ED O’KEEFE: Welcome to the Washington Week Web Extra, where we pick up where we left off on the broadcast. You know, looking at the calendar, next week promises to be one of, if not the busiest, weeks in recent congressional history, at least on the Senate side of the building. Next Wednesday at least five confirmation hearings are scheduled for Donald Trump’s top Cabinet picks. And they’re scheduled to spend most of the day also holding up or down votes on amendments to a bill designed to start the process of undoing Obamacare.
Jeff, who’s on the docket next Wednesday? And why are Republicans jamming the schedule like this?
JEFF ZELENY: Well, a couple reasons. One, they want to give confirmation – early confirmation to several Cabinet members so they are ready to take office the minute Donald Trump is sworn in, which is by tradition. When President Obama was sworn in some eight years ago, I believe he had six Cabinet secretaries waiting for him. So Republicans would like to do the same. But next Wednesday the Justice Committee – the Judiciary Committee will be hearing Jeff Sessions, the second day of his confirmation hearing for attorney general. There’s education. There’s secretary of state. There’s labor. And there’s intelligence as well. There were supposed to be six, but I was told late today that the homeland security secretary’s hearing is going to be moved a day.
But the point here is that Democrats are crying foul because so many things are jammed into one day, by design, as well, as – probably the biggest news that day is Donald Trump’s press conference. He is scheduled, at least, to have his first press conference since winning the election, and in more than a year, on Wednesday as well. So the idea is – you know, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, or looking at your –
MR. O’KEEFE: A political strategist.
MR. ZELENY: Right, exactly. (Laughter.) You know, one thing can’t break through. So if there’s, like, one sort of issue in these hearings. But I went back and looked at the hearings eight years ago. It’s not that uncommon to have multiple hearings on a day. The reality here is that some of these are sort of controversial. The Jeff Sessions one in particular as attorney general. That certainly will be – the secretary of state hearing. So I think that there’ll be some grumbling. But the reality is Democrats can do very little about it, because they are not in the majority. And these people only need 51 votes to become secretary – to become Cabinet members.
MR. O’KEEFE: Bruise them, but probably won’t beat them, Democrats will. One of the things, Michael, you were saying that Tillerson may face questions about, or maybe should face questions about, is some of the information on the back of this unclassified report that was released today about sort of the psychological warfare that Russia has employed in recent months regarding our election and in other countries.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yeah, it’s the best read of the report. The report starts with a bunch of very terse, lawyered statements about what the intelligence community thinks about what Putin did. And then there’s, like, an exposé. It’s like five pages about why RT is a great network for spreading misinformation.
MR. O’KEEFE: RT is Russia Today.
MR. SCHERER: Russia Today.
MR. O’KEEFE: High in the channel listings in your digital offerings. But, yeah.
MR. SCHERER: (Laughs.) That’s right. But really, I think what this is, is the intelligence community coming out publicly, in a very high-profile place, and saying we have a real problem here. That it wasn’t just the clandestine efforts by the Kremlin and Putin to sway this election, but a lot of above-board efforts. Now, and they describe it in two different parts. They say there’s sort of trollers working on – trolls working on social media. And then there’s the broadcast networks and Russian websites, which basically push a party line.
And this is a concern that the Obama administration has had for quite a while. When the Crimea invasion happened, all of this Russian architecture shifted, blasting misinformation into Europe, blasting misinformation into Ukraine. And at the State Department, they were really frustrated. Like, our propaganda efforts are rather staid and traditional. You know, we produce news. We distribute it internationally. We don’t really make up stuff in the way that – (laughs) – Russia does. And we don’t have the same aggression on social media that they do.
And so it’s been a real concern for the Obama administration. It’s been something they’ve been working on. They’re also having the same frustrations in fighting ISIS, on a slightly different playing field, but in the public diplomacy area on social media. And I think if Clinton had won, this would have been a big issue for them. But with Trump, we don’t know what he’s going to do.
MR. O’KEEFE: Right. Yeah, and it’s funny you say we don’t do a lot of it, because I talk to foreign journalists who live and work here in Washington. And they marvel at Fox News and always have thought that that was the propaganda – their words, not mine.
MR. SCHERER: (Laughs.) But they’re not run by the government.
MR. O’KEEFE: Exactly. That’s the key distinction.
OK, so we got confirmation hearings beginning for some top-level nominees. But up at Trump Tower, the president-elect still has to sort through resumes for roughly 4,000 federal jobs. Of those, 690 require Senate confirmation. And already, 22 have earned the title of assistant to the president. Who are they, Alexis? And why is this a little out of the ordinary?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the interesting things that transition experts – and there are a lot of them – who have examined and studied have said is – and previous presidents have said this – that they wish that they wish that they had reversed order – Bill Clinton said this – that he should have put his White House staff together first and then done the Cabinet. And in this case, Donald Trump is focused on the Cabinet. And it’s two weeks out and we have just a skeleton of the White House staff.
So what we’re watching is day-by-day they’re putting together announcements of these people. We know already from the organization that Donald Trump is going to hope that his West Wing functions with very independent centers of power reporting up to him. The competition of that is going to be fascinating to watch. We know that he wants to pay all of these folks who helped him in the campaign the top tier salary that you can earn. That’s where you get the assistant to the president, you know, title.
These people have experience with politics. They have experience with communications. And they have very little experience in executive governing or the White House. It’s interesting too that we just started to get a list of names, and some of his former foes are donating some of their staff. Ted Cruz has donated some of his staff. Chris Christie donated to the White House – probably against his better judgement – the political director, Bill Stepien, who was fired by Chris Christie. Mike Pence, the incoming vice president. Newt Gingrich. And so you’re seeing a real mix of people. There’s lots of, maybe, legislative. Not a lot of White House or executive experience. And it’ll be really interesting.
MR. O’KEEFE: And now nervous, Bob, are they up at Trump Tower about the pace of this? I mean, we’ve talked about the fact that come the afternoon of the 20th it’s their place. Everyone else is gone. Are they – do they think they’re ready?
ROBERT COSTA: I think the power centers are pretty well-established around Donald Trump. You have Reince Priebus, the incoming chief of staff. Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, and of course, the son-in-law Jared Kushner. And I think you could add Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, as part of that group. And so Trump’s circle is pretty set. Stephen Miller is running speechwriting. Comes from the Jeff Sessions world.
I think what’s come together a little on the later side is the legislative part of the staff. And Rick Dearborn, who’s been chief of staff for Senator Sessions, is going to work hand-in-hand with Mark Short, a long-time advisor to the vice president-elect. And then, of course, you have Stephen Miller there, the Sessions aide. So you have a kind of a balance between center-right conservative Republicans, populists, Sessions-types. And it’s going to be a political balancing act, as well as a personnel balancing act.
MR. O’KEEFE: We’ll see how that goes two weeks from tonight. Like we said, inaugural balls will be underway, and Donald Trump will be president. It’ll be interesting. It’s hard to believe we’re that close to it now at this point.
Thanks, guys. That was great. Good way to start the new year. And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re here online, test your knowledge of the stories that made headlines this first week of 2017 on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Ed O’Keefe. For Michael, for Bob, for Jeff, for Alexis, and everyone here, thanks for watching. We’ll see you next time.