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Here’s How Trump’s First Two Executive Branch Appointees Differ

There are many ethics issues facing Jeff Sessions. Not so much for John Kelly.

By Jared Keller


John Kelly. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump won’t assume the responsibility of the presidency until January 20th, but he’s wasted no time staffing up.

Senate Republicans will initiate confirmation hearings for Trump’s executive branch appointees on Tuesday despite outstanding background checks and ethics questions among several nominees, the New York Timesreports. The Trump’s team’s shrewd maneuver to hurry the appointments through has sparked an outcry from the Office of Government Ethics (the same independent watchdog Republicans attempted to effectively eliminate last week), which called the effort “unprecedented” in modern American political history.

“The hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” OGE director Walter Shaub Jr. said in a statement. “I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.”

Democrats, reeling from the ongoing revelations into Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election, aren’t having any of it. Newly elected Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumerdecried the expedited confirmations as “undue haste” and accused Senate Republicans of conspiring with the incoming Trump administration to “jam through” nominees despite questionable conflicts of interest.

“President-elect Trump’s nominees pose particularly difficult ethics and conflict-of-interest challenges,” Schumer wrote in a cheeky post on Facebook. “Senate Democrats are asking that the same ‘common sense standards’ be applied to this year’s nominees that Leader McConnell called for in 2009. I’ll send this letter back to him with my minor edits.”


(Image: Facebook)

Theatrics aside, Schumer isn’t wrong—at least with one of Trump’s appointments. Here’s a brief summary of the many ethical questions and conflicts of interest Jeff Sessions will face, as well as the lack thereof with regard to John Kelly:

Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General

The longtime senator will face questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding allegations of racism in his home state of Alabama — a particularly big problem for a nominee charged with overseeing, among other things, the country’s civil rights norms.

A capsule summary, fromThe Atlantic’s Adam Serwer:

In his 1986 confirmation hearing [for a federal judgeship], witnesses testified that Sessions referred to a black attorney as “boy,” described the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” attacked the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” for “forcing civil rights down the throats of people,” joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana, and referred to a white attorney who took on voting-rights cases as a “traitor to his race.” As Ryan J. Reilly reported, Sessions also faced allegations that he referred to a Democratic official in Alabama as a nigger.

It’s not just liberals who are worried about patterns of racism and discrimination during Sessions’ two decades in the Senate: Reuters reports that some conservatives are also rankled by his controversial statements on everything from federal immigration policy to the now-weakened Voting Rights Act to the Fourteenth Amendment. On top of that, Sessions faces allegations of corporate corruption. From Slate:

Sessions’ brief, troubling record doesn’t end there. As a state attorney general, he also cleared the way for a politically connected insurance company’s planned no-bid coverage of state road work; urged the Alabama Ethics Commission to approve corporate-funded junkets for state employees; fought successfully against seating the first black intermediate appellate court judges in Alabama’s history; and, no joke, provided formal support for a local sheriff’s use of actual chain gangs.

To be fair, legal experts interviewed by Reuters suggest that Sessions is “unlikely to shy away from indicting big companies and individuals for serious white-collar crimes.”

General John Kelly for Secretary of Homeland Security

By contrast to Sessions, the 66-year-old retired general seems like a sure thing in the Senate. The former head of the United States Southern Command is widely respected across the aisle, and, despite a reputation (like Trump) for “sounding the alarm about drugs, terrorism and other cross-border threats that he sees as emanating from Mexico and Central and South America,” as the Washington Postput it, he appears to be a logical fit for a Department of Homeland Security ostensibly focused on securing the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration.

That doesn’t mean Kelly’s confirmation won’t be rocky — if only for reasons outside of his own record. If confirmed, Kelly would “be taking the reins of a department that’s never had its act together — with less experience managing civilian bureaucracy than his four predecessors at DHS, he’d be tasked with succeeding where they’ve failed,” as Vox put it. “Kelly once called domestic politics a ‘cesspool.’ Now, how he navigates that cesspool — in the White House and in his department — could shape the futures of millions of immigrants (legal and unauthorized) and their families in the U.S.”

On the upside: Politicoreports that Kelly’s paperwork for the OGE was allegedly completed on Monday. That makes one nominee, at least.