Lawmakers kicked off a second whirlwind day of hearings to confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, beginning with Trump’s pick for the nation’s top diplomat, longtime oil executive Rex Tillerson, who will likely face intense scrutiny about his business history abroad.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, faces a second day of hearings Wednesday. And Trump’s choice to lead the Transportation Department, Elaine Chao, will also face questioning.
Wednesday’s developments could set the tone for the early days of Trump’s administration, with three high-profile confirmation hearings coming on the same morning the president-elect holds his first news conference since Election Day. Trump and his team are also dealing with the fallout of unconfirmed claims, published Tuesday evening, that Russian intelligence services have compromising information on the president-elect.
Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s former chief executive, is expected to face aggressive questioning over the company’s vast international business dealings and his ties to Russian interests. Tillerson would come into the position with no previous experience in government, although his allies have touted his business record and experience with international business as a strength.
“I also consider Rex Tillerson’s experience and knowledge in business as an asset, as well as his knowledge of Russia. I think both are assets, not liabilities,” said Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, one of several men who introduced Tillerson and vouched for his qualifications at the beginning of the hearing. Nunn is a nuclear nonproliferation expert.
Tillerson also received a warm introduction at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing from former defense secretary Robert Gates, whom he called “my friend” and “superbly qualified” for the role.
“He would be candid and honest, willing to tell the president straight from the shoulder what he needs to hear,” Gates said. “He would bring decades of experience as a tough and successful negotiator with foreign governments to the position.”
Gates preemptively defended Tillerson on questions about his ties to Russia, citing his own decades-long career with the CIA fighting “the epic struggle with the Soviet Union.”
“This new administration must thread the needle between pushing back against Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, meddling, interventionism, ambitions and bullying — and at the same time find a way to stop a dangerous downward spiral in our relationship with Russia,” Gates said. “I believe Mr. Tillerson is the right person at the right time to help accomplish both of those goals.”
Tillerson painted a grim view of international geopolitics in his opening remarks, claiming that an absence of America leadership has “emboldened” adversaries like North Korea and Iran. He said the United States has “stumbled” and “cast American leadership into doubt” in recent decades, criticizing the United States for having “withdrawn from the world” in some instances and also for intervening abroad unnecessarily at other times.
“As we confront these realities, how should America respond? My answer is simple: To achieve the stability that is foundational to peace and security in the 21st century, American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson said that defeating the Islamic State terrorist organization must be the country’s chief foreign policy priority. Seemingly anticipating questions about Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, including his previous calls to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, Tillerson said his State Department would do “its part in supporting Muslims around the world who reject radical Islam in all its forms.”
Under questioning, Tillerson presented his approach to foreign policy as simultaneously vigorous and pragmatic.
“I am an engineer by training. I seek to understand the facts, follow where they lead, and apply logic to our international affairs. We must see the world for what it is, have clear priorities, and understand that our power is considerable, but it is not infinite,” he said. “We will never apologize for who we are or what we hold dear. We will see the world for what it is, be honest with ourselves and the American people, follow facts where they lead us, and hold ourselves and others accountable.”
Tillerson struck an aggressive tone on Russia, agreeing with Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) -- the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee -- that Putin has failed on human rights, supporting sanctions on Russian leaders and stating that he believes Russia has no rightful claim to Crimea. Tillerson also said that he would have provided Ukraine with military support after Russia annexed Crimea.
The hearings on Trump’s nominees began Tuesday with consideration of Sessions and retired Marine Gen. James Kelly to serve as homeland security secretary. Republicans’ fast-paced plans to confirm Trump’s Cabinet nominees were upended Tuesday amid Democratic pressure to slow the schedule as a federal ethics watchdog reviewing nominees’ backgrounds warned that it could take months to probe some of the wealthier picks.
The schedule for a packed day of proceedings Wednesday was revised late Monday, when the Senate health and education panel postponed a hearing on Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, until next week. The committee also announced that a scheduled hearing next week with Andrew Puzder, Trump’s choice for labor secretary, might not happen until February because of scheduling conflicts.
The Senate Intelligence Committee also postponed until Thursday a hearing for Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to serve as CIA director. The panel had originally scheduled Pompeo for Wednesday.
There were no indications Tuesday that any of Trump’s Cabinet choices are at risk of being rejected by the Senate — a rare occurrence — and Republican leaders continued to insist that all of Trump’s choices would be confirmed. But the calendar changes followed days of Republican assurances that hearings would commence quickly and simultaneously.
“We are in the process of having all the hearings as rapidly as we can,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “It is still my hope that regardless of the hearing schedule, some of which has been moved slightly, we will be in position to confirm a significant number of the president’s nominees on Day One.”
McConnell said he especially hopes to have most if not all of Trump’s national security team in place on the first day of his presidency.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will lead Tillerson’s hearing Wednesday as chairman of the foreign relations panel.
“On one hand, you don’t want the other side of the aisle to set your schedule, on the other hand you want to be flexible and to try to accommodate,” Corker said, noting that he scheduled the Tillerson hearing weeks ago in cooperation with Democrats.
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had been pressuring McConnell to reconsider the packed schedule. He never suggested that Trump’s choices would be defeated but rather that Democrats deserve more time to review them more carefully.
On Tuesday, Schumer called McConnell’s plans to delay the hearings “a very good first step.”
“This proposed Cabinet is unlike any other in terms of its wealth, corporate connections and hard-right ideological views, and the American people deserve nothing less than open and deliberate hearings going forward,” Schumer said in a statement. “Democrats will do everything we can to make sure that happens.”
Schumer’s arguments for delay were buoyed last weekend by Walter M. Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, who complained to senators that his agency was struggling to review the extensive backgrounds of so many wealthy Trump nominees who had never been subjected to public scrutiny.
As of Monday, the OGE had released reports for five top picks subject to hearings this week: Chao, Pompeo, Sessions, Tillerson and defense nominee James Mattis, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday. But the agency had not posted reports for the four others: DeVos, Kelly, commerce nominee Wilbur Ross and Ben Carson, tapped to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
DeVos’s hearing, originally scheduled to take place Wednesday morning, has been rescheduled for Jan. 17 at 5 p.m.
Democrats objected loudly to the fact that DeVos’s hearing was scheduled to occur before the OGE could finish her ethics review. But a joint Republican-Democratic statement from the committee announcing the schedule change said that the panel had moved the date “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.”