Senate confirmation hearings usually focus on the people nominated to the government's most powerful positions. This time around, they'll focus on the man who nominated them.
The first batch of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees will start the confirmation process this week, with Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee today and a whopping five other nominees — including Trump's controversial picks for secretary of state and CIA director — heading to Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The hearings are already departing from the norm because they're taking place before government investigators have finished doing background checks on the nominees, many of whom have never served in government before and have vast wealth and complicated personal finances.
In a letter released Friday and first reported by the Washington Post, Walter M. Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, said he was "not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process."
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"More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings," Shaub added.
The hearings will be unusual for an even bigger and more important reason: They will be the first time that senior Trump appointees will have to answer, under oath, pointed questions about the shifting and often contradictory positions of the president they hope to serve.
That will be particularly true for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and for Mike Pompeo, Trump's pick to run the CIA. They'll undoubtedly face questions about their personal backgrounds — Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, has never held a government post, while Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas, has never worked in the intelligence community — but those are unlikely to take up the bulk of the hearings.
Instead, senators from both parties will almost certainly press the two men to defend and clarify Trump's vague, conflicting, and often enormously controversial views on issues ranging from Russia to torture to the future of the Israel-Palestine peace process.
Trump himself has managed to avoid answering those questions by refusing to hold press conferences — the one scheduled for Wednesday will be his first since July — and because there's no one with the power to compel a president-elect to explain his thinking.
Cabinet picks don't have those kinds of protections. That makes this week's confirmation hearings far more important than usual — and, potentially, far more explosive.
It's harder to get away with avoiding tough questions when you're under oath
Democrats have talked of trying to block Tillerson, who built a cordial relationship with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin during the years that Exxon was pursuing projects in that country that could have been worth more than $500 billion. Tillerson had also called for lifting the punishing US sanctions that were imposed on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Pompeo is likely to have an easier path to confirmation, even though he'll almost certainly face questions about having defended the CIA's torture program, called for the death penalty for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and said that Muslim leaders who didn't publicly condemn terror attacks were "potentially complicit in these acts."
There will be doubtless be tough questions about the men's own backgrounds and beliefs. But to a degree not seen in years, the toughest questions will be about the president-elect himself. Many of Trump's statements, especially on Russia and China, are alarming to members of both parties, while some are so vague that even his supporters don't necessarily know what he means by them.
In the space of just one week, for instance, Trump infuriated China by seemed to signal that he recognized the independence of Taiwan and then infuriated Taiwan by basically saying the future of the island was just a negotiating chip he planned to use in future talks with China.
Or take Russia. Trump has continued to stun fellow Republicans and infuriate many members of the nation's intelligence community by publicly disregarding the mounting evidence that Putin interfered in the US presidential election with the aim of helping Trump win the White House. Many Republicans are equally alarmed by Trump's ongoing praise of Putin, whom he has lauded as a "very strong leader" and someone who was "very smart!"
Tillerson can expect to face a barrage of questions about Trump's views on Russia, many likely to be framed as simple yes or no questions:
— Do you agree with the president-elect that Putin is a strong leader?
— Do you agree with the president-elect that the US should recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea?
— Do you agree with the president-elect that Putin can be a reliable ally in the US-led fight against ISIS and other Islamist terror groups?
Pompeo, for his part, will face similar types of questions about Trump's attacks on the intelligence community:
— Do you agree with the president-elect that CIA has become overly politicized and that its assessments of Russian hacking are flatly wrong?
— Do you think it's appropriate for the president-elect to publicly disparage the CIA at every turn while refusing to have the standard daily intelligence briefings given to his predecessors?
— Do you agree with the president-elect that [WikiLeaks'] Julian Assange is as trustworthy a source of information as the CIA?
Vikram Singh, who leads the national security program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that Tillerson and Pompeo could try to skirt the questions by using the confirmation hearing equivalent of pleading the Fifth.
"They could say, 'I haven't talked about that with the president-elect just yet, but if confirmed I look forward to talking to you about it in the near future,'" said Singh, formerly a senior Pentagon official under President Obama.
In the end, Trump may not really care what his Cabinet picks say — or think
Still, Singh said nominees like Tillerson might find themselves taking the questions about Trump's past statements head on, either because a senator found a way to force the issue or because the nominees genuinely decided that they didn't want to hold back.
With the president-elect giving his first press conference in months during the two confirmation hearings, "Trump and Tillerson might be saying opposing things live and in real time," Singh said.
"It will make for great television: a split screen of Tillerson on one side and Trump on the other," he added. "They'll get the same questions, but they won't be giving the same answers."
Commentary by Yochi Dreazen, a writer at Vox.
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