no outrage over the statements. Democrats have hollered plenty. The minority members of the Senate Finance Committee boycotted votes for Mnuchin and Price on Tuesday. That delayed them one day, until committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) took a step that he called unprecedented and suspended the rules to advance the pair of nominees with no Democrats in attendance.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hatch was especially dismissive of the worries over the nominees’ truthfulness. He called the case against Price “bush-league crap” and massively understated the money involved, saying it was a few hundred dollars.
“I don’t even know if it was true,” he said, suggesting he thought it was such a transparently political charge by Democrats that he did not evaluate it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) launched the final approval process for Mnuchin and Price on Thursday, with Hatch’s hearty approval.
“I’d like to move on them. They’re really good people,” Hatch said. “These picayune things [Democrats are] trying to show to try and prove that they lied — give me a break.”
Representatives of Price and Mnuchin have elaborate explanations for how neither lied to Congress.
“If it’s Sunday, it means it’s either time for football or a completely bogus and untruthful story about Steven Mnuchin, and last Sunday was no exception,” said Barney Keller, with the firm Jamestown Associates, which represented the Trump campaign. He was referring to the Columbus Dispatch article.
He pointed to many court cases in which the affidavits of the robo-signer singled out by other courts and the Dispatch were found to be valid. “The media is picking on a hard-working bank employee whose reputation has been maligned but whose work has been upheld by numerous courts all around the country in the face of scurrilous and false allegations,” Keller said. “It’s sad, but not surprising. Steven is looking forward to getting to work on behalf of the taxpayers.”
He did not explain why OneWest’s practice of not reading foreclosure documents and having them signed in 30 seconds was not the very definition of robo-signing.
In Price’s case, a senior communications adviser provided a statement that downplayed all the old and new reporting on Price’s investing as old news.
“Dr. Price’s participation in a private placement arrangement has already been heavily covered in the media and in his confirmation hearings,” the statement said. “This latest reporting is trying to connect the dots when they don’t exist. Private placements are commonplace, and when Dr. Price was questioned specifically about his participation in one he stated accurately that he paid the same price as everyone else.”
To be clear, the “same price” claim would be true only if “everyone else” is defined as the 16 people who were offered the discounted price that Price got.
The arguments of the two nominees may not be especially convincing, but it would probably make it hard to prosecute them. Lying to Congress is a felony, but even in a case where Congress is determined to exact punishment, such as they were with Clinton, it is unlikely to succeed. A 2007 study by Quinnipiac University found just six such successful prosecutions in six decades.
What that leaves as a remedy for truth-challenged nominees who want to take charge of two vital departments is the moral outrage of senators.
Democrats have it, and they hope it’s catching for Republicans.
“The light shines brightly on them, and it will shine more brightly. I can’t imagine that Republicans will want to vote for two people that lied about something so important,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “One lied about taking advantage of his position as a congressman when buying health care stocks. The other lied about the foreclosure he did on hundreds of Ohioans and perhaps tens of thousands of Americans.”
McConnell showed no signs, however, that he would relent when he was asked earlier in the week what the Senate’s response should be. He cast the complaints about the untrue statements as purely political.
“My answer to that is if it wasn’t that, it’d be something else,” McConnell told reporters. “You all are alert. You’re alert, and you know what’s going on. They’re manufacturing issues on a daily basis to drag this process out and to treat this president’s initial Cabinet appointments differently.”
Asked if he was concerned about the actual statements, McConnell said the committee chairmen “are handling this in an appropriate way, in a way very similar to the way committee chairmen handled nominees in the past.”
Hatch’s handling amounted to suspending the committee rules for the first time in anyone’s memory.
Brown thought the Senate could do better.
“Lying to a committee and lying to the American public about something you did and made a lot of money off doing it ― should be a little higher standard for being in the Cabinet, I would think.”
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.