Donald Trump’s big news conference could help him divert attention from Cabinet fights
Eight of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet choices are walking into Senate hearing rooms this week to explain why they should help lead the country. But all of them can expect to be upstaged by Trump himself, who is giving his first news conference Wednesday since winning the election.
A confluence of news events in one of Washington’s busiest weeks will make it hard for Trump’s opponents to focus national attention on any individual Cabinet battle, despite vast implications for the economy, foreign relations, immigration and other prime issues.
Trump has been adept at using his Twitter feed, staged appearances and provocative statements to divert attention from thorny problems, including a group of Cabinet choices who have inspired intense opposition from liberal groups. He has built anticipation for Wednesday’s appearance in part by breaking with recent tradition in which presidents-elect publicly took questions within days of being declared the election winner. The forum with reporters in New York will mark Trump’s first formal news conference since July.
Trump will have plenty to discuss, given the number of questions that have arisen over his intentions for governing the country, White House staffing decisions, potentials for conflicts of interest and controversies that have erupted since his election. Explosive reports Tuesday night from CNN and BuzzFeed concerning unverified allegations that Russian officials colluded with his political allies and hold compromising information about him are now expected to dominate the event. Trump has forcefully criticized the allegations on his Twitter feed. No media outlet has verified the claims.
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public,” he tweeted Wednesday morning. “One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
“It’s a little bit like a whiteout in a blizzard,” said Angela Kelley, executive director of the lobbying arm of the Center for American Progress, which has teams of researchers waging confirmation battles. Trump “is a master at manipulating how the media pays attention to him.”
Democrats say Trump and Republican Senate leaders are moving too fast on the confirmation hearings for his Cabinet choices, many with great wealth and potential for conflicts of interest, who have been hastily or not fully vetted. They point to a letter from the Government Ethics Office saying the failure of Trump’s picks to complete ethics contracts prior to their hearings that spell out how they would resolve conflicts of interest would be unprecedented in modern times.
Republicans in the Senate, who spent the last eight years weathering accusations of obstruction, say Democrats are simply bitter they lost the election and should let Trump, who has never served in government, assemble his team to ensure a smooth transition. They note that Obama won approval for eight members of his Cabinet, plus one holdover from President Bush’s administration, in time for his first day in office.
“All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate,” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I understand that. But we need to, sort of, grow up here and get past that.”
McConnell pledged Tuesday that a “large number” of Trump’s picks will be in place on “day one.”
Obama’s Cabinet picks were not as wealthy on average as Trump’s and more of them had already served in government, exposing them to earlier scrutiny over their personal finances. They also had begun the ethics review process in many cases before their Cabinet appointments had been announced publicly.
Pushing Trump’s selections through quickly could prove risky for the president-elect and his party should something embarrassing turn up after they are confirmed.
“These people who say, ‘Hurry up, hurry up,” it’s like having the suspicious guy behind you in the airport line and telling the TSA to hurry up,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer for Bush.
DeVos will testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next week. Two others were removed from the Wednesday docket, which had been especially crowded, forcing senators to hopscotch among hearings.
But Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said that the delay in DeVos’ hearing had nothing to do with a lack of vetting, dismissing Democrats’ complaints.
“This is a political tactic,” he told reporters.
Spicer said the transition team has held more than 30 practice hearings, in which Trump’s Cabinet picks have collectively answered 2,604 questions to prepare them for an onslaught of confrontational inquiries from Democrats.
DeVos, as of Tuesday afternoon, did not have an ethics agreement posted on the website of the Office of Government Ethics outlining how she would dispose of potential conflicts of interest.
Neither did two other Trump picks with hearings this week: Wilbur Ross, who was chosen to lead the Department of Commerce, and Ben Carson, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The director of the ethics office, Walter Shaub Jr., wrote a scathing letter to Senate Democrats and McConnell on Friday, complaining that the “schedule has created undue pressure” on ethics officials “to rush through these important reviews.”
“For as long as I remain director, OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials will not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest,” he added.
Ethics attorneys said it was important to take a deliberative process that would give senators and the public time to absorb the arrangements.
Trump’s selections are not the only ones who have financial conflicts to resolve. The president-elect, who did not disclose his tax returns during the campaign, has delayed explaining how he would ensure a firewall between his presidency and his business projects around the world.
Trump previously promised to devote a December news conference to the subject, but the appearance was delayed until Wednesday, when questions from reporters are expected to cover a broad range of issues that have emerged since his victory.
Conflict-of-interest laws governing Cabinet officers do not apply to Trump, though the presidency is covered under both public expectation and a clause of the Constitution barring him from receiving gifts from foreign governments.
The answers to serious questions, though, could be lost amid the clutter of activity, including Trump’s own time fielding questions.
“There’s a lot coming on every front,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, part of the Democratic leadership team. “We’ll all be watching for future tweets.”
6:45 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Trump.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.
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