Trump upbeat as US Senate starts grilling Cabinet nominees

Protesters demonstrating in the Russell Senate Office building in Washington on Monday against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (below left), who is Mr Trump's pick for attorney-general. Mr Sessions has drawn opposition from liberals concerned
Protesters demonstrating in the Russell Senate Office building in Washington on Monday against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions, who is Mr Trump's pick for attorney-general. Mr Sessions has drawn opposition from liberals concerned over his conservative views.PHOTOS: NYTIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST
Protesters demonstrating in the Russell Senate Office building in Washington on Monday against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (below left), who is Mr Trump's pick for attorney-general. Mr Sessions has drawn opposition from liberals concerned
Protesters demonstrating in the Russell Senate Office building in Washington on Monday against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (above left), who is Mr Trump's pick for attorney-general. Mr Sessions has drawn opposition from liberals concerned over his conservative views.PHOTOS: NYTIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON • The US Senate began confirmation hearings for key nominees to President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet yesterday, amid concerns that many of his picks have not been fully vetted over ethics, or made full financial disclosures.

Just 10 days before Mr Trump takes the oath of office, lawmakers are holding hearings for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Mr Trump's nominee for US attorney-general, and retired Marine general John Kelly, his choice for homeland security secretary.

Several nominees are scheduled to have hearings this week, with three due to get under way today. These include Mr Rex Tillerson, the wealthy ExxonMobil oilman who Mr Trump has tapped for secretary of state.

Unlike Mr Sessions, who has faced pushback from Senate Democrats, General Kelly by most accounts has been amicably received during several days of private meetings with Democratic and Republican members of the Homeland Security Committee.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, has shown no sign of worry over the reception his nominees will receive on Capitol Hill.

"Confirmation is going great," he told reporters on Monday in an unexpected appearance in the lobby of Trump Tower, the headquarters of his gilded corporate offices in New York City. He predicted: "I think they will all pass."

Democrats, however, are vowing not to allow Congress to rubber- stamp Mr Trump's Cabinet picks without a fight.

Mr Sessions, in particular, has drawn fierce opposition from liberals concerned over his conservative views on everything from abortion rights to civil liberties.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker has gone so far as to say that he will testify against Mr Sessions at the hearing - a departure from many decades of Senate protocol.

"I am breaking a pretty long Senate tradition," he told MSNBC, adding that Mr Sessions "has a posture and a positioning that I think represent a real danger to our country".

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that one measure of whether an attorney-general nominee is right for the job is whether that person is willing to stand up to the president in the interest of justice.

"Our constitutional duty is to make a choice about whether this individual will be a champion of constitutional rights and liberties and will be able to stand up to Donald Trump, soon to be president, and say, you cannot do what you need to do, or we are going to have to indict someone who is a friend of yours. And sometimes there will be conflicts of interest where an independent counsel will have to be appointed," said Mr Blumenthal.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said lawmakers in the Republican-controlled chamber have crammed the schedule full of hearings, making the vetting more challenging than usual.

Many of Mr Trump's nominees pose especially thorny conflict-of- interest challenges, he added.

"They come, many of them, from enormous wealth. Many have vast holdings in stocks and very few have experience in government. So they have not been appropriately vetted for something like a Cabinet post before," said the New York Democrat.

"What had been standard practice for the vast majority of nominees - the completion of a preliminary ethics review before their nomination - was skipped over for the vast majority of President-elect Trump's nominees," Mr Schumer said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Trump upbeat as US Senate starts grilling Cabinet nominees'. Print Edition | Subscribe