This was supposed to be the week President-elect Trump’s nominees endured tough grilling and determined opposition in Senate confirmation hearings. “Trump Cabinet picks face extreme vetting ahead of confirmation,” USA Today reported last month, predicting that several Trump picks could face a very difficult time on Capitol Hill.
Now Week One is ending, and the tough grilling mostly didn’t materialize. And all of Trump’s first week of nominees seem headed toward confirmation.
Seven Trump picks — Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary-designate John Kelly, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao, Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson, and CIA Director-designate Mike Pompeo — faced Senate committees this week. The number included three of the so-called Big Four Cabinet positions — attorney general, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. (A hearing for the fourth of the Big Four, Treasury Secretary-designate Stephen Mnuchin, has not yet been scheduled.)
Some of the hearings went so well that press accounts declared them a “lovefest.” Chao’s hearing certainly qualified, as did Kelly’s. Others, like Mattis’s, were smooth and businesslike. Still others, like Sessions’, ended up being far less adversarial than expected, either because Democratic attacks lacked energy and focus, or the nominee was able to deftly handle the situation, or both. Only Tillerson’s was problematic, due to a combination of the nominee’s lack of experience in the field and a mini-drama set off by a senator of Tillerson’s own party. Even with that, though, Tillerson looks to be in solid shape.
Chao’s hearing consisted largely of the nominee and Republican and Democratic senators all expressing high regard for each other. At Kelly’s hearing, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said of the nominee, “We’re extraordinarily grateful and you must be extraordinarily proud, both his daughter and his wife, this is a remarkable public servant. Perhaps this is a lovefest that we’re having with you today.”
Mattis’s hearing included much praise of his competence and qualifications, followed by a broadly bipartisan 24-3 committee vote approving a measure to give Mattis a waiver for a law that would have barred him, as a retired general, from serving now as defense secretary. The full Senate went on to approve the waiver 81 to 17.
Some Democrats did want to attack Sessions — how many Democratic senators can resist the chance to accuse a Republican of racism? — but they simply didn’t have enough ammo to hurt the nominee. Besides, other Democrats didn’t seem to have the heart to attack their Senate colleague of 20 years. And Sessions was so well prepared that there were really no surprises.
Pompeo’s hearing — or at least the part of it that was conducted in public, since the CIA confirmation hearing also included a classified, closed session — could have been contentious. And indeed, the Russia hacking controversy came up repeatedly. But Pompeo, who had read the entire, classified version of the intelligence community’s report, quickly asserted that he believed Russia hacked U.S. political institutions, which was mostly the end of the hearing’s public discussion of the matter. The only sorta news from the hearing was the wackiness of new Sen. Kamala Harris’s questioning of the nation’s top spy-designate; the California Democrat wanted to pin Pompeo down on the agency’s LGBT child care policy and climate change.
Carson’s hearing featured Democrats unhappy both with his lack of government experience and his views on welfare. But Carson seemed to have Republicans behind him — he was introduced by former Republican presidential rival Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — and looks headed for a low-profile confirmation.
That left Tillerson. The former Exxon Mobil CEO had emerged as a big target going into his hearing. And he didn’t hit a home run; Tillerson could not display the depth of knowledge based on a lifetime of involvement with his subject that Sessions and Mattis were able to display on the justice system and the military. There were a lot of questions Tillerson couldn’t answer because he simply didn’t know the answer, a situation made worse by the fact that he has not yet received a security clearance, and was thus in the dark about some critical information.
But Tillerson was strong in conveying a coherent vision of American power and its role in the world. And the most-reported moment of the hearing, Tillerson’s exchange with Rubio on the subject of Russia, probably ended up working to Tillerson’s favor.
“Let me ask you this question: Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio said to Tillerson.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson answered.
Rubio proceeded to try to beat Tillerson down, citing Russian attacks on civilians in Syria, suggesting that even a person relying solely on publicly-available information would come to the no-brainer conclusion that yes, Putin is a war criminal. Tillerson did not go along.
The problem with Rubio’s line of questioning was that the current president and secretary of state have not branded Putin a war criminal. Yes, the administration has pointed to war crimes in Syria, but there has not been a declaration from President Obama or John Kerry that Putin is a war criminal. So Rubio was asking the yet-to-be-confirmed pick for secretary of state for a yet-to-be-inaugurated president to announce a significant change in the U.S. government’s position toward a major global rival. It was unreasonable at best, and it smacked of grandstanding by a senator who wants to be president. (Indeed, Rubio later omitted the is-Putin-a-war-criminal question when he engaged in a similar line of questioning with Pompeo.)
Tillerson’s confirmation, indeed, his fate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is not a lock because of the committee’s closely-divided partisan makeup. There are 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, meaning that if just one Republican — say, Rubio — were to vote against Tillerson, and Democrats were united against him, the nomination would be voted down in committee.
It’s not clear whether Rubio, still defined to some extent by his bitter rivalry with Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, wants to be the deciding vote against one of the new president’s key nominees. “I’m prepared to do what’s right,” is all Rubio would tell reporters afterward.
But even if Rubio joined with Democrats to vote against Tillerson, the nomination could still be brought to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. Its fate could depend on whether the committee decides to vote out the nomination with a negative report or no report, which could be done even if Rubio voted against Tillerson.
At this point, it still seems likely that Tillerson will be confirmed. But there is a scenario for failure. Rubio’s role is a question mark, but if he comes out against Tillerson and is joined in the final Senate vote by fellow Russia hawks Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and they are joined by a unanimous Democratic opposition — that’s a lot of moving parts — the nomination could fail. On the other hand, even if the Rubio-McCain-Graham gang opposes Tillerson but the committee votes him out with no recommendation, and some moderate Democrats support him, Tillerson could still become secretary of state, even as Rubio, McCain, and Graham assume roles as sworn opponents of the president, with all that could entail.
The bigger picture, even with the Tillerson drama, is that Trump got off to a strong start in confirming his top appointments.
There’s another factor at work. Much of the news coverage of the week was consumed by the Russia hacking affair, and with the back-and-forth between TrumpWorld and the Intelligence Community over the hacking allegations. To say the controversy sucked much of the oxygen out of the media atmosphere would be an understatement.
But Trump was moving on two tracks. On one, he was involved in — and doing his part to stoke — a hair-on-fire media frenzy. But on the other, he was moving forward in an organized way with the business of creating a government. The phenomenon is much the same as what happened during the campaign, when Trump put himself in the middle of the various media frenzies of the day while his campaign moved forward with the nuts-and-bolts job of winning the election.
As far as the Cabinet is concerned, there could still be trouble to come. The odds are Trump will lose at least one of his nominees; that has happened to every president in the last 30 years. The hearing for Labor Secretary-designate Andrew Puzder could be delayed into next month. The hearing for Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, originally scheduled for this week, has been put off until next week. DeVos, in particular, could face united Democratic opposition based in significant part on the virulent opposition of teachers’ unions.
So the incoming administration could well lose a nominee. But the bottom line is that amid tumult and controversy about every aspect of his soon-to-be presidency, Donald Trump is moving ahead. And in its first week of tests on Capitol Hill, the new administration came out the winner.