Why All the Ethical Problems of Trump’s Cabinet Nominees Won’t Matter
Policy + Politics

Why All the Ethical Problems of Trump’s Cabinet Nominees Won’t Matter

© Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Democrats are having a field day as one after another of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to top positions in his administration has been forced to reckon with embarrassing disclosures during their confirmation hearings.

The latest came Thursday morning, when a revised financial disclosure from Steven Mnuchin, the hedge fund manager-turned movie producer who is expected to be the next Secretary of the Treasury, revealed that he had failed to report more than $100 million in assets, including real estate holdings across the country and in Mexico. Mnuchin had also originally neglected to mention that he is on the board of directors of an investment fund in the Cayman Islands, the British territory notorious for its tax havens.

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The revelations about Mnuchin followed on a string of others:

* Tom Price, the Georgia Congressman tapped to run the Department of Health and Human Services, held stock in firms in the health care sector despite holding a position in Congress that gave him significant influence over health care firms and inside knowledge of pending congressional actions.

* Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick to run the White House Office of Management and Budget, admitted that he failed to pay $15,000 in payroll taxes related to a household employee.

* Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor, admitted that one of his many housekeepers turned out to be an undocumented immigrant.

And for all anyone knows, there could be more to come. Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, billionaire Betsy DeVos, hasn’t had her paperwork cleared by the Office of Government Ethics yet, something Democrats said should have delayed her hearing.

After the Senate Finance Committee released details of Mnuchin’s omissions Thursday morning, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement, “Never before has the Senate considered such an ethically challenged slate of nominees for key cabinet positions. Mr. Mnuchin’s failure to disclose his Cayman Islands holdings just reeks of the swamp that the president-elect promised to drain on the campaign trail.”

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Schumer was referring to Trump’s campaign trail promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington, a place he consistently described as corrupt and venal.

Schumer and other Democrats remember very well how Republicans treated Democratic nominees with problems similar to those facing Trump’s. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was denied the position of HHS secretary after it came out that he had failed to pay taxes on some of his income. Two of President Bill Clinton’s nominees for Attorney General, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, were forced to withdraw their names from consideration after it was revealed that they had hired undocumented child care workers.

Schumer called for what he described as equal treatment for Trump nominees, although in doing so he appeared to conflate Daschle’s failure to pay income tax with Baird and Wood’s nanny problems.

 “Senator Tom Daschle did the same thing and Republicans insisted that that disqualified him from becoming HHS secretary. We say to our colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If Tom Daschle couldn’t become a cabinet member for not paying taxes for a household employee, the same standard ought to apply to Mick Mulvaney.”

But no matter how exercised Schumer and his fellow Democrats get about Trump’s nominees ethics headaches, in the end they probably won’t make much difference.

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Ironically, the Trump nominee facing the toughest road to confirmation, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, is in trouble not because of his financial disclosures, which the OGE called “a sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees,” but because of his perceived closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There are two major reasons why Trump’s cabinet nominees are likely to skate through the Senate approval process.

The first is purely procedural, and the Democrats have nobody to blame for it but themselves. The decision to do away with the minority’s ability to filibuster cabinet appointees, adopted by the Democratic Senate in 2014, means that the Republicans can approve all of Trump’s picks with a simple majority vote.

The second is the context in which their hearings are being conducted. On Friday, the nation will inaugurate a man as president who has broken so many precedents and norms when it comes to financial disclosure that things like Mulvaney’s unpaid payroll taxes look trivial.

Trump has refused to release his tax returns, as all presidents have done for 40 years, or to report the names of the banks, companies or individuals to whom he is in debt. Estimates of that debt run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and some is believed to be held by foreign banks.

On top of that, Trump’s continued ownership of his business -- both real estate holdings and the Trump brand -- set up a vast array of conflicts of interest that ethics experts from both the Republican and Democratic parties have declared both serious and unprecedented.

Short of proving outright fraud or corruption on the part of one of Trump’s nominees, Democrats are simply going to find it difficult to stir up any great degree of outrage about the relatively minor transgressions of Trump’s cabinet members.