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Your Cheat Sheet for Wednesday’s Confirmation Hearings

What to expect from the hearings on Elaine Chao and Rex Tillerson.

By Jared Keller


Elaine Chao. (Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump’s march to the White House just hit a major obstacle. On Tuesday, CNN reported that classified documents presented to both Trump and President Barack Obama “included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information,” according to multiple government officials.

The revelation — and BuzzFeed’s subsequent publication of a dossier that alleged the Russian government has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for years — has further thrown the legitimacy of Trump’s upset election into question. Just what conflicts of interest does President-elect Trump have? And how can the Russians use them against the American people?

Of course, conflicts of interest are nothing new. This week, Senate Republicans initiated confirmation hearings for Trump’s executive branch appointees despite outstanding background and ethics checks that would possibly reveal conflicts or ethical questions that could compromise those in line to run the most powerful government on the planet.

With an unprecedented effort, as Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumerput it on Monday, to “jam through” Trump’s appointees despite growing concerns over his administration’s vulnerabilities, here’s a brief run-down on the potential problems posed by those nominees who face the Senate on Wednesday:

Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State

The former ExxonMobil CEO may have more problematic ties to Russian than Trump does himself. As we reported in December:

According toNew Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, the author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Tillerson “has forged close relations with both President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally who runs Rosneft, one of Russia’s oil-and-gas giants.” In 2012, Tillerson negotiated a deal reportedly worth more than $500 billion with Putin and Rosneft to develop crude oil reserves in the Arctic; Putin awarded Tillerson the country’s Order of Friendship decoration the following year. There’s even video of Tillerson and Putin sharing a champagne toast after closing the deal. As the Wall Street Journalput it: “Friends and associates said few U.S. citizens are closer to Mr. Putin than Mr. Tillerson.”

It’s not just Russia that could pose a problem for Tillerson: Security and Exchange Commission filings revealed that, under Tillerson, ExxonMobil did business with state sponsors of terrorism including Iran and Syria despite the presence of strict American sanctions. From a USA Todayreport:

The sales were conducted in 2003, 2004 and 2005 by Infineum, in which ExxonMobil owned a 50% share, according to SEC documents unearthed by American Bridge, a Democratic research group.

ExxonMobil told USA Today the transactions were legal because Infineum, a joint venture with Shell Corporation, was based in Europe and the transactions did not involve any U.S. employees.

The filings, from 2006, show that the company had $53.2 million in sales to Iran, $600,000 in sales to Sudan and $1.1 million in sales to Syria during those three years.

Here’s how Tillerson plans on addressing the Russia question Wednesday:

We must be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia…. Russia today poses a danger but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests…. We need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions, so that we know how to chart our own course.

Elaine Chao for Secretary of Transportation

The former labor secretary for President George W. Bush doesn’t necessarily fit Trump’s anti-establishment marching cry, even if his efforts to “drain the swamp” involve replenishing it with talent from Wall Street.

But Chao, with decades in Washington (she is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, after all) has some potential conflicts of interest: According to a New York Times report, Chao’s Department of Labor “favored business and was lax on enforcement and worker safety,” choosing to slap around unions during her eight years on the job. According to the Times, though, it’s more likely that the Senate will home in on her relationship with Wells Fargo, “which has been tainted by revelations that its managers tolerated and even encouraged its employees to sign customers up for services they did not want.”

On the upside, Chao has turned in her ethics forms, the Associated Press reports, basically excusing her from the any congressional kerfuffle in the confirmation process. Compared to Tillerson with his Russia problems, Chao is a shoe-in.