Some Trump nominees missing crucial ethics paperwork as confirmation hearings begin

Capitol Hill will be buzzing this week as President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees answer questions in Senate hearings. But as of last weekend, some nominees hadn’t finished turning in their paperwork or cleared their ethics reviews. Democrats are calling it a rush job and have threatened to slow down the process. Lisa Desjardins sits down with Judy Woodruff for more.

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    The last day has seen a rise in both concern over and defense of President-elect Trump's Cabinet nominees after news that some of them have not completed ethics reviews.

    Lisa Desjardins reports.


    The president-elect walked out of Trump Tower with a business leader, Jack Ma of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, but his words were about politics and his Cabinet nominees.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: I think they will all pass.


    That after Trump met with a key ally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who dismissed concerns about vetting.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    Yes, everybody will be properly vetted, as they have been in the past, and I'm hopeful that we will get up to six or seven picks of the national security team in place on day one.


    All this ahead of a packed week, with two confirmation hearings set for tomorrow, five more set for Wednesday, and at least three slated for Thursday.

    But "NewsHour" learned that education secretary-designate Betsy DeVos and three other Trump nominees have not yet cleared an ethics review. Democrats with their Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, called it a rush job.

  • SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, Minority Leader:

    Jamming all these hearings into one or two days, making members run from committee to committee makes no sense.

    Even if it takes a few weeks to get through them all in order to carefully consider their nominations, that is well worth it.


    Schumer has threatened to slow down the Senate confirmation process if senators don't have all the nominees' information.

    Meanwhile, Republicans point to 2009, when the hearing schedule was nearly as packed, and 14 Obama nominees, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder, were confirmed in the first nine days after inauguration.

    Now that is being called the Obama treatment, relatively fast confirmation. But Democrats say the difference is that President Obama's nominees all cleared their ethics review process before their hearings, even before they were announced. The Office of Government Ethics says some Trump nominees have not even filed their paperwork yet.


    So, Lisa, thank you for that report, but take us through this process. What exactly is required of these nominees?


    Well, it depends on what committee you're going in front of.

    Take you through what everyone is required of, first of all, three things. Every one of these nominees has to have an FBI background check, they have to have given financial disclosures to their committee of choice — or the committee that oversees their nomination, and they have to fill out a committee questionnaire.

    But, Judy, what depends on each committee is the following, whether or not an ethics review must be filed before a hearing or simply before a vote. It must be filed at some time. But that's why we see these hearings this week before the ethics reviews are all in. Also, only three committees require tax forms from the past.


    Tell us a little more about what is missing for some of these nominees.


    These ethics forms that we're talking about are significant.

    There are two pieces to them. One is the financial disclosure, and the second is a letter in which each nominee has to state any potential conflict of interest with their future job and more importantly what they're going to do to make sure the conflict of interest doesn't matter.

    For instance, Rex Tillerson filed in his letter, which we now have, that he will go ahead and not just not get a salary from ExxonMobil, but any future bonuses which were significant, he's going to now sever ties with altogether from ExxonMobil.


    And as we have been saying, some of these nominees have these very complicated financial backgrounds.

    I want to ask you about what the director of the Office of Government Ethics wrote in a letter this weekend. He said, to his knowledge, never in the 40 years has a nominee gone before a hearing without having their ethics review completed.

    Is that your understanding?


    That's extraordinary coming from an ethics office, words like that.

    Almost. The Republicans say there is one example where a hearing has been held of a nominee who did not file their ethics paperwork. That is Rod Paige. He was George W. Bush's education nominee way back in 2001. His ethics paperwork came eight days after his hearing, but, again, importantly, Judy, before the vote.

    But all of this, I think, Judy, the bottom line is senators are questioning nominees now before they have some of their paperwork.


    And again only one in 40 years?


    That's right. And this Office of Government Ethics reviews thousands of government appointees, every Cabinet nominee in the last 40 years. And there is only one exception that we know of to this rule until now.


    I guess one bottom line, Lisa, is, could these nominees go ahead and be subject to a Senate vote if that approval material, or that ethics approval is not done?


    The answer is no.

    And the reason is both Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, have said that they want all of this paperwork in before the full Senate vote.

    But, again, this is the review time. This is the chance when senators can actually scrutinize these nominees. And they're doing it in some cases without the full set of information to ask questions from.


    So, Lisa, a question you and I were discussing, we know Donald Trump talked in his campaign about changing the way Washington works. Is that what's happening here, or are we seeing a tinkering with tradition?


    I think that's absolutely what's happening here, because the way the Senate works is by tradition. And they are changing that tradition to some degree for Donald Trump.

    The Office of Government Ethics says the big problem here is that these are nominees who just didn't get their paperwork as early as in the past. They're complicated forms that they have to fill out, but the Trump transition team was aware of that.

    Now we have on the Senate all these hearings this week. By tradition, senators usually have this information in hand. This time, they don't. That is changing the way Washington works and scrutinizes our future government.


    Well, Lisa Desjardins, thank you. We are going to be occupied with this all this week, into next week.

    We have got, what, five separate confirmation hearings on Wednesday, several every day this week.


    Nine all week, yes.


    Trying to follow it all and do the best job we can covering it.

    Lisa, thank you.



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