Senate grills Sessions, Tillerson
Senate confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks began this week, with Sen. Jeff Sessions and former Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson among those in the hot seat. Sessions, the president-elect’s nominee for attorney general, told the Senate Judiciary Committee he would stand up to Trump if he tried to go beyond the law. “You have to say ‘no’ sometimes,” he said, “for the good of the country.” The Alabama senator said he didn’t support a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., and called waterboarding of terror suspects “absolutely improper and illegal.” He also called the accusations of racism that led to him being rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 “damnably false.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) became the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague’s nomination for a Cabinet post, arguing that Sessions’ long public record showed that he wouldn’t pursue justice for blacks, women, or gays.
Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, faced sharp scrutiny from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over his extensive business dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The oil executive said he accepted the assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential elections, and called Putin’s annexation of Crimea “a taking of territory that was not theirs.” But he refused to say whether the Trump administration would repeal the retaliatory sanctions imposed against Moscow. Seven other Cabinet nominees were set to face senators this week; the hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, was delayed until next week amid concerns over the billionaire philanthropist’s failure to sign an ethics agreement concerning potential conflicts of interest. Once a nominee has been approved by the relevant committee, the full Senate will vote on his or her appointment.
What the editorials said
After all the mud flung at Sessions, his critics were probably surprised to see him “showing up at his hearing without devil horns,” said the Boston Herald. The former federal prosecutor is certainly an “unabashed conservative”—but he’s not the “second coming of Attila.” Don’t be taken in by the “smooth talking,” said The New York Times. Sessions did nothing to dispel fears he will “stall if not reverse” many of the “fragile advances” won under President Obama on civil rights, justice, and equality. He expressed support for “unnecessary” voter-ID laws, which disenfranchise minorities, and displayed no interest in “standing up for the rights of the most vulnerable Americans.”
The Trump team is deliberately rushing these confirmations, said the Los Angeles Times. With eight Senate hearings in four days, senators and the public cannot give each nominee sufficient attention or scrutiny. The fact that Trump’s Cabinet includes several very wealthy individuals, whose sprawling financial empires create potential conflicts of interest, makes it all the more important that this process not be a “rubber stamp.”
What the columnists said
Sessions insists he’s not a racist, said Jamelle Bouie in Slate.com, but he’s a hard-liner who has opposed sentencing reform and every attempt to “reverse the vast racial disparities’’ that have put millions of black men in prison. His defense seems to be that as long as you have no hate in “your heart,” you can’t be a racist. But if he supports racist policies, “who cares what’s in his heart?”
Tillerson deserves an easier ride than he’s getting, said Ed Rogers in WashingtonPost.com. His experience at Exxon Mobil has “equipped him with diplomatic skills and useful relationships with foreign leaders”—not to mention a deep knowledge of energy, finance, and environmental policy. Liberals denigrate his corporate background, but “serving in government shouldn’t just be reserved for career politicians, lawyers, and assorted bankers and academics.”
If none of the Senate’s 52 Republicans defect, Trump’s Cabinet picks will be approved, said Josh Dawsey and Andrew Restuccia in Politico.com. It may be the most powerful Cabinet in recent history, because the new president “doesn’t like getting into day-to-day minutiae.” He’s encouraging his picks “to make a splash in the first six months of his presidency,” with “radical changes” to their agencies. But a member of the Trump transition team said they’ll never know when their mercurial boss will override them. “They’ll have as much room as they need,” the insider said, “until they don’t.”