“Ironic” is an overused word. And yet, how else can you describe what’s going on this week in Washington? The Republican president-elect says he wants “extreme vetting” for Syrian refugee families who already face years of scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Senate’s Republican leader is ramming Trump's well-heeled nominees through the Senate review process in just a few chaotic days.
Forget “extreme vetting.” These nominees won’t even face ordinary vetting. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is greasing the skids for some highly questionable appointees. And he’s doing it by hamstringing the government’s “corruption prevention organization” – which makes the GOP’s stand on corruption unclear, at best.
House Republicans certainly betrayed a pro-corruption bias last week when they attempted to gut the House Ethics Committee. That effort was beaten back by a wave of voter calls and complaints, but the intent seemed clear: They wanted more freedom to exploit their offices for personal gain (and perhaps to make it harder to investigate fellow House member Tom Price’s questionable dealings before he’s named Secretary of Health and Human Services).
Now, McConnell is pushing appointees through the nomination process before they’ve even completed the disclosure and review process with the Government Ethics Office (GEO).
The importance of that process can’t be overstated. As a joint letter from Richard W. Painter and Norman L. Eisen (the ethics lawyers for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively) explains, the GEO process identifies potential conflicts and brings them to the Senate’s attention before they are confirmed. It also works with nominees on finding solutions to their conflicts, negotiating jointly acceptable solutions and presenting those to the Senate as well.
How unusual is this McConnell/Trump end-run around the ethics process? In response to an inquiry from Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, the head of the GEO wrote:
“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.”*
Trump and his nominees are already parading around the halls of government as if they, and not you, owned the place. Emails published last week showed that the Trump transition team has been ignoring the Government Ethics Office since they began planning for the transfer of power.
A contempt for ethics, like so many other unpleasant things, flows downhill. Trump himself has displayed an alarmingly cavalier attitude toward the conflicts in his own business holdings.
Some of Trump’s nominees deserve especially careful scrutiny. As Painter and Eisen note, Trump’s pick for Education Secretary “likely has potential conflicts of interest with respect to education.” Betsy DeVos has reportedly invested in a for-profit charter school company (one that was the subject of a devastating New York Times exposé some years back).
DeVos has also indirectly invested in an online student lending firm, according to the ethics attorneys. As Secretary of Education, she will oversee the nation’s $1.4 trillion in student debt – 86 percent of which is held directly by the government. DeVos has not provided her ethics information as of this writing.
Then there’s Rep. Price, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to a report in the the not-so-liberal Wall Street Journal, Price traded more than $300,000 in medical company stocks while he was a member of Congress, while also “sponsoring and advocating legislation that potentially could affect those companies’ stocks.”
Those stocks included an August 2016 investment of between $50,000 and $100,000 in an Australian biomedical firm. “The stock has since doubled in price,” the Journal reports.
James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Defense Secretary, serves on the board of General Dynamics. According to its annual report, General Dynamics did nearly $15 billion in business with the Department of Defense in 2015.
With Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s choice for Treasury Secretary, it’s hard to know where to begin. How about here? A confidential memo leaked to journalist David Dayen indicated that staffers in the California Attorney General’s office found “widespread misconduct” at OneWest, the mortgage bank run by Mnuchin.
Labor Secretary designee Andy Puzder? At least one restaurant owned by his corporation is being investigated by the department he’s been tapped to lead.
The firm run by Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary, recently paid a $2.3 million fine for not properly disclosing fees to investors.
Gary Cohn, tapped by Trump to run the Council of Economic Advisors, ran Goldman Sachs while it committed fraud and other offenses that led to billions of dollars in fines and settlements.
Concerns like these make McConnell’s ethical sidestepping even more troublesome. Even some conservatives are starting to worry. Jennifer Rubin writes, “Telling Trump that he must sell his businesses is not an easy task … Nevertheless, Republicans disregard the issue and pave the way for an ethics disaster that could ensnare the entire party.”
Did we say “ironic” earlier? We should have said “hypocritical.” Sen. Chuck Schumer released a letter this week comprised of a slightly marked-up copy of a letter Mitch McConnell issued in 2009, back when Barack Obama was preparing to take office. It listed eight items that must be completed before a nomination is submitted to the Senate – items withheld by some key Trump nominees. The 2009 McConnell letter concludes:
“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.”
“Grow up,” McConnell mockingly says now to Democrats who express the same concerns.
A breakdown in the process could lead to chaos. As Painter and Eisen note in their letter, violations of anti-conflict laws “bear criminal penalties." By confirming nominees before the ethics process is complete, senators could be setting the stage for an eventual legal spectacle at the highest levels of government -- assuming, of course, that we still have prosecutors willing to enforce the law and judges willing to uphold it.
That's one more reason why, especially in the age of Trump, senators must reject any nominee who fails to make the necessary disclosures. Voters should let their senators know they expect them to do their jobs.
*Some reports say there was one exception in 2001, also for a Republican nominee.