As understandably eager as they are to get speedy approvals from Congress for as many Cabinet nominees as possible, Donald Trump’s transition team should focus less on aggressively preparing candidates to endure a high-profile public grilling and more on avoiding shortcuts in the confirmation process. Cutting corners will likely saddle the new President, the nation — and the nominees themselves — with avoidable ethical headaches.
Instead of seeking to resolve conflicts of interest under the hot lights of a televised hearing, Team Trump should follow the thorough, deliberate process laid out by none other than Sen. Mitch McConnell in a 2009 letter to then-Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“Prior to considering any time agreements on the floor on any nominee, we expect the following standards will be set,” McConnell wrote, ticking off requirements including that an FBI background check be completed and that “The Office of Government Ethics letter is complete and submitted to the committee in time for review and prior to a committee hearing.”
That process, said McConnell, was “consistent with the longstanding and best practices of committees, regardless of which political party is in the majority.”
That sensible process appears set to be tossed out the window now that Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Team Trump seems determined to circumvent the slower but more reliable process of completing paperwork and background investigations by the FBI and Office of Government Ethics. “We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election,” is how OGE Director Walter Shaub put it in a memo in November.
On CBS’ Face the Nation, McConnell airily dismissed the same concerns from Democrats that he himself raised in 2009. “All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House but having lost the Senate,” McConnell said. “I understand that, but we need to sort of grow up here and get past that.” Democrats pounced on the obvious inconsistency, with Sen. Chuck Schumer going so far as to send a hand-edited copy of McConnell’s own letter back to him.
McConnell’s call to “get past” ethical concerns shows a cavalier disregard for the long history of White House nominees who turned out to be politically unpalatable, completely unfit to serve, or simply carrying too much embarrassing personal baggage.
Back in 2004, most notably, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik was summoned to the White House, where then-President George Bush asked him, point-blank, to serve as secretary of homeland security. Kerik, a patriot, did what most of us would do if personally called to public service by the President: He accepted on the spot.
But one week later, Kerik wrote a letter to Bush declining the nomination. What prompted the withdrawal, according to Kerik’s autobiography, is that his federal vetting process turned up the fact (unknown to Kerik himself) that the nanny his family had employed for years was an undocumented immigrant who had supplied a fake Social Security number.
That meant Kerik, who had immediately paid up back taxes and penalty fines on the nanny’s income, faced the prospect of an embarrassing grilling as the potential official in charge of borders and immigration matters. It also meant his wife would have to be questioned, at which point Kerik threw in the towel and withdrew.
Even pulling out didn’t end Kerik’s nightmare. Federal prosecutors pursued him relentlessly on various charges from his past, including lying about the nanny’s situation, and eventually cornered him into a dubious guilty plea and a harsh federal prison sentence.
If Kerik’s ordeal had unfolded after he was sworn in as Secretary of Homeland Security, the nation would have suffered a high, and possibly dangerous, level of disruption to its national security operations along with a front-page political scandal.
Even if congressional Republicans like McConnell are determined to ignore history, the Trump team has already seen the risks of rushing out job announcements too quickly.
Within hours of announcing Jason Miller as the next communications director, Miller did a sudden about face and turned the job down, following Twitter messages from another Trump team member suggesting he might be “the 2016 version of John Edwards,” referring to a disgraced past presidential candidate who lied about fathering a child out of wedlock.
Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was a high-ranking executive at ExxonMobil during a period in which the company did business with Iran and Syria, countries under US sanctions and deemed state sponsors of terrorism.
And as CNN Money recently discovered, another prospective Trump aide, Monica Crowley, plagiarized various sources in a 2012 book; she now faces other accusations of plagiarism.
Instead of fearing the vetting process, Trump’s transition team and Republicans in Congress should welcome and embrace the idea of a neutral and exhaustive check to discover the weaknesses of their nominees. It’s a time-honored way to spare the new administration a waste of valuable time, prestige and political capital defending the indefensible.