Weak vetting led to Cabinet confirmation surprises – Politico
Steve Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s pick to be treasury Secretary, failed to list $100 million in assets on his federal disclosure forms. Vincent Viola, nominated to be Army secretary, punched a man in the face at a horse race last summer.
The ex-wife of Andrew Puzder, the labor secretary nominee, once appeared incognito on “Oprah” to raise domestic abuse allegations, which Puzder has denied. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary, struggled to demonstrate a basic comprehension of department policy and basic education terms during her hearing this week. Two nominees didn’t pay taxes on their household employees.
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This string of startling revelations over the past two weeks caught senior members of Trump’s staff by surprise, and they didn’t know some of the potential for problems before Senate confirmation hearings began, sources said. A person involved in preparing several nominees said, “They nominated these people first, and then they sort of vetted them. It’s exactly the reverse way you’re supposed to do it, and now you see the consequences.”
Ted Newton, a consultant who vetted potential nominees for Mitt Romney in 2012, said the best way to vet candidates is through repeated personal questions. “You want to see forms, you want to see their records,” he said. “But you really want to know, is there someone who would say something damaging about you, do you have any dark secrets, is there anything that will come out? You have a lot of questions that are unanswerable from paper.”
A transition official, who declined to provide an on-the-record quote, said Trump’s nominees were “thoroughly vetted” and predicted that all the nominees will be confirmed by the Senate. “They are prepared to serve on Day One in order to implement President-elect Trump’s pro-America policies,” the transition aide said.
Trump’s transition aides say there are “vet files” on each of the nominees and contend that some problems wouldn’t have been uncovered by transition officials no matter how thorough the background checks — which has been true of Cabinet nominees under previous presidents.
The team did take steps to prepare nominees for their appearances on Capitol Hill. The nominees were subjected to “murder boards,” three-hour mock hearings where they were grilled by volunteers standing in for senators.
The nominees collectively took thousands of questions from almost 200 participants, according to the transition team. A person who worked on DeVos’ panel said she was extensively questioned on education issues, and the team was privately disconcerted that she seemed to flub answers.
One attorney running the murder boards for the transition team had been confident about secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, based on his unflappable demeanor in multiple practice sessions. Yet Tillerson’s hearing was messy, as his waffling answers on his approach to dealing with Russia drew scorn from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Less was done to help uncover the potentially embarrassing or damaging information that’s come out. According to a person involved in the process, a team led by Gov. Chris Christie initially provided a cursory vetting of more than 200 proposed nominees before the election.
That list included a number of people Trump eventually picked to join his Cabinet. But the review was based on publicly available documents, rather than questionnaires or interviews, because the team didn’t want the names of those under consideration to leak, this person said. “Many of the Cabinet members were on the list,” this person said.
Amid the shock and jubilation at Trump Tower in the days that followed the election, a transition operation was re-established under the control of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
The office, based in Washington while the president-elect remained in New York, was staffed by a number of attorneys with experience overseeing transitions and preparing nominees for their congressional hearings. Several of them were new to the Trump operation. “No one thought they were going to win, so they didn’t have a lot of people,” said one source close to the campaign.
The process bore little resemblance to the one conducted in 2012 by Romney, who wanted FBI background checks and other reviews conducted to unearth red flags before the press or opposition researchers could. Trump told his aides to not conduct a background check on him.
After the election, Trump’s team took a largely dismissive approach to paperwork in the weeks after the election, two people involved said. A growing backlog of Cabinet nominees and other positions developed in the D.C. office, one person involved in the process said. Assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the prevailing spirit of broader Republican unity and pragmatism gave Trump Tower confidence that all of its nominees would be likely to win confirmation.
Many of the nominees weren’t deeply questioned on their business histories until they began preparing in earnest in recent weeks for their nomination hearings, though some were, according to the people involved with the process. Friends, former employees and others who might speak out against the nominees weren’t interviewed. Trump has mused to others that the media will vet nominees.
The less-than-aggressive vetting was in part the result of having a very wealthy group of Cabinet nominees without previous government experience, who were unfamiliar with and resistant to disclosure requirements — as well as public scrutiny. Some took steps to prepare themselves, including DeVos, who essentially vetted herself, according to the person who helped with her preparation.
So far, it seems that Trump’s bet has paid off. None of the details that have emerged about Trump’s nominees seem to have created serious obstacles to their confirmation. “It’s almost like all of the old rules don’t exist anymore,” said Newton, who vetted potential nominees for Mitt Romney in 2012. “In the past, nominees would have been disqualified for a tax issue or an illegal immigrant issue. It’s not necessarily in this environment going to sink someone. It seems people have a much higher tolerance for what used to be a scandal.”