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Amid ethics concerns, Senate confirmation process set to begin

January 8, 2017 at 4:58 PM EDT
With Senate confirmation hearings set to begin this week, the independent Office of Government Ethics on Saturday expressed "great concern" that several cabinet nominees have not yet completed an ethics review. The Trump transition team has pushed back on those concerns, saying they “politicize the process.” For more on the hearings, NewsHour's Lisa Desjardins joins Hari Sreenivasan.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: For more on the confirmation process, I’m joined from Washington by NewsHour political director, Lisa Desjardins.

Lisa, why is this back and forth happening this time? I mean, is the order traditionally different in how this process moves forward?

LISA DESJARDINS, NEWSHOUR POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. There are some things happening this time around that have not happened before.

Let’s start with the logistics. The director of the Office of Government Ethics wrote a letter and said the problem from his point of view is that the Trump transition team did not submit any of these names before they made them public. He says that’s what usually happens. They clear these nominees before a president to be actually announces them. In this case, the ethics office said they got these names late and in some cases, the ethics office says, they still don’t have any initial paperwork for nominees whose hearings are coming up within days.

Then, the politics is less complicated to explain. Both sides have a lot in this fight. The Republicans want to build up Donald Trump. The Democrats want to start out with a rocky step for him.

SREENIVASAN: What can the Democrats do? We heard Senator Chuck Schumer say today, “Let’s be deliberate and slow about this process.” But when it comes to either blocking a nominee or changing the schedule?

DESJARDINS: Right, when a senator says, “Let’s be deliberate”, that often means let’s use all of our powers to lengthen the time it takes to get something done. That’s really the only thing they can do, Hari. Republicans have the votes to get through all of these nominees. They just need a majority vote. They have got 52 in the Senate.

But what Democrats can do is try and use the bully pulpit to get across questions they have about the Trump transition and they can try and slow things down.

SREENIVASAN: And while we’re talking a lot about this, and thinking about this, this isn’t happening in a vacuum. There are other things that are also simultaneously happening on Capitol Hill this week.

DESJARDINS: That’s right. This is going to be another week where we are watching progress or not of the Affordable Care Act repeal. The Senate is going to go through something called voto-rama that I think that name really says enough, which will be the first push getting toward ACA repeal. It’s a several step process but that’s something that will be important to watch.

But honestly, it may get lost in all these flurry of confirmation hearings. We’ve got 10 nominees coming up on the Hill this week, that’s no accident. Republicans want to get them out as quickly as possible. Even if we don’t have all the information, we usually would for these nominees and hearings, Republicans want to get it done.

SREENIVASAN: What are examples of conflict of interest that have come up in the past or what are you looking at now, were you reporting this out yesterday.

DESJARDINS: Well, I think there’s a lot of things to look at here. Let’s take the example of a nominee like Rex Tillerson. His ethics package has been posted. We know he’s the CEO, or the — he’s now left ExxonMobil. He’s involved with many boards and he has sort of — he has clearly a large financial stakes in many companies including ExxonMobil that might have influence on him as secretary of state.

So, in his ethics letter, he goes through how he is divesting from that, how he is severing his ties, very significant financial ties, from many companies. That’s what’s important here. And we know that four nominees coming up this next week, so far, haven’t given that ethics package in yet. That includes another billionaire, Betsy DeVos, who hopes to be a secretary of education, Wilbur Ross who hopes to be the secretary of commerce — people with extensive ties financial and also to foundations.

And there’s a lot of questions that I think Americans and certainly Democratic senators would like to raise, but they don’t even have a starting basis to know the framework for these folks financials going into these hearings.

SREENIVASAN: All right. NewsHour political director Lisa Desjardins, joining us from Washington tonight — thanks so much.

DESJARDINS: My pleasure.

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