When it became apparent last month that Donald Trump was forming a Cabinet largely made up of zillionaires, the New York Times found reassurance in the traditional confirmation process. "Donald Trump's Wealthy Cabinet Picks to Undergo Financial Scrutiny He Didn't Face," the newspaper wrote in a headline last Dec. 12.
The Times was referring to this: One of the first things a presidential appointee endures is a rigorous background check to determine whether he or she is fit to hold public office. As it turns out, however, the headline writers were wrong. In another end-run around the requirements of public office, the Trump transition team and the Republican leadership in the U.S. Senate are rushing to hold confirmation hearings for several of Trump's highest-level appointees before their background checks have been completed.
The premature confirmation hearings, which began earlier this week, prompted the government's top ethics watchdog to issue a letter of "concern".
"I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process," wrote OGE's director, Walter M. Shaub Jr. "It has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings."
The need for background checks - as well as security checks for any Trump appointees who will have access to classified information - is even more important than usual this time. Trump's Cabinet-elect has been called the wealthiest in the nation's history.
"As with Trump himself, the net worth of many of his top advisers and nominees for Cabinet positions is difficult to pin down precisely, but there is no question that many of them are among the wealthiest of the wealthy," Vanity Fair reported.
As with Trump, it's likely that these one-percenters have multiple investments and business involvements. Unlike Trump, however, they are not exempt from the nation's conflict of interest laws.
The Trump transition team reportedly worked out the premature confirmation process with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It is the latest in a growing number of cases where Trump apparently feels the normal rules and requirements of public office don't apply to him.
Another recent example is Trump's announcement that he will make his son-in-law one of this principal White House advisors. That is called nepotism and it violates a law that has been in place since the Kennedy Administration. This is "an appointment that would further entangle the incoming White House team in a web of potential conflicts of interests and accusations of nepotism," the Guardian warned.
To avoid even the appearance of conflicted interests, Trump took a necessary step this week when his attorney outlined an elaborate set of procedures the president-elect will put in place to build a firewall between his business empire and his presidency. But even before his inauguration, Trump's record indicates one of two things: He either is so used to having things his way that he intends to ignore the constraints of public office, or he is going through culture shock. He probably has never run a company before in which he was accountable to a board of directors with 535 self-interested members.
It apparently will be up to Congress and the courts to teach Trump the rules and restrictions that even the world's most powerful leader must honor. His education should begin now before he sets any more bad precedents. Unfortunately, what's happening in the Senate this week is not a good sign.