Democrats push new rules for Cabinet nominees
Senate Democrats fired a shot across the bow Thursday for President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet choices, pushing for a rule that would require all nominees to hand over their past three years of tax returns in order to get a confirmation hearing.
The demand for the rule change, which has next to zero chance of gaining approval from the Senate’s Republican majority, nevertheless signaled that Mr. Trump’s nominees are in for a bumpy ride through the confirmation process.
The tax return issue was aimed at wealthy businessmen whom Mr. Trump has tapped to run the Treasury and the Commerce departments. But a drumbeat of opposition was rising against other picks, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, whose confirmation for attorney general must overcome accusations from liberal groups that he is a racist.
Mr. Trump said Thursday that he would name retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis as defense secretary. The general, known as “Mad Dog Mattis,” has a storied career in the military, including serving as commander of U.S. Central Command and as NATO’s supreme allied commander.
But Gen. Mattis would need some special treatment to be eligible for Senate confirmation: Congress would have to waive a federal law that bars anyone who has been on active duty in the previous seven years from becoming defense secretary.
Democrats said the extra scrutiny of tax returns is necessary because Mr. Trump is stacking his Cabinet with millionaires and billionaires. They accused the president-elect of reneging on his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington.
“As Donald Trump floods the swamp instead of draining it, Americans deserve a strong vetting process to hold his Cabinet nominees
accountable for all possible conflicts of interest,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications operation, said at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol.
“Americans deserve to know whether or not President-elect Trump’s team of millionaires and billionaires will actually work for all the American people or only the wealthy and well-connected,” said Ms. Stabenow.
She said tax returns would reveal whether Mr. Trump, who refused to release his tax returns during the campaign, had selected Cabinet officials who broke tax laws, hid money offshore or didn’t pay any taxes. She said Americans have a right to know.
Trump transition team officials said the nominees will be prepared to accommodate any requirement for the confirmation process.
Senate Republicans shrugged off the call for tax returns.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said his Democratic colleagues are playing a game because Senate committees already possess ample authority to fully vet nominees.
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said Mr. Trump’s nominees deserve the same scrutiny that was applied to Mr. Obama’s choices.
“After all, the Obama administration was the so-called ‘most transparent administration in history,’ ” said Mr. Roberts. “The vetting process is comprehensive and includes broad inquiries into nominees’ finances. Until now, I was not aware of any concerns about the committee’s document requests. I see no reason to change course.”
Nominees already are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest and submit financial disclosures. Three Senate committees — Finance, Budget and Homeland Security — have the option to request tax returns.
The proposed rule would make it mandatory for all committees that hold confirmation hearings to review a nominee’s previous three years of tax returns.
The demand for tax returns followed Democrats’ sharp criticism of Mr. Trump’s nominations of two billionaire businessmen with ties to Wall Street: Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary and Wilbur Ross to head the Commerce Department.
Mr. Trump also named Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor and school reform advocate from Michigan, as education secretary.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chamber’s incoming assistant minority leader, said that instead of draining the swamp, Mr. Trump is filling it with “even bigger swamp creatures.”
“President-elect Trump is putting together a gold-plated and mahogany, Trump-style Cabinet of Wall Street bankers, billionaires, millionaires, friends, insiders, campaign contributors and cronies,” she said.