BUSY WEEK

A guide to nine confirmation hearings, one Trump news conference, and Obama’s farewell

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

Donald Trump may be new to elected politics, but the US president-elect is already using one of the oldest tricks in the books: burying the news in yet more news.

It starts today (Jan. 10) with the first Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet picks. Those panels happen to sandwich a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that afternoon on Russia’s hacking of the US election. And then it’s on to outgoing US president Barack Obama’s farewell speech, set to be delivered that evening from Chicago.

But things really get hectic the following day, when the country quickly moves on from the Obama speech recaps and highlights to the nearly concurrent Senate confirmation hearings for no fewer than four (originally five) of Trump’s cabinet picks. On top of that, the president-elect himself will hold his first press conference since July. And that’s all before lunch.

The synchronization of nine eight cabinet nominee hearings in a week (the hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, got pushed into next week) will take place despite the fact that many of Trump’s picks haven’t even undergone compulsory reviews for conflicts of interest—an irregularity that the director of the nonpartisan US Office of Government Ethics says is of “great concern.”

Here’s a run-through of what to watch for, color-coded by day. (Note: times listed are according to C-SPAN and could change. Links on time slots click through to the network’s event coverage.)

Tuesday, Jan. 10

9:30 am ET: Jeff Sessions, attorney general confirmation hearing

The Alabama senator returns to the other side of the confirmation table 31 years after he was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986. Having worked up an amiable, if hardline, reputation in the Senate since then, few expect him to struggle to be confirmed as America’s top cop.

Do, however, look out for some fiery exchanges around the reason he was turned down the first time: a history of outright racist comments and low regard for civil rights legislation. The senator’s allies have launched an aggressive campaign to try to soften his image, after quotes were dug up in which he allegedly called an Alabama official a “nigger,” referred to a senior black prosecutor as “boy,” and joked he thought the KKK was “OK, until I found out they smoked pot.”

Democratic senators will no doubt want to press him into promising not to retrench on minority and LGBT rights.

1 pm: Spy chiefs testify on Russian hacking

America’s four top spy chiefs talk to the Senate intelligence committee in a follow-up to their report on Russia’s election hack and a hearing held last week with the Veterans’ Affairs committee. There are unlikely to be any new revelations, but CIA director John Brennan and FBI chief James Comey weren’t at the last hearing. Democratic senators may be unable to resist a jibe at Comey for his now notorious pre-election announcement of additional investigating of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails.

3:30 pm: general John Kelly, Homeland Security secretary confirmation hearing

The retired four-star general should sail through his confirmation, boasting especially strong knowledge of one of his central briefs—defending the border with Mexico, where he developed intimate knowledge as head of the US southern command. Expect Democrats to try and stoke divisions between Kelly and the new White House by teasing out his reportedly hawkish views on Russia.

There will no doubt also be terse exchanges about Guantanamo Bay. Kelly has long opposed its closure, insisting that force-feeding hunger-strikers is reasonable, that keeping Guantanamo open didn’t inspire more militant action, and, despite reports to the contrary and the fact they hadn’t been tried, that every inmate there was guilty of terrorism.

9 pm: president Barack Obama’s official farewell

Obama heads home to Chicago to take the stage for the last time as sitting president. Expect a strong defense of Obamacare, proud recitations of economic recovery figures, and some Trump-directed “admonitions” about the challenges ahead—plus, most likely, your last hit of finely crafted, exquisitely delivered presidential oratory for a couple of years.

Wednesday, Jan. 11

9 am: Rex Tillerson, secretary of State confirmation hearing

Last week, senators took their chance to show just how fed up they are with Russian president Vladimir Putin—which doesn’t bode well for former ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson. In recent years, he has inked a $500 billion oil deal with the Kremlin and received an Order of Friendship medal from Putin. When Putin’s hardline ally Igor Sechin, CEO of state-owned oil company Rosneft, was sanctioned from entering the US, he reportedly lamented that he would miss the chance to “ride the roads of the United States on motorcycles with Tillerson.”

Tillerson has reportedly spent the past weeks telling senators he sees Putin as a “playground bully,” and knows how to deal with him. However, he is said to have dodged tough questions about sanctions and Moscow’s hacking of the election. Expect senators to try to get him firmly on the record on those matters on Wednesday. Just as interesting will be whether Tillerson can show in-depth knowledge of any regions of the world that don’t produce oil and gas. He is, for example, reportedly learning the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations from scratch.

If the Texan struggles, it’s possible (though still unlikely) that he could fail to make it out of committee. Florida senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who has said he has “serious concerns” about Tillerson, has the deciding vote.

