To be clear, the hearing wasn’t a total disaster for Tillerson. His odds of confirmation remained unchanged at the end of Wednesday: If Tillerson can convince a few skeptical Republican hawks like Marco Rubio that he’s not worth opposing, he will be confirmed. But his troubles do suggest a rocky road ahead for several other key Cabinet nominees — and an opportunity for Democrats to start changing the narrative against Trump.
Like several other of Trump’s most-eyebrow-raising choices for his Cabinet, Tillerson is an uber-wealthy businessperson with no government experience. His decades at the head of an international behemoth and the fact that he had already finished his ethics and financial disclosure filings suggested that his road to confirmation would be easier than some others of similar backgrounds. He worked with a prepping staff that Trump people bragged about to the Beltway press: “Asked how many mock confirmation hearings each nominee is doing, another transition official said, ‘Enough to be perfect.'” And yet Tillerson was far from “perfect.”
Other nominees in this “wealthy neophyte” mold start their travels facing more obstacles. There are the conflicts of interest: Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and Commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross have both had their hearings pushed back because of delays in completing their ethics reports; Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin and Labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder still haven’t had their hearings scheduled for the same reason. (Puzder’s appearance could be as late as February.) Again, Tillerson seemed to be ready and prepped, yet there were easy fumbles. What thorny issues await these four, and who thinks all of them will sail through without embarrassing mistakes?
The real opportunity for Trump opponents, though, lies in the records of several of these nominees, which deeply undercut Trump’s faux populism. Tillerson’s big controvesies — with the exception of the company’s environmental record — mostly don’t intersect with pocketbook issues. Mnuchin’s Goldman Sachs background and profiteering off the foreclosure crisis — his bank tried to evict a 90-year-old woman over a 27-cent payment error and was accused of “widespread misconduct” — will leave a more sour taste in voters’ mouths. The same goes for Ross’s ownership of a mine where 12 workers died in an explosion in 2006, Puzder’s company’s treatment of workers — Republicans refused to allow Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s workers to testify at his hearing — and DeVos’s disastrous years-long crusade to undermine public education in Michigan, as well as her strong-arming of politicians to achieve it.
In the next few weeks, confirmation hearings will be some of Democrats’ best chances to control the news of the day. (Not every hearing will overlap with a Trump news conference.) It will be easy for them to cry “conflict of interest”; it will be much more crucial to pound away on these nominees’ records and to tie them together in a broader message to voters: Trump claimed he would “drain the swamp” and stand up for you, but he is doing exactly the opposite — building an administration that has little sympathy for ordinary Americans’ concerns. Thankfully, Trump and his team, with questionable picks and poor prep, have made that job a little easier.