Trump Cabinet Picks Must Pass These Four GOP Tests
As his Inauguration Day nears, President-elect Donald Trump is trying to assemble the wealthiest and least vetted Cabinet in modern American history. The nominees possess combined riches of $10 billion, ironically the same figure Trump claims for himself. Like the 45th President, many have not yet released their tax returns or completed reviews by the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics. That's why Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) warned his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that Democrats will not "green light" Trump's Cabinet picks if they "are holding back tax returns, critical financial information, and are behind on their ethics certification." In response, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart declared:
"Surely they won't object to treating the incoming president's nominees with the same courtesy and seriousness with which the Senate acted on President Obama's nominees. Our committees and chairmen are fully capable of reviewing the incoming Cabinet nominations with the same rules and procedures as the same committees did with President Obama's nominations."
I couldn't agree more. Here are four Republican rules for Obama nominees that Democrats should now apply with the same courtesy and seriousness to Donald Trump's would-be Cabinet. Call them the Daschle Test, the Clinton Test, the Hagel Test and the Lynch Test.
The Daschle Test. You may remember former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's vital role in securing the passage of the Affordable Care Act as President Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services. If so, your memory is faulty. On February 3, 2009, Daschle withdrew as HHS nominee after admitting he paid back taxes and interest in 2007 after "failing to report $15,000 in charitable donations, unreported car service and more than $80,000 in unreported income from consulting."
Conservatives had been quick to pounce on Daschle's $134,000 tax bill and his consulting work for companies in the health care field. South Carolina Senator Jim Demint said Obama was "losing credibility" by backing Daschle. As Mrs. Dan Senor, also known as Campbell Brown of CNN put it:
"Mr. President, your picks to help run the federal government don't have to be perfect, but is it too much to ask that they pay like everyone else, to keep that same government functioning? And more importantly, that they don't wait until everyone, including you, is watching?"
Several newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had called for Daschle to withdraw. Even the New York Times got into the act, declaring in an editorial:
"Mr. Daschle is another in a long line of politicians who move cozily between government and industry. We don't know that his industry ties would influence his judgments on health issues, but they could potentially throw a cloud over health care reform."
By the Daschle standard, Donald Trump's pick to head HHS should be in a world of trouble. After all, Georgia Rep. Tom Price, Trump's choice to dismantle Obamacare, gut Medicaid and privatize Medicare, "has spent the past four years trading more than $300,000 in shares of health-industry stocks while sponsoring legislation that would ostensibly impact the value of those shares." As New York magazine reported:
Since 2012, Price bought and sold stock in roughly 40 pharmaceutical, health-care, and biomedical companies, according to The Wall Street Journal's review of the trades he filed with Congress. During that same period, he sat on the House panel that oversees Medicare, and sponsored or co-sponsored 44 bills affecting the health-care sector.
Among Price's sketchier investments was a purchase of between $50,000 and $100,000 in the stock of Australian drug company Innate Immuno. Price's purchase came two days after his fellow House Republican Chris Collins bought between $500,000 and $1 million worth of Innate Immuno stock -- making the Trump transition member the company's largest shareholder.
In 2009, Tom Daschle's nomination was derailed over less. All of Trump's nominee must release multiple years of tax returns and provide sufficient financial disclosures to ensure they will not be swayed by conflicts of interest.
The Clinton Test. That goes double for Trump's choice as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The billionaire CEO of Exxon Mobil doesn't merely have a huge financial stake in domestic energy and foreign policies. On many occasions, his business initiatives operated at cross-purposes with U.S. policy, especially when it comes to the current sanctions regime against Russia. Despite the fact that Tillerson had no experience as a public servant, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) announced that Trump's chief diplomat would not be asked to provide his tax returns for review:
Corker, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that it has been "long-standing precedent" for the committee not to require nominees to release their taxes.
"He already has submitted a completed nominee questionnaire and will soon submit an extensive financial disclosure. Furthermore, prior to his confirmation hearing, he will go through the same ethics and FBI checks as previous Secretary of State nominees," Corker said.
