Cabinet hearings: What to watch this week

Posted at 6:51 PM, Jan 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-09 18:51:10-05

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for top Cabinet posts will be in the spotlight this week as the Senate holds a frenzy of confirmation hearings.

Democrats are likely to focus on Trump’s cozy ties with Russia — as well as his unexplored foreign policy positions — in hearings for posts including defense secretary, homeland security secretary and CIA director.

Lawmakers have also pressed Republicans to delay hearings or confirmation votes, saying they have not been properly vetted. As of Friday, the Office of Government Ethics told Democratic senators it had not received drafts of ethics forms from several nominee who have hearings this week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that Democrats need to “grow up.”

“All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration that having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate. I understand that. But we need to sort of, grow up here and get past that,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Here are the hearings to watch this week:

Jeff Sessions, attorney general

Hearing schedule: 9:30 a.m. Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee

The fireworks could begin at the first hearing for a Trump nominee. Sessions, the Alabama senator — once a US attorney and state attorney general — has long faced accusations of racism. He wasn’t confirmed for a federal judgeship in 1986 after ex-colleagues testified he had made racist comments and joked that his problem with the Ku Klux Klan was its use of marijuana.

The personal relationships Sessions has developed with senators since he was first elected in 1996 — and the close relationship between Sessions, who was among Trump’s earliest and strongest supporters in the Senate, and the President-elect — are Sessions’ strongest assets.

John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security

Hearing schedule: 3:30 p.m. Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee

Kelly was previously the head of US Southern Command, putting much of the US’ immediate vicinity under his purview — including the control of Guantanamo Bay. Trump has pledged the US will redouble its focus on its southern border and overhaul its approach to terror threats.

Rex Tillerson, secretary of state

Hearing schedule: 9 a.m. Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The ExxonMobil CEO’s work in foreign hot spots — including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — and his business acumen are among the reasons Trump selected him as America’s top diplomat.

But Tillerson’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — including the reception of Russia’s Order of Friendship — and will also come under intense scrutiny, because Tillerson has yet to weigh in on a host of foreign policy matters, including US sanctions on Russia in the wake of its incursion in Crimea.

Tillerson is also likely to face the brunt of questions about Trump’s own public cheerleading for Putin and Russia.

Mike Pompeo, CIA

Hearing schedule: 10 a.m. Wednesday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Tillerson won’t be the only nominee whose hearing will be dominated by Russia. Kansas GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, will also face questions about Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community in the wake of his public criticism of its conclusions on Russia’s hacking of the US election.

Expect Democrats to open fronts on torture, transparency, surveillance and unfiltered, fact-based assessments. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is the most liberal member of that committee, and he will likely hit the surveillance issue, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been very vocal on the torture report.

Betsy De Vos, education secretary

Hearing schedule: 10 a.m. Wednesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

The billionaire education reformer will be a litmus test on the school reforms — particularly vouchers and charter schools — championed for years by conservatives, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But she has no experience working in education. DeVos, Democrats are certain to point out, has never worked as a teacher or school administrator, and sent her children to private school. That disconnect is unusual for a post leading the nation’s education department, which doles out dollars to the public schools that DeVos acknowledges her positions threaten.

Elaine Chao, transportation secretary

Hearing schedule: 10:15 a.m. before the Senate Commerce Committee

Chao has been in this position before, when she was nominated as President George W. Bush’s secretary of Labor. She also has a history at the Department of Transportation, as deputy secretary during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Chao would play a key role in for the administration in getting an infrastructure measure through Congress and directing spending through DOT.

Her husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

James Mattis, defense secretary

Hearing schedule: 9:30 a.m. Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee

The retired general nicknamed “Mad Dog” and known for once quipping that it’s “fun to shoot some people” is known for leading the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq and is widely respected on Capitol Hill.

His hearing, though, is another likely to turn into another referendum on Trump’s approach to Russia — as well as the President-elect’s untested plans to combat ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Mattis has already clashed with his new bosses over the over the transition selecting a secretary of the Army without his input, several sources told CNN, including threatening to quit if the transition team tried to appoint more people without him.

Ben Carson, housing and urban development secretary

Hearing schedule: 10 a.m. Thursday before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee

Carson — like Trump — was part of the 2016 Republican presidential primary’s political newcomer class. His story of a hardscrabble upbringing in Detroit, overcoming his own violent tendencies before becoming a leading brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, and his religious faith shot him to conservative stardom.

But Carson also has no experience in public housing or urban policy. His most direct step into housing policy came in an op-ed in which he criticized the Obama administration’s efforts to shift public housing out of lower-class, minority-dominated neighborhoods.

Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary

Hearing schedule: 10 a.m. Thursday before the Senate Commerce Committee

Ross, a New York billionaire businessman, is likely to face tough questioning from Democrats eager to portray his record as at odds with Trump’s populist appeal to working Americans during the campaign. Should he be confirmed, Ross is expected to have an outsized impact on US trade policy compared to past Commerce secretaries as he would be put in charge of overseeing US trade policy and renegotiating existing trade deals, in line with Trump’s campaign pledges.

Although Ross has advocated for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a potential deal Trump has railed against, he has also signaled opposition to free trade deals in the past. In a CNN interview after Trump’s selection, Ross said his first goal would be to renegotiate NAFTA.