U.S. Politics

Trump’s Cabinet picks undergo grueling prep for hearings

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Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Treasury Department, is one in a group of billionaires among the president-elect’s Cabinet nominees. | Getty

POLITICO

Senators’ pet causes and even the price of milk are part of mock drills.

They call them “murder boards” for a reason.

Seated beneath bright lights that mimic the conditions of a camera-packed hearing room, President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks are being put through hours-long mock confirmation hearings this weekend to prepare for the Senate grillings that may decide their fates.

Numerous murder-board sessions are being run in anticipation of one of the most consequential weeks for the Trump transition: Nine of the president-elect’s Cabinet picks, many of whom have no federal government experience, will face Senate questioning this week — including from hostile Democrats eager to score points on everything from the president-elect’s admiration of Vladimir Putin to the candidate’s wealth and potential conflicts-of-interest.

The idea is to replicate the high-pressure environment of a televised hearing where senators may lob questions in rapid succession about arcane and awkward topics in an effort to trip them up. A room on the sixth floor of the team’s downtown D.C. headquarters has been transformed into a mock Senate hearing room, with staffers playing the senators on relevant committees and a countdown clock to ensure candidates keep their answers short, according to several transition officials. Those officials asked for anonymity to describe the preparations for the upcoming confirmation hearings out of fear of violating the transition team’s strict non-disclosure agreements.

“The president-elect has put together the A-team of a Cabinet, and it’s our job to do everything we can to get these people through the process, despite the Democrats’ obstruction,” said Sean Spicer, incoming White House press secretary.

Asked how many mock confirmation hearings each nominee is doing, another transition official said, “Enough to be perfect.”

Indeed, high-level transition staffers worked all day Saturday on confirmation hearing prep, many not filing out of the office until 6:30 or 7 on a wintry D.C. evening. Rick Dearborn, who will be Trump’s deputy chief of staff and has run the transition day to day, masterminded much of the prep.

While many of Trump’s choices may be used to speaking in front of corporate boards, they have never testified before Congress, where lawmakers can trap novice nominees with in-the-weeds questions about appropriations and obscure federal programs.

Transition staff members are schooling them on the pet causes of key senators, anticipating, for instance, that Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa will ask about home-state issues like ethanol.

And they’re coaching the nominees how to respond to questions that could come up about some of Trump’s most outlandish public statements and tweets. “Everything is fair game,” one transition official said.

Sensitive about the number of billionaires among Trump’s Cabinet picks, including Betsy DeVos for education, Steven Mnuchin for Treasury and Wilbur Ross for commerce, the team is even prepping nominees for questions on quotidian transactions like the price of milk or a gallon of gas — fearful the billionaires might seem out of touch if they stumble in their answers.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general and the first to face a Senate panel, is spending Sunday in the mock hearing room to prep for his hearing Tuesday before the Judiciary Committee — the same body that sank his nomination to be a federal judge 30 years ago amid allegations of racism.

Although his two decades in the Senate are expected to make Sessions’ confirmation a slam dunk, neither he nor the transition team is leaving anything to chance.

They’ve spent the past several weeks lining up well-known African-Americans to vouch for the Alabama Republican, including President Barack Obama’s former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and one of Alabama’s highest-ranking Democratic lawmakers.

Chuck Cooper, a former assistant attorney general in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and a prominent Supreme Court litigator, is helping Sessions prep. Sessions has participated in multiple mock hearings since Trump announced his appointment on Nov. 18, even staying in Washington over the Christmas holiday to prepare.

“I think it’s fair to say they’re doing their homework,” a transition official said. “They’re going to class and listening and learning. I think you’ll see those lessons applied.”

Nominees with zero government experience like Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and Trump’s pick for secretary of state, are receiving advice from insiders who’ve worked within the agencies they may soon lead.

Tillerson, for example, is being briefed by former State Department official and transition team landing team member Erin Walsh, who used to work for Goldman Sachs. Walsh did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for CIA director, has been meeting with a small, tight-knit prep team, including Geof Kahn, a former CIA analyst and policy director for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, according to a source close to the transition. Kahn did not respond to a request for comment.

Pompeo’s hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is scheduled for Wednesday, the same day as hearings for DeVos, Tillerson, Sessions and Elaine Chao for transportation.

The following day should be almost as hectic, with hearings for Ross, Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis for defense.

Trump’s candidates also held more than 50 meetings with senators and their staffs last week alone, while a senior transition official estimates that the team has done roughly 40 murder boards for all of the Cabinet picks.

Transition officials tasked with shepherding the nominees through the process are relying on those meetings — and committee questionnaires — to determine which issues senators are likely to focus on at the hearings.

They’ve used that information to write dozens of sample questions, which are being thrown at each nominee during the murder boards.

Trump’s team has recruited dozens of public relations veterans and policy experts with experience in the Senate to help prepare the nominees. But the transition team has barred lobbyists from sitting in on the mock confirmation hearings at transition headquarters, one official said.

Most of the nominees are expected to have only one formal mock confirmation hearing, while higher-profile nominees, like Tillerson and Mnuchin, will have multiple sessions.

Transition officials say they are confident Trump’s nominees will be confirmed despite opposition from many Democrats.

“There’s a wing of the Democrat Caucus that’s more interested in politics than policy right now, but they’re not the majority,” said a transition official.

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