But that doesn't square with the experience of President Obama's two Secretaries of State. As the Dallas Morning News recalled, Secretary John Kerry and husband of billionaire ketchup heir Theresa Heinz was "a former Massachusetts senator, had to file an annual financial disclosure report, and he released 20 years of tax returns when he ran for president in 2004." Senator Hillary Clinton, too, had released decades of her and Bill's tax returns dating back to their days in Arkansas. (By 2016, her disclosures went back 38 years.) While Clinton was easily confirmed in January 2009, Republicans then as during the 2016 presidential campaign raised concerns over the Clinton Foundation. As Senator Richard Lugar put it during her confirmation hearings:
But the Clinton Foundation exists as a temptation for any foreign entity or government that believes it could curry favor through a donation. It also sets up potential perception problems with any action taken by the secretary of state in relation to foreign givers or their countries.
The nature of the secretary of state post makes recusal from specific policy decisions almost impossible, since even localized U.S. foreign policy activities can ripple across countries and continents. Every new foreign donation that is accepted by the foundation comes with the risk it will be connected in the global media to a proximate State Department policy or decision.
Clinton, who signed a memorandum of understanding regarding disclosures of Clinton Foundation donors, was married to a man who raised millions for a global charity. But Rex Tillerson, who owns some $237 million of Exxon Mobil stock, runs a multinational firm with business operations in 80 countries. He received the Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin after inking a $500 billion oil deal in 2012. At the very least, Tillerson can provide three years of tax returns and put his holdings in a blind trust.
The Hagel Test. In 2013, President Obama nominated Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. In response, Senate Republicans erected two new hurdles. First, as John Cornyn (R-TX), the GOP's number two man in the Senate put it, "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination." The second, as Hagel's former GOP colleagues like John McCain (R-AZ), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) among others made clear, was that Barack Obama could not count on deference from Republicans towards one of their own.
Senate Republicans and their amen corner in the right-wing media painted Hagel as having been weak on Iraq, weak on Iran and "anti-Israel," even going so far as to spread a bogus rumor that he had received speaker's fees from a mythical group called "Friends of Hamas." Republicans delayed his confirmation vote, citing, among other things, "missing speeches" that might reveal whether "he has been unduly influenced by foreign governments or foreign agents over the last five years." Alabama's Jeff Sessions explained why he joined 40 other Senators in voting "no" on Hagel:
"This nominee has been somewhat erratic in his positions overtime and I'm concerned about that...He's taken some views that I think aren't good for America. In the Secretary of Defense, the entire world and all Americans need to know that's one person who is stable and can be counted on."
By those two standards, many of Trump's most extreme Cabinet nominees, including Betsy DeVos (Education), Andy Puzder (Labor) and Mick Mulvaney (Office of Management and Budget) should be stopped dead in their tracks. But with Senate Democrats under Harry Reid (D-NV) having ended the filibuster for cabinet nominations in response to unprecedented GOP obstruction of Obama's selections, they still turn to the "no deference for colleagues" rule embraced by the likes of Jeff Sessions. In fact, they should use it against Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's choice to head the Justice Department. His proven track record of racist and sexist comments, along with his hostility to voting rights and gay Americans, put him beyond the pale as a possible Attorney General. After all, "he's taken some views that I think aren't good for America."
The Lynch Test. Now, Republicans will argue that blocking or even delaying the likes of Tillerson and Sessions will prevent President Trump from quickly getting his national security team in place. But the same Republicans already debunked that talking point when they delayed the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as Attorney General for a record 166 days. GOP opposition to Lynch had nothing to do with her credentials or experience. Their hold up, which more than tripled the previous record for an Attorney General nominee, was an attempt to derail President Obama's executive order on immigration.
So, according to the GOP's Lynch Test, Democrats can obstruct any Trump nominee over any policy of his administration, no matter how unrelated to the job in question, with which they disagree. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer could instruct his troops to blockade Jeff Sessions unless he promises to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and push for its post-Supreme Court ruling restoration. Would-be Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin, a one-man foreclosure machine, should be stalled until he explains the impossible math behind his comical promise that "any tax cuts for the upper class will be offset by less deductions that pay for it." (Note Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan similarly posited the existence of a "deduction fairy" back in 2012.) HHS pick Tom Price can cool his heels until he renounces his 2009 statement that "as a physician, I can attest that nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare." And if Betsy DeVos thinks her goal to "advance God's kingdom" by cannibalizing public education to fund school vouchers, maybe she needs more time in church and less at the Department of Education.
Now, these kinds of roadblocks for President-elect Trump's Cabinet choices may sound extraordinary. They would just be Democrats "treating the incoming president's nominees with the same courtesy and seriousness with which the Senate acted on President Obama's nominees."