WASHINGTON ― Three of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for Cabinet positions on Wednesday revealed that they had engaged in illegal or questionable behavior that prior administrations have considered serious enough to necessitate a nominee’s withdrawal.
Taken together, the disclosures by Wilbur Ross, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) offered a likely preview of a presidential administration that appears confident in its ability to cross legal and ethical boundaries without consequences.
Trump has already set the tone at the top of his administration by failing to fully divest himself of his multibillion-dollar business empire and its many conflicts of interest, both foreign and domestic. As the Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub said of Trump’s decision not to do what every other president of the modern era has done: “Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?”
The assumption that Trump and his Cabinet can get away with ethical breaches that doomed past presidents and nominees may very well flow from the incoming president’s historic unpopularity. Past presidents sought to maintain the temporary goodwill granted by the broader public during their ascension to power, hoping not to waste their political capital on fights over nominees. But Trump is already the most unpopular incoming president in recorded history, and his scorched-earth media strategy doesn’t bode well for his ability to win over new supporters.
“He doesn’t care and he doesn’t think, politically, that he needs to care,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy at the campaign finance and ethics reform group Issue One. “It’s like his own conflict-of-interest issues. With good reason, I believe he feels that his base really could care less about these issues.”
Just how far Trump and his Republican Cabinet nominees can push their ethical boundaries was put to the test this week.
Before any of the four confirmation hearings could begin, The New York Times reported that Mulvaney, Trump’s pick to head the White House Office of Management and Budget, had failed to pay over $15,000 in taxes for a household employee.
Then, Wilbur Ross, the billionaire private equity investor who is Trump’s pick for secretary of commerce, opened his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee by admitting that, unbeknownst to him, one of his “dozen or so” household workers was an undocumented immigrant. Ross stated that he fired the employee of seven years after finding out their status in December.
In testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, Price, Trump’s pick to run the Department of Health & Human Services, admitted that he purchased stock in a private placement for a biotechnology company after Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a board member of the company, talked up the company to him. This immediately raised questions of whether Collins had shared non-public information with Price, which Price denied. Ethics experts agreed that if Price did receive information not available to the public, that would constitute insider trading.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the leading Senate Democrat, labeled Trump’s nominees “a swamp Cabinet.”
“It’s no surprise Republicans are trying to rush through these hearings,” Schumer said. “They don’t want the public to know the true views of their nominees, the potential conflicts of interest, just how many of them come from the top 1 percent and are even billionaires.”
Schumer called for a delay in confirmations until the nominees have answered all relevant questions. In addition, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) joined Schumer in demanding that Price’s nomination be put on hold until an ethics investigation into his stock trades could be completed.
By Thursday morning, even Trump’s fellow Republicans were beginning to sound worried.
Asked about Mulvaney’s failure to pay taxes, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told CNN that “it could create problems.”
Grassley added that he’d had “problems with former Cabinet people under both Republicans and Democrats, where [tax issues had] either been straightened out ― or there wasn’t justification [to oppose the nomination].”
Past nominees have fallen by the wayside for equal or lesser crimes than these, including when the Senate was in the hands of the president’s party.
After President Bill Clinton came to the White House, he had to withdraw two nominees for attorney general after it came to light that they employed undocumented household workers. In 1993, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird withdrew her nomination after it was revealed she employed two undocumented Peruvian workers and failed to pay their payroll taxes. Clinton’s next choice to head the Department of Justice, federal judge Kimba Wood, had also employed an undocumented household worker. She too withdrew her nomination.
In 2001, President George W. Bush chose Linda Chavez to head the Department of Labor, but she also withdrew after it was revealed she’d sheltered an undocumented woman from Guatemala in the 1990s who was trying to escape an abusive relationship.
When President Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, he wanted former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to lead his push for health care reform. Daschle had lost a bid for re-election in 2004 and gone on to work as a lawyer at Alston & Bird, a top-flight law and lobbying firm in Washington ― but he never officially registered as a lobbyist. In addition, it was revealed that he had failed to pay $128,203 in taxes in the three previous years.
Daschle’s admission came as a number of other Obama nominees revealed their own tax issues. Treasury secretary nominee Tim Geithner had failed to pay around $43,000 in taxes. Then-Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), chosen to be Obama’s labor secretary, had $6,400 in unpaid tax liens. And Ron Kirk, the pick to be the U.S. trade representative, owed $10,000 in back taxes. Among these, Daschle’s tax issues stood out the most. With the added questions about his work as an unregistered lobbyist, the administration pulled his nomination.
In addition, Nancy Killefer, Obama’s pick as the top performance officer for the White House, withdrew her nomination after it was revealed she had back tax issues and had failed to pay taxes for household help.
All of these controversies came at the beginning of each president’s administration, when they had soaring poll numbers and broad support. Trump has a 40 percent favorable rating, according to Gallup ― the lowest in recorded history for an incoming president.
Trump’s team has dismissed nearly all concerns about his Cabinet nominees, claiming the nominees have answered all questions and have been or are being vetted by the Office of Government Ethics.