9:30 am: Jeff Sessions, attorney general hearing, Day 2

10:15 am: Elaine Chao, Transportation secretary confirmation hearing

There are no doubts about Chao’s credentials for the role. She was number two in the department under president George H.W. Bush and then spent eight years as president George W. Bush’s labor secretary, gaining a reputation as a fearsome political operator. A consummate Washington insider, she is also married to the man in charge of rallying votes in her favor: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Look out for details on Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure spending plan. There may also be questions about how she’ll avoid conflicts of interest, as her father is an international shipping magnate.

11 am: Trump finally holds a press conference

Seasons have changed, Twitter battles have been waged, Christmas has come and gone, and president-elect Trump still hasn’t held a press conference. The last promised presser was to be on Dec. 15, in which Trump was supposed to detail how he’d deal with his conflicts of interest. The date passed by and we were none the wiser. Apparently, in the middle of all these hearings, now is the time.

Thursday, Jan. 12

9:30 am: General James Mattis, Defense secretary confirmation hearing

Mattis sits at an unlikely juncture: He’s both the only nominee the Democrats could torpedo and the only one they seem to actually like. Because he would be leading the military within seven years of retiring from the armed forces, he needs a waiver on the requirement that the Pentagon be run by a civilian. Getting the waiver requires 60 votes, meaning he’ll need Democratic votes beyond the 52 available Republican ones.

The problem for any Democrat wanting to fire a partisan missile is that he’s probably as good a Defense secretary as you could expect Trump to find. An ingenious military thinker, he has helped change Trump’s mind on torture. Plus, he would be the rare person in the Trump cabinet to believe in climate change and to have argued for aggressively protecting the US from it.

10 am: Wilbur Ross, Commerce secretary confirmation hearing

Democrats will no doubt be rather keen to hear how billionaire “vulture” investor Ross, a former Democrat himself, will separate himself from his business dealings. They’ll also be keen to draw a wedge between him and the rest of the administration over his decades long love of China, and have a pop at the influx of Wall Street interests into the cabinet. But Ross is a wily character and no less qualified than his predecessor, so is likely to pass through unscathed.

10 am: Ben Carson, Housing and Urban Development secretary confirmation hearing

This could be brutal. Retired neurosurgeon Carson has zero experience in housing, cities management, or government, and before his selection for the HUD job he said through a spokesperson that his serving in the cabinet might “cripple the presidency.”

During Carson’s quickly curtailed Republican presidential bid, a top campaign advisor complained on-the-record that despite weekly foreign affairs conference calls, “nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.” So it’s anyone’s guess how much of the very complex HUD brief he’ll have managed to master in just two months. At the time of his nomination, Carson’s only argument in favor of his candidacy was that he “grew up in the ‘inner city'”—unwittingly deploying a discredited and racially tinged piece of terminology while betraying the thinness of his formal qualifications for the role.

10 am: Mike Pompeo, CIA director confirmation hearing

Portending to be one of the most hardline and political CIA directors of all time, Pompeo looks set for quite a tussle in his hearing—especially with fiery California senator Dianne Feinstein. Pompeo, a three-term Kansas congressman and House Intelligence Committee member, has railed against attempts to curb CIA power. He claimed a hunger strike by Guantanamo detainees was a “political stunt,” and he opposed the closure of the CIA’s notorious detention and interrogation program. Feinstein, in turn, has said the program was “ineffective, it was brutal, and it stands in direct violation of American values.”

Democrats will be especially hostile given Pompeo’s central role in the critique of Clinton over the Benghazi attack; his House hearings on the events in Benghazi drew on longer than those for Watergate.

Next week

Jan. 17, 5 pm: Betsy DeVos, Education secretary confirmation hearing

DeVos starts with a rare advantage for a cabinet nominee: She has given campaign money to four of the senators who will question her on Jan. 17. So, don’t be shocked by softballs from Republican senators Richard Burr, Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, and Tim Scott.

In addition to being a GOP mega-donor, DeVos is a passionate champion of charter schools and private-school vouchers, and she should have a decent handle on her brief—she chairs the group that crafted Trump’s flagship education policy. But Democrats, who have tried to craft an image (paywall) of her as an “enemy of public schools,” are unlikely to give her an easy ride.

DeVos initially was scheduled to be questioned on Jan. 11, at a peak traffic time for Trump cabinet confirmation hearings. But the hearing got delayed “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule,” according to the ranking members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

This story has been updated to reflect the changes in schedule for DeVos and Pompeo’s hearings.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search