Senate Democrats are approaching the January confirmation battle over Donald Trump’s Cabinet as a chance to launch their political comeback and expose the president-elect as a fraud.
Lawmakers know they’re unlikely, at best, to stop any of Trump’s Cabinet picks from being installed. But they still see major opportunity in the confirmation hearings. The goal, according to lawmakers and aides: to depict Trump’s chosen inner circle of billionaires and conservative hard-liners as directly at odds with the working-class Americans he vowed to help.
“His campaign, based on his nominations, was a charade. [H]e sold the American public on a story that is a false story. It is a scam,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who was recently promoted to chief deputy whip. “He said: ‘I’m for working people and for taking on Wall Street, I’m for draining the swamp.’ And his nominees say the exact opposite.”
Senate Democrats want to force Trump’s picks to lay down markers on specific policies that can be used to build a case against the incumbent as his administration unfolds and the next election approaches, insiders said. More immediately, they want to begin to make the case to Trump voters that what they voted for is a far cry from what they’ll be getting with the next president.
Democrats believe they have a target-rich environment. Trump’s selections to run the Transportation Department and Small Business Administration, Elaine Chao and Linda McMahon, will probably move quickly. But the other selections, they say, have serious vulnerabilities to exploit — whether it’s Rex Tillerson’s ties to big oil and Russia, Steven Mnuchin’s Wall Street career, Betsy DeVos’ antipathy toward public schools or Tom Price’s past support for overhauling Medicare.
“You’ve got a woman whose mission in life for the Department of Education is to privatize the public education system. You’ve got this secretary of HHS designee whose mission has been to raise the eligibility age for Medicare,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who will help oversee Ben Carson’s confirmation as housing secretary on the Banking Committee. “You need a scorecard to keep up with the attack on American values.”
Republicans predict the Democratic plan will flop.
“Senate Democrats spent the last eight years explaining the need for a president to have the team he nominates,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Surely it wasn’t simply partisan posturing.”
Democrats need time and ammunition to execute their case. So they’re laying the groundwork to draw out the confirmation process — not for the sake of delay, they say, but to train attention on each of the nominees.
They’re planning to press for lengthy — in some cases multiday — committee hearings for most of Trump’s nominees, followed by a floor debate. On Thursday, the top Democrats on 16 committees issued a “statement of principles” arguing that nominees should not receive committee votes until they’ve cleared an FBI background check, completed financial disclosure forms and provided other requested material.
“You’re talking at least a month-and-a-half, a couple of months to get [through] all the Cabinet nominees,” Merkley said.
Republicans have other ideas. They want to mow through the confirmation process and move on to repealing Obamacare and reforming the tax code. If Democrats delay, a senior GOP aide said, “we will make them vote at 3 in the morning.”
As for the ammunition, Democratic committee staffers and outside groups such as the Center for American Progress are digging into the records of Trump’s Cabinet selections in search of embarrassing skeletons.
American Bridge is coordinating with Senate leaders and rank-and-file Democrats on opposition research, a task that most Senate staffers were not preparing to do before Trump’s surprise win. The group is digging around on Tillerson, Mnuchin, DeVos, attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Environmental Protection Agency pick Scott Pruitt.
“Trump clearly hasn’t vetted his nominees, so it’s up to us to do the work and expose his Cabinet as a group of billionaires looking out for their own interests,” said Kevin McAlister, a spokesman for American Bridge. “Our goal is to help Senate Democrats keep Trump historically unpopular throughout his administration, starting with these nomination fights.”
Democrats are also demanding new disclosures of all Cabinet nominees’ tax records, to bolster their case that they and the president-elect are out to enrich themselves. Just three committees generally receive nominees’ tax returns.
Trump and Republicans are unlikely to acquiesce. But Democrats believe they already have enough to go after Cabinet selections like Mnuchin, whose record purchasing distressed loans, they say, is one of their strongest rebuttals to Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric.
“My view is, based on what I’ve learned this far, is that he was profiting off predatory loans,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee. “This is something that we were told wasn’t going to happen in the campaign.”
Another established attack line is on DeVos, whom Democrats want to pay a years-old election fine of more than $5 million. DeVos has fought back, employing a spokesman who regularly blasts out refutations of any critical reporting about the prospective education secretary.
Democrats privately concede that Sessions is likely to win confirmation. But they want to make the vote as painful as possible for Republicans in states with large Hispanic populations, such as Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.). Sessions has one of the most conservative records in the Senate on immigration.
“That vote will be brutal,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Similarly, Democrats want to make Republicans squirm when it comes time to vote on Tillerson, who has a personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin from his role atop ExxonMobil.
“It was more than just a business relationship. There’s a personal relationship there … we need to drill down on whether he will put U.S. interests ahead of personal friendship,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment for this story. And not all Democrats are on board with the tactics.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has unleashed a blistering attack on Republicans for pushing changes to Medicare. That’s been augmented by the nomination of Price, who has previously pushed for an overhaul to the entitlement program.
But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) doesn’t see the connection.
“I’ve heard President-elect Trump say he’s not for privatizing Social Security and he’s not for privatizing Medicare,” Manchin said. “I would think Tom Price has mellowed out.”
The elimination of the filibuster for Cabinet nominees is forcing Democrats now to adapt their strategy and end game. Before they could have zeroed in on one Cabinet selection to block, and then allowed select Democrats to vote against individual nominees based on their parochial political interests, while still allowing the picks to be confirmed.
Lacking that leverage, Democrats will be liberated to launch an all-out rhetorical assault on Trump and congressional Republicans. The result is expected to be a much more partisan and political confirmation process.
“We’ve never seen the kind of radical nominees that Trump has put up. And frankly, we’ve never seen nominees with this little experience,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We need some time to talk to the American public about what the consequences are.”
Republicans argue that the GOP swallowed almost all of President Barack Obama’s nominees within the first couple weeks and that Democrats’ plans to mount a sustained attack on Trump’s Cabinet belies Senate tradition.
But given the chamber’s rules, Democrats could drag out the process well into February or possibly beyond.
“Every one of these nominees has to be scrutinized closely and exactingly,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “One by one.”