The nonpartisan federal agency that is in charge of vetting those who have been selected to take a seat in President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet says confirmation hearings are being scheduled before ethics reviews can be completed. In a letter to Democratic Senate leaders on Saturday, Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub said the schedule for confirmation hearings is “of great concern” because his office has not had time to review everyone’s potential conflicts.
“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me. This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE's staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews,” wrote Shaub. “More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings.”
Shaub noted this situation appears to be pretty unprecedented. “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,” he wrote.
In the letter, Shaub says part of the problem is that Trump’s transition team has announced nominees without pre-clearing them through OGE first, as is usually the custom. Now, the office has yet to receive “even initial draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings.” Plus it doesn't seem to be something that can be resolved quickly since "the process is necessarily measured in weeks, not days."
The letter was immediately cited by Democrats to push the message that Trump and Republicans are trying to rush through some of the president-elect’s Cabinet confirmations. It “makes crystal-clear that the transition team’s collusion with Senate Republicans to jam through these Cabinet nominees before they’ve been thoroughly vetted is unprecedented,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York said.
Experts agreed that holding hearings without the OGE reviews would be a marked departure from common practice. “This is unprecedented,” Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, tells the Washington Post. “This suggests that there has been a real breakdown between the transition and the Office of Government Ethics.”
Part of that “breakdown” is evident in emails that show how Shaub and his team had a lot of trouble getting in touch with Trump’s top aides for days after the election. "We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election," Shaub wrote in a Nov. 18 message.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, who was selected to be the next attorney general, is scheduled to have a confirmation hearing Tuesday, while secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos are scheduled for Wednesday. On that same day, Trump is set to give a news conference in which he will detail how he will avoid conflicts of interest as president.