WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate should not move ahead on President-elect Donald Trump’s picks for top jobs, including some of the wealthiest Americans, until they provide complete financial disclosure statements and meet ethical standards, the senior Democrats on panels responsible for confirming nominees said Thursday.
Several of Trump’s nominees are billionaires whose holdings could raise conflicts of interest. Sixteen Democrats issued the statement after preliminary contacts with some of the nominees failed to satisfy Democrats’ expectations for information such as tax returns and other disclosures regarding financial holdings.
“The United States Senate has a rich, bipartisan tradition of vetting nominees to the president’s Cabinet,” the lawmakers wrote in the statement, which was released by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader. “We hope to continue that tradition.”
Democrats have limited options to block nominees outright because they changed filibuster rules when they controlled the Senate in 2013. But they could force longer debates than usual at the start of an administration, when many nominees have traditionally been swiftly confirmed on voice votes.
“President-elect Trump refused to release his tax returns and will start his presidency consumed by questions about how he could be using his position to enrich himself and his family, but that doesn’t mean that his nominees should be held to the same low standards,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “So I would hope and expect that these nominees will, at the very least, follow the usual bipartisan process to make sure that the people we represent have every opportunity to scrutinize them for potential conflicts of interest, ethics issues, or anything else that would cause legitimate concerns about their confirmation.”
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, responsible for shepherding picks such as Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, says Democrats are playing politics. He says they are asking for disclosures not demanded of previous nominees, including wealthy people like Secretary of State John Kerry.
“This is being driven by the election,” Corker, R-Tenn., told The Associated Press. “The fact that Donald Trump did not provide tax returns is driving all that is being done.”
The issue has the potential to produce a major political battle in the opening days of Trump’s administration. Democrats can force 30 hours of debate on nominations if they choose, but Republicans can approve them by a simple majority vote — instead of the 60 votes that were required before Democrats gutted the filibuster rule.
Republicans controlling the Senate want to make quick work of Cabinet confirmations once Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
But the group of senior Democrats, including those responsible for reviewing Trump’s choices to head the departments of State, Defense and Justice, are insisting that each pick should clear an FBI background check, fill out a financial disclosure form and have “satisfied reasonable requests of additional information.”
The potential for conflict involves high-profile picks, such as Tillerson and Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive who’s been selected for treasury secretary.
Senate Democratic aides have claimed that Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late last week that he would, if asked, provide lawmakers with his and his wife’s federal and state tax returns for the past three years. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
But Corker is refuting that assertion. “That is not true,” Corker said. “He’s never said he would provide tax returns.”
Corker said that the committee’s own financial disclosure forms “are very expansive. They actually provide more information than a tax return does.”
“We’re going to operate exactly the same way that we’ve been operating the 10 years that I’ve been on the committee,” Corker added. “We’ve never asked for tax returns. It’s not what we do on our committee.”