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Trump Team Didn’t Put Nominees to ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll’ Test

Andrew Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, exits after his meeting with president-elect Donald Trump at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.
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Andrew Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, exits after his meeting with president-elect Donald Trump at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.

President Trump has blamed "obstruction by Democrats" for delays in confirming his senior appointments,

that "it is a disgrace that my full cabinet is still not in place."

But the slow pace of filling out Mr. Trump's cabinet can be attributed in part to decisions made in the early days of the nominee vetting process.

The Trump transition team deviated from the practices of recent Democratic and Republican administrations, according to five people directly involved with the transition process. The Trump team chose to skip a practice of grilling nominees to prepare them and protect the president from potential embarrassment during the confirmation process.

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Candidates, for example, were not asked about financial conflicts and past vices — known informally as the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" questions.

The rushed approach has led to some of Mr. Trump's nominees — many with immense wealth and complex business interests — being held back by unexpected revelations.

Representative Tom Price of Georgia, his pick for secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, placed stock trades that were questioned; Andrew F. Puzder, the labor secretary nominee, hired an undocumented household worker; Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, the choice for budget director, skipped paying taxes on a nanny; and Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary nominee, made major omissions about financial holdings.

"It was game time and they walked up without any uniforms on and with no playbook," Clay Johnson III, who directed George W. Bush's transition effort in 2000, said about the initial vetting process by Mr. Trump's administration.

So far, nine of Mr. Trump's nominees who require Senate confirmation have been approved. Eight years ago at this time, 12 of Barack Obama's appointments had been confirmed, while 15 of Mr. Bush's had been confirmed in 2001.

Throughout his campaign, through the transition and in the early days of his presidency, Mr. Trump has often chosen to do things his own way, ignoring protocols. After his election, Mr. Trump held court at Trump Tower in Manhattan, and other Trump properties, meeting with job candidates and celebrating the selection of his cabinet and White House staff — but before the routine background scrubbing that typically occurs.

In a significant omission, the new administration early on did not ask cabinet nominees and top White House officials to fill out the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" questionnaire that has become a routine part of the nomination process. The questionnaire was used by the past two administrations to help conduct the early vetting of potential cabinet nominees.

In addition to trying to determine potential financial and professional conflicts of interest, the questions concern areas of potential blackmail, past criminal investigations, and whether taxes have been paid for nannies and hired help.

The goal is to have the most serious issues facing a potential candidate figured out well before the F.B.I. conducts background checks and before financial disclosure statements are filed with the Office of Government Ethics.

In recent weeks, the administration has made efforts to catch up. It has hired an ethics compliance team, including four lawyers working for Donald F. McGahn, White House counsel.

And White House ethics officials have now begun circulating a new version of the questionnaire. The new form, unlike the previous one used by the Obama administration, asks nominees just one question about conflicts of interest and skips over queries about ties to corporations or investments in properties, according to a copy reviewed by The New York Times. The slimmed-down form focuses mainly on questions of character and potential lawsuits that could arise from sexual and racial harassment claims.

The White House did not respond to emails and calls requesting comment for this article.

The Trump team's approach of announce first, vet later has led to confusion, clearance delays and situations where candidates were unexpectedly thrust into a spotlight of public scrutiny. Already one prominent nominee — Vincent Viola, the candidate for secretary of the Army, has walked away after concluding that it would be an "insurmountable" task to disentangle himself from his many businesses.

Nominees have been caught off guard by their need to sell or distance themselves from unusual holdings, like stakes in private equity and hedge funds, family trusts and even professional sports franchises to steer clear of conflicts before taking a government post. In the case of Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the billionaire and commerce secretary nominee, ethics monitors granted him twice the normal 90-day period to sell off his assets, many of which are intimately tied up in private investment funds.

Despite the vetting issues, few, if any of Mr. Trump's cabinet nominees are expected to be rejected by the Senate.

Some people close to the nomination process said that officials with the Office of Government Ethics, which works with nominees to decide how to deal with potential conflicts, lacked an understanding of some of the more sophisticated financial investments held by nominees, making the process more difficult. Compared with previous administrations, Mr. Trump's government has more billionaires and multimillionaires.

The transition from a national political campaign to taking over the White House is always a difficult one. A new team of people assumes unfamiliar levers of power, while also going on a hiring spree — installing dozens of high-level appointees and droves of underlings.

In the case of the Trump administration, the transition was hampered by a management shake-up. Mr. Trump appointed Chris Christie, New Jersey governor, as chairman of his transition months before Election Day, but decided to remove him and much of his team soon after his victory.

The decision to oust Mr. Christie's team, without quickly putting in place a new one, left the administration, which must still fill hundreds of top jobs, ill prepared for the nomination process.

"The vetting process is designed to identify issues about fitness and confirmability prior to public announcement," said Leslie B. Kiernan, a former deputy White House counsel for President Obama and now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump.

The confirmation hearing for Mr. Puzder, the billionaire restaurant owner-nominee to head the Labor Department, was postponed several times because of a delay in filing his financial disclosure statement.

Mr. Puzder's hearing is now scheduled for Thursday after the ethics office on Wednesday cleared his financial disclosure statement and ethics agreement. In the agreement, Mr. Puzder said that if confirmed, he will divest himself of his holdings in CKE Restaurants, the operator of the Hardee's and Carl's Jr. fast-food chains that he heads.

In the case of the Trump administration, the transition was hampered by a management shake-up. Mr. Trump appointed Chris Christie, New Jersey governor, as chairman of his transition months before Election Day, but decided to remove him and much of his team soon after his victory.

The decision to oust Mr. Christie's team, without quickly putting in place a new one, left the administration, which must still fill hundreds of top jobs, ill prepared for the nomination process.

"The vetting process is designed to identify issues about fitness and confirmability prior to public announcement," said Leslie B. Kiernan, a former deputy White House counsel for President Obama and now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump.

The confirmation hearing for Mr. Puzder, the billionaire restaurant owner-nominee to head the Labor Department, was postponed several times because of a delay in filing his financial disclosure statement.

Mr. Puzder's hearing is now scheduled for Thursday after the ethics office on Wednesday cleared his financial disclosure statement and ethics agreement. In the agreement, Mr. Puzder said that if confirmed, he will divest himself of his holdings in CKE Restaurants, the operator of the Hardee's and Carl's Jr. fast-food chains that he heads.

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