It’s a whirlwind week for President-elect Donald Trump as he and many of his incoming cabinet choices will face their most direct public scrutiny yet since November’s election.
The next few days could decide whether Trump’s favored picks to run the government can survive confirmation and whether Trump can dispel ethics concerns about his business empire.
Until now, Trump has largely driven public conversation through short statements and tweets, like his latest feud with Meryl Streep. Bucking the usual tradition for incoming presidents, he has not held a press conference since way back in July, when he called on Russia to hack his opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails and leak them to the public. Trump has a tendency to contradict his own aides, so statements by purported spokesman can offer only so much guidance as to his thinking.
On Wednesday, however, he’ll hold a long-awaited press conference to unveil his plans for his business and how he intends to avoid conflicts of interest.
Among the pent-up questions for Trump: How will he address warnings from legal experts that his plans to turn his business empire over to his children will create ethics problems? How will he prevent foreign actors from trying to curry favor by spending money at his businesses, investing with his kids, or boosting his projects abroad? And how will the public be able to verify there are no conflicts given that Trump has released limited information on his finances and — in a break from decades of precedent — no tax returns?
Trump’s limited dealings with the press have made it difficult to pinpoint his position on issues like Russian hacking, where he’s criticized intelligence agency assessments and promised to reveal new information countering their conclusions. (So far, he hasn't followed through.) There’s also ongoing confusion about his position on health care, where Republicans are struggling to find consensus on a plan to quickly repeal large parts of Obamacare.
Looming in the background are ongoing and pivotal policy debates, as Republicans await guidance on a plan to repeal Obamacare and Trump measures his response to an intelligence report that accused Vladimir Putin of hacking Democratic officials to boost his campaign.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) claimed this week that Trump endorsed his plan to pass a replacement at the same time as repeal, which would upend plans by GOP leaders to tackle the process after passing a partial repeal that would take effect later. Trump, however, has yet to publicly weigh in.
Starting Tuesday, Trump’s cabinet picks will also get their closeup as senators from both parties grill them on their qualifications, views, and independence from Trump.
Even before they begin, however, the hearings have become fodder for another fight over transparency. On Friday, the head of the Office of Government Ethics issued a letter expressing “great concern” that some of Trump’s choices had yet to complete financial and ethics reviews before their hearings.
Democrats seized on the OGE letter to call for a delay in hearings, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed their complaints, saying nominees will resolve any outstanding issues before a final confirmation vote. Identifying and addressing potential conflicts could take more time than prior cabinets as several nominees are, like Trump himself, billionaires with vast financial holdings.
On Tuesday, the Senate begins its first hearings as committees are set to question Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s pick for attorney general, and retired Gen. John Kelly, his choice to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Of these two, Sessions has attracted the most controversy. Democrats have seized on allegations by former colleagues that he made offensive racial comments as a young attorney, which scuttled his nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986. Sessions has denied any racial animus. Progressive activists are also targeting Sessions, a close adviser to Trump, over his hardline stance on immigration and record on voting rights.
The next most-anticipated hearing is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is Trump’s choice for secretary of state, on Wednesday. Tillerson’s business relationship with Putin raised concerns among some Republican senators when his nomination was first announced, but he has impressed some key lawmakers in private interviews.
”I think that what people are going to find when they see Tillerson in the hearings is he’s very much in the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy thinking,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who was also considered for the position, told reporters last week after speaking with Tillerson.
He’ll almost certainly face a long set of questions on his stance toward Russia. Democrats will likely press him on his stance on climate change as well and whether he supports the Paris agreement, which Trump threatened to abandon during the campaign but Tillerson backed as CEO.
Other nominees facing the Senate on Wednesday include Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), Trump’s choice for CIA director, and Elaine Chao, his pick for transportation secretary who previously served as labor secretary and is married to McConnell. Betsy DeVos, Trump's choice for education secretary, was scheduled to have a hearing but the ranking senators on the education committee announced late Monday that it would be postponed until Jan. 17.
Thursday’s scheduled hearings include retired Gen. James Mattis for secretary of defense, former Republican presidential candidate and surgeon Ben Carson for head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, billionaire Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, and fast food executive Andy Puzder as labor secretary.