What to Expect When You're Expecting a Confirmation Fight

Republicans and Team Trump are trying to rush through hearings for several controversial cabinet picks this week

Hearings for Donald Trump's cabinet nominees begin Tuesday.
What to Expect When You're Expecting a Confirmation Fight

On January 20th, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States. Once that happens – God help us – he'll need other people to help him run the federal government.

This week Senate Democrats have the unhappy job of trying to vet the individuals Trump has selected for his cabinet – unhappy because even if the nominees are woefully unqualified, comically unfit or openly hostile to the mission of the agency they've been tapped to run, there's nothing Democrats can do to stop them from confirmation without convincing at least three Republicans to cross party lines.

Trump's appointees could do virtually anything and still get a hearing, up to and including refusing to fill out their financial disclosure forms or offer information about their potential conflicts of interest. Indeed, according to the Office of Government Ethics, three of the appointees with hearings set this week – Ben Carson, John Kelly and Wilbur Ross – haven't yet filed mandatory disclosures. (A fourth, Betsy DeVos, had her hearing postponed late Monday for precisely that reason.)

OGE Director Walter Shaub expressed "great" concern about this situation in a letter to Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier this week, warning the Democrats of "potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues."

Confirmation hearings, which kick off over Shaub's objections Tuesday morning, will go like this: Each appointee will receive a hearing in front of the relevant Senate committee, at the end of which that committee can either kill the nomination or send it to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation, an unfavorable recommendation or no recommendation at all.

Once on the Senate floor, the nominee can be confirmed by a simple majority, thanks to a rule change Democrats pushed through in 2013. (Those who have hearings this week and next can't be confirmed by a floor vote until Trump officially assumes office on the 20th.) Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the chamber, so most, if not all, of Trump's nominees are expected to sail through the process, like a majestic bald eagle moments before it's sucked into a storm drain.

As if that weren't enraging enough for Senate Dems, their Republican colleagues and Team Trump appear to be doing the best they can to minimize airtime for the most controversial hearings. For instance, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is scheduled to appear before the Committee of Foreign Relations the same day senators will vote on whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is also the day they'll hold hearings for three other Trump appointees and the first time Trump will take questions from reporters in 167 days.

Don't let them get away with it; keep your eye on the ball, even as Trump tries to distract us with tweets about his once-favorite actress. Here's what to watch this week.

Jeff Sessions
Who: Nominee for attorney general
When: Starts Tuesday, 9:30 a.m., and expected to stretch into Wednesday
Where: Before the Senate Judiciary Committee
What's in store: Sessions, who once sat on the very committee that will confirm or reject his nomination, will be the first of Trump's cabinet to face questioning. But Tuesday won't be the first time Sessions has appeared before the Judiciary committee – in 1986, it rejected his nomination for a federal judgeship after a former colleague testified about racist comments Sessions was said to have made as a federal prosecutor. After his nomination was blocked, Sessions was made attorney general of Alabama, where he opposed the expansion of voting rights, prosecuted civil rights leaders and blocked black judges from the bench. For these reasons and more, NAACP President Cornell Brooks (one of five NAACP members arresting for occupying Sessions' office in protest of his nomination last week) and ACLU legal director David Cole will both appear at the hearing, to urge senators to reject Sessions' nomination.

John Kelly
Who: Nominee for secretary of homeland security
When: Tuesday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
What to expect: A relatively easy confirmation, despite Kelly having not yet filed a disclosure with the Office of Governmental Ethics. The general, who served as senior military assistant to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his predecessor Robert Gates, enjoys bipartisan support for his nomination. Gates, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is scheduled to introduce Kelly.

Rex Tillerson
Who: Nominee for secretary of state
When: Wednesday, 9:15 a.m.
Where: Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
What to expect: Democrats and Republicans alike will have sharp questions for Tillerson, albeit for different reasons. Dems will undoubtedly use the opportunity to compel the ExxonMobil head to answer under oath questions about Exxon's decades-long campaign to suppress research that showed burning fossil fuels causes global warming. Tillerson will also have to answer questions about his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin (committee member Rubio has his expressed dismay about the connection) and about the recent revelations that ExxonMobil did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan, flouting U.S. sanctions, under his watch.

Mike Pompeo
Who: Nominee for CIA director
When: Wednesday, 10 a.m.
Where: Senate Committee on Intelligence
What to expect: Pompeo, one of Hillary Clinton's chief antagonists on the Benghazi committee, will face questions about his full-throated support for the use of torture, and, hopefully, specific questions of his past criticism of Obama's decision to close CIA black sites.

Elaine Chao
Who: Nominee for secretary of transportation
When: Wednesday, 10:15 a.m.
Where: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
What to expect: No significant opposition has emerged regarding Trump's nomination of Chao, who previously served as deputy secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush – and who happens to be married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Ben Carson
Who: Nominee for secretary of housing and urban development
When: Thursday, 10 a.m.
Where: Senate Committee on Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs
What to expect: Committee members could easily question Carson's lack of experience for the job. A spokesperson for the retired neurosurgeon said as recently as mid-November that Carson himself "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." Democrats will undoubtedly also raise questions about Carson's criticism of a recent HUD rule created to reduce segregation in public housing. Despite concerns about his fitness for the position – from sitting HUD Secretary Julian Castro, among others – Carson is not a particularly high-priority nominee for Democrats.

Wilbur Ross
Who: Nominee for secretary of commerce
When: Thursday, 10 a.m.
Where: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
What to expect: Ross has an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion and a seat on the boards of dozens of companies around the globe, but his questionnaire offers no details about how he intends to avoid inevitable conflicts of interest. Committee members will probably want some answers about that.