One day before President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration, his transition team, led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, held a press conference, which was exactly as grim as one would expect. Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer twice launched an attack on Democrats for doing their jobs during confirmation hearings, incredibly accusing them of divisiveness. But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was having absolutely none of it.
Donald Trump started his day by tweeting someone else claiming that he is not divisive:
"It wasn't Donald Trump that divided this country, this country has been divided for a long time!" Stated today by Reverend Franklin Graham.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 19, 2017
In an expected irony, the man he quoted, Franklin Graham, has traveled to Russia and praised Vladimir Putin for "protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda." Quite a figure to cite as an expert on divisiveness.
At a press conference held by Trump's transition team later in the morning, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made clear who the real figures of division in the United States are: The Democrats.
The reason? Because Democrats are undermining "our continuity of government" by treating the confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet nominees as more than an elaborate rubber-stamping ceremony.
Spicer complained bitterly against the "shame" of the Democrats having the unmitigated temerity to try to vet Trump's aggressively unqualified candidates.
What's a shame right now is to see some of those individuals who we would call consensus candidates, people who they didn't even find any problem with, people like Secretary Elaine Chao, Ben Carson, Nikki Haley, suddenly not be part of Senator Schumer's list that he will work with us to get done on day one. It's disappointing. These were people that are highly qualified, that were considered, quote unquote, consensus candidates prior to a few weeks ago. And I think that it really speaks volumes that the Democratic leadership is not working with us to ensure our continuity of government.
But he was not finished. In response to another question, he launched the attack once more:
Look at the comments they made. They came out with their so-called hit list. There are individuals, as I mentioned — Secretary Chao, Dr. Ben Carson, Governor Nikki Haley — that weren't on their political hit list. They are consensus candidates. And while every one of them is unbelievably qualified to lead this country in their respective department, the idea that they're expanding this list and slowing down the continuity of government is unacceptable. They owe an explanation on those three individuals at the very least. Why are they delaying Elaine Chao? Why are they not moving on Dr. Ben Carson? Why are they not moving on Governor Nikki Haley? The other ones, there's no question their qualifications, and I would agree that they should move all of them, but those individuals weren't even on their political hit list. Why are they holding up those three individuals in particular?
The Democrats did not have a "political hit list." They had documented which proposed nominees they knew to have records about which they were gravely concerned. And they did not consider Chao, Carson, or Haley "consensus candidates," but candidates about whose records they were merely less concerned — and, because the Democrats did not treat their confirmation hearings like a formality, but instead an opportunity to do serious vetting, they exposed some remarkable weaknesses in those candidates' qualifications, too.
It is also notable that Spicer zeroed in on the only three Trump nominees who are nonwhite, which subtly implies that Democrats are going after people of color. Which is a particularly rich line of attack, given that Spicer also fielded a question at the presser about the lack of diversity in the administration, to which he replied, contemptibly: "What you're seeing and you're going to continue to see, not just through the cabinet but through the entire thing, is a diversity in gender and a diversity of thinking and a diversity of ideology. So it's not just about skin color or ethnic heritage."
Following the Trump transition presser and Spicer's repeated assertions that it is the Democrats who are sowing division, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer held a press conference during which he explained Democrats' position on Trump's lousy field of nominees: "If there was ever a group of cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it's this one. The president-elect's cabinet is a swamp cabinet, full of billionaires and bankers, that have conflicts of interest and ethical lapses as far as the eye can see."
Flanked by two giant signs featuring the images of Trump's nominees labeled "Billionaires & Bankers" and "#SWAMPCABINET," Schumer opened his devastating case by noting that it is Republicans who have "made a mockery of" the confirmation hearings:
SCHUMER: [as he moves signs with images of the Cabinet nominees closer to his podium] I want to be right next my potential cabinet people.
REPORTER: Well, that implies they are going to be confirmed.
SCHUMER: No, keep your friends close and all that stuff. And your enemies closer in this case, I don't know. Okay. Good morning, everyone. Sorry we're a little bit late. Now, early on during the transition, Senate Republicans said that they hoped they could confirm as many as seven cabinet nominees on Inauguration Day. They said that's what President Obama got, so we should get the same treatment, they said.
But over the last several weeks, Republicans have made a mockery of the cabinet hearing process, trying to jam through nominees in truncated hearings — nominees with serious conflicts of interest and ethical issues unresolved — and without giving Senators, and, more importantly, the American people, a fair chance to question and hear from these nominees.
If there was ever a group of cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it's this one. The president-elect's cabinet is a swamp cabinet, full of billionaires and bankers, that have conflicts of interest and ethical lapses as far as the eye can see.
Later, he noted that every attempt by the Democrats' to treat these confirmation hearings with the gravity they deserve was greeted by Republican subversion:
SCHUMER: The President-elect isn't draining the swamp with his cabinet picks; he's filling it up, contrary to everything that he promised during his campaign. These issues and others deserve to be thoroughly and rigorously reviewed by the Senate. Senate Democrats asked for multiple rounds of questions, multiple days offer hearings, outside witnesses, and to have ample time to review a nominee's completed paperwork before a hearing is held, particularly in light of the fact that so many of these folks have such complicated paperwork, you can't just review it in a day. I would remind my Republican friends that the only real billionaire in President Obama's cabinet, Penny Pritzker, took six months to clear her ethical conflicts and file papers.
So, we have made some progress on a few fronts, but, the more we learned about the nominees, the more important a thorough, fair process became. And the more it became clear Republicans were simply trying to jam through these nominees out of sight of the American people. They're not really proud of this cabinet. And so they want the hearings to be as quick, as short, and as bunched up as they can be.
And finally, he noted that this shameless and shameful lowering of ethical standards, should Republicans insist on confirming these nominees without further scrutiny, will be one of Trump's first presidential legacies:
SCHUMER: To be clear, Democrats will allow the confirmations of, and votes for, nominees who have not been chosen by our party. But what we will not support are nominees who are so extreme in their viewpoints, or their noncompliance with the ethics laws and practice, that they have demonstrated themselves to be unfit.
We will not be dilatory for the sake of it, and we're hopeful that nominees will fully answer the remaining questions that their hearings have raised, and that some will even come back for another round of questioning. That type of cooperation could speed things up on the floor.
We'd much prefer to have full questions with these nominees in hearings, because they're there! But if we can't, the floor will be the place we have to bring to light the key issues that I've mentioned. If Republicans continue to stonewall and cover up the serious issues many of these nominees are trying to avoid, they should be prepared to have those debates on the full floor of the Senate.
And I would make just one final point: If Republicans continue down this path, they are going to dramatically lower the ethical standards in government that we've always had — standards that were upheld by all previous administrations: Obama and Bush and Clinton and H.W. Bush and Reagan. A dramatic lowering of standards in a country we all love, where we try to hold ourselves up to higher standards.
If the cabinet nominees are confirmed with Republican support, when Republicans opposed previous nominees for lesser ethical lapses, our ethical standards will wither, and that will be one of Donald Trump's first legacies as president.
Spicer, and the rest of the incoming Trump administration, along with Senate Republicans, may try to make the case that it is Democrats who are "playing politics," but Schumer, on behalf of his Democratic caucus, made it abundantly clear that it is they who are doing the jobs with which they have been tasked by the American people, and it is Republicans who are playing a very cynical game, at the cost of serious, ethical, and competent governance.