Storm clouds fill the sky over the U.S. Capitol Building, June 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
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With clouds hanging overhead, GOP moves forward on Trump’s cabinet

About eight years ago, when the Democratic-led Senate was moving forward on President Obama’s cabinet nominees, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) laid out his standards that he expected all nominees to meet. They’re surprisingly relevant now.

There were eight benchmarks in total, but at the top of the list was McConnell’s insistence that senators have a chance to review the nominees’ FBI background check and the Office of Government Ethics’ vetting letter.

Senate Republicans, of course, are now in the majority, getting ready to advance on an incoming Republican administration’s cabinet, but McConnell’s standards from 2009 are no longer being applied. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
As Senate Republicans embark on a flurry of confirmation hearings this week, several of Donald J. Trump’s appointees have yet to complete the background checks and ethics clearances customarily required before the Senate begins to consider cabinet-level nominees. […]

In a letter to Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the leader of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub Jr., said on Friday that “the announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me.”

He said the packed schedule had put “undue pressure” on the office to rush its reviews of the nominees and he knew of no other occasion in the office’s four decades when the Senate had held a confirmation hearing before the review was completed.
The Times quoted Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in the Bush/Cheney administration, saying the Senate shouldn’t vote on cabinet nominees with an incomplete vetting, while Norman Eisen, his counterpart in the Obama administration, called the current situation “totally unheard-of.”

A Washington Post report added, “Ethics experts from both political parties expressed dismay at the possibility that confirmation hearings would proceed before the OGE reviews are completed.” Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who has served as counsel to several Republican presidential candidates and Cabinet nominees in the past, told the Post the current GOP plan is “unprecedented.”

I can appreciate why this may seem like a dry and procedural flap, but there’s more to this than just the surface-level details.

The Office of Government Ethics conducts its reviews of cabinet nominees in part to look for potential conflicts of interest – a problem Donald Trump should be familiar with. If Trump’s transition office isn’t doing a through vetting of cabinet nominees, and the OGE isn’t done with its own reviews, Republican senators will soon vote to confirm powerful officials whose backgrounds have received limited and incomplete scrutiny.

MSNBC’s Ari Melber also reported over the weekend:
Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub emailed Trump aides in November to lament that despite his office’s repeated outreach, “we seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election.”

Trump aides may also be risking “embarrassment for the President-elect,” Shaub warned, by “announcing cabinet picks” without letting the ethics office review their financial information in advance.

The perils for White House staff were even more severe, Shaub argued, because they might begin their jobs without crucial ethics guidance, raising a risk of inadvertently breaking federal rules.
It’s against this backdrop that Senate Democrats are seeking delays to the confirmation process – requests that Senate Republican leaders have decided to ignore.

As for the schedule that GOP senators are so eager to launch, NBC News published this rundown earlier on the Senate hearings planned for the next few days:

Attorney General: Jeff Sessions – Jan. 10-11
Homeland Security: John Kelly – Jan. 10-11
State: Rex Tillerson – Jan 11 (may go into Jan 12)
CIA: Mike Pompeo – Jan. 11
Education: Betsy DeVos – Jan. 11
Transportation: Elaine Chao – Jan. 11
Labor: Andrew Puzder – Jan. 12
Defense: James Mattis – Jan. 12

By scheduling so many hearings so close together, Republicans hope to prevent any one nominee from receiving too much attention.

It’s almost as if GOP officials were concerned about Americans getting a good look at Trump’s cabinet choices.