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The three most dreaded words for Trump nominees in their confirmation hearings: ‘Donald Trump said …’

The Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains how confirmation hearings in the Senate work. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet-level picks feature a swarm of millionaires and billionaires with more than a few potential conflicts of interest and very little government experience.

In other words, they're a lot like the man they'll be working for — and Senate Democrats who won't get a chance to fire tough questions at Trump himself will get to direct plenty of them at his nominees. (National security experts at the center-left think tank Third Way have released a detailed wish list of possible confirmation pain.)

Trump and some of his more controversial views are expected to play heavy in the blitz of confirmation hearings that start this week. Senate Democrats may not be able to keep anyone from getting Senate approval — but they can make the process of acquiring it as uncomfortable/awkward as possible. They'll do that by asking the nominees some tough questions:

1. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), nominee for attorney general

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been implementing big changes at the Justice Department. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Sessions was one of Trump's first high-profile supporters. A hard-liner who generally opposes immigration, drug legalization and laws that gay rights supporters champion, Sessions is one of the most conservative members in the Senate. If confirmed, he will lead the Justice Department, which has wide latitude over enforcement of the nation's laws. His hearing starts Tuesday.

Q: Of the Ku Klux Klan, you're on record saying: 'I thought those guys were okay until I learned they smoked pot'; and the NAACP 'hates white people'; and, to a black colleague, 'You ought to be careful as to what you say to white folks.' Explain those comments.

Sessions's nomination has become a lightning rod among civil rights group, in part because the Senate denied him a judgeship in 1986 over claims that he made the above racially insensitive comments. ("I am not a racist,” Sessions said at the time.) More than 150 activist groups, including the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign, have protested his nomination. Sessions probably will have to watch his words on anything to do with race, including voting rights issues the Justice Department will oversee.

Q: A Washington Post review of your financial holdings found you failed to disclose interests of oil ownership on land in Alabama, as required by federal ethics rules. Why would you omit that?

Senate Democrats are already worried that Republicans are rushing through nominees without full background checks, and this omission is not a good start. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee that will review Sessions's nomination, said that not disclosing this (relatively small) holding “is a serious matter.”

Q: Do you agree with Trump that this election saw “millions of people” vote illegally?

Sessions would be charged with implementing the president's voting rights initiatives — a president who has made the above bogus, unproven claim that has voting rights advocates worried about what else may be thrown at them.

2. Retired Gen. John Kelly, nominee for homeland security secretary

Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly is the secretary of homeland security under President Trump. Here's what you need to know about him. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Osman Malik/The Washington Post, Photo: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Kelly, a border hawk, is nominated to run the Department of Homeland Security. Created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help coordinate the United States' response, the agency also has a role in immigration. His hearing starts Tuesday.

Q: Should the United States deport all 11 million immigrants in the country illegally?

This was one of Trump's most controversial campaign promises, and Kelly would be tasked with overseeing it, despite the fact that many immigration experts say it's not feasible. It could also produce a showdown with Democratic-run cities that want to remain sanctuaries for some undocumented immigrants.

Q: How would the United States make Mexico pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border?

In the absence of a check from Mexico, Congress is pursuing ways to fund a wall or some kind of barrier — with taxpayer money. That could backfire for Republicans, both financially and politically.

Q: Are there any circumstances under which you would support immigration laws based on religious grounds?

Kelly would also oversee some counterterrorism operations, and he has struck a hard line on terrorism. But he hasn't gone so far as to back Trump's call to temporarily ban Muslims, or people from countries that Trump thinks are tied to terrorism, from entering the United States.

3. ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, nominee for secretary of state

President-elect Donald Trump has picked Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. Here's what you need to know about Tillerson. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Victoria Walker, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Tillerson is perhaps one of the few nominees who can expect tough questions from both sides of the aisle, given that some GOP senators on the Foreign Relations Committee reviewing Tillerson's nomination have expressed concern about his economic and personal connections to Russia. His hearing is on Wednesday.

Q: USA Today reported the Securities and Exchange Commission has found that ExxonMobil, while you were CEO, quietly did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan through a European go-between. Did you direct violations of U.S. trade policy?

Some senators were already concerned that Tillerson's many personal and professional ties to Russia — where his company has extensive business ties — would hamper his ability to get tough on a country that just tried to interfere in the U.S. election, especially because he'd be serving under a president who has indicated that he wants closer ties with Russia. But it isn't just a one-off. The company where Tillerson has worked for the past four decades (and run for more than a decade) has dealings in a laundry list of other hostile nation-states. Tillerson is untying himself financially from the company (at a personal cost of $7 million), but the fact remains that he has spent more than four decades around the world making the case for ExxonMobil to some less-than-savory foreign governments. 

Q: Trump has not acknowledged Russia interfered in the U.S. election. Do you believe it did?

Any question that puts Trump's nominees in the hot seat for his controversial positions is going to be tough, but perhaps none tougher than this one — he still hasn't acknowledged what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded: that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to influence the election and undermine American democracy. 

Q: Should the United States continue to punish Russia for what intelligence officials said was a widespread, unprecedented effort the interfere in the election?

A red line for hawkish GOP senators on the Foreign Relations Committee reviewing Tillerson's nomination, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), could be whether Tillerson would approve of congressional sanctions on Russia for the hacking into Democratic Party emails and propagating fake news.

4. Ben Carson, nominee for housing and urban development secretary

Former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson is now President Trump's housing and urban development secretary. Here's what you need to know about him. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Osman Malik/The Washington Post, Photo: Joe Raedle/The Washington Post)

Carson, a onetime rival of Trump's during the presidential primary, is nominated to lead the agency charged with implementing public housing programs and federal programs to make housing more affordable, especially in inner cities. He has no experience in this area, but his rags-to-riches story of growing up poor in Detroit and later Boston is well known, and one he'll probably champion as an asset in this job. His hearing is Thursday.

Q: You've once said “poverty is really more of a choice” than anything else and criticized fair housing laws as a “social-engineering scheme.” Given these statements, why should we trust you with programs aimed at mitigating poverty?

Critics and housing experts are indeed concerned that the way Carson and Trump have framed poverty both marginalizes and oversimplifies it. “I'd be lying if I said that I'm not concerned about the possibility of going backward, over the next four years,” the current HUD Secretary, Julián Castro, told NPR. Carson's confirmation hearing — and his role as secretary — are likely to be a classic right vs. left battle of the role of government intervention in people's lives, a battle line Trump himself has appeared to cross.

Q: You originally declined a role in the Trump administration because, in the words of one of your closest advisers, Armstrong Williams: “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he's never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.” So why are you trying to run a federal agency?

No one knows better than Carson that sometimes, surrogates say things. This would be a particularly unfortunate thing.

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