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President-elect Trump’s transition team is gearing up to shield some of his top Cabinet appointments from the onslaught of Democratic attacks that have already begun as the Senate gears up for confirmation hearings this week.

With the support of outside conservative groups, such as Judicial Crisis Network and the Senate Leadership Fund, transition officials are working to defuse some of the liberal opposition to Trump’s nominees before it gains enough steam to affect the proceedings.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson and Steven Mnuchin — three of Trump’s most high-profile appointments — have become the targets of particularly bitter tactics. All three have been subject to intensely personal attacks on areas of their backgrounds that trouble Democrats, with little discussion of what policies they might pursue in the new administration. And all three appear to be headed for tense confirmation hearings in the GOP-led Senate.

Because former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the trigger on the so-called nuclear option in 2013, however, Republicans will need just 51 votes to confirm each of Trump’s nominees instead of the traditional 60 votes. Reid’s controversial decision to invoke the nuclear option occurred when Democrats, then in control of the Senate, felt their Republican colleagues had unfairly stonewalled too many of President Obama’s appointments.

With their 52-member majority, Republicans won’t need any help from Democrats to confirm Trump’s Cabinet picks. But they’re likely to get some anyway: vulnerable Democrats who must run for re-election in red states next year, such as Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have already signaled their willingness to back nominees who face otherwise stiff opposition from the Senate minority.

Sarah Isgur Flores, spokeswoman for Sessions, suggested Democrats oppose Trump’s Cabinet choices on purely partisan grounds.

“This has always been about politics for them,” Flores told the Washington Examiner. “But there are a lot of Democrats in 2018 up for re-election in states the president-elect won handily, and I suspect they’ll be giving these nominees careful consideration before falling in lockstep with the left wing of their party.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed frustration Saturday with the speed of the confirmation hearings, citing a letter from the director of the Office of Government Ethics that had suggested some of Trump’s nominees could have “unresolved” conflicts of interest due to the incomplete status of the vetting process for several appointments.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said Sunday that the ethics office should “move faster” to process the paperwork it has already received from the nominees. The Senate will hold hearings for appointments to six Cabinet positions later this week, with most hearings falling on Wednesday, the same day as Trump’s first press conference as president-elect.

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Sessions, Tillerson and Mnuchin quickly drew ire from congressional Democrats after Trump named each to prestigious Cabinet positions.

Sessions, the former attorney general of Alabama and Trump’s choice to lead the Justice Department, has faced allegations of racism stemming from testimony witnesses delivered in 1986 during confirmation hearings for a federal judgeship, which Sessions was denied.

Tillerson’s business ties to Russia have drawn scrutiny as Democrats grapple with the reality that he will likely be the next secretary of state. As the former CEO of Exxon, Tillerson dealt extensively with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as a number of other heads of state in countries with oil resources.

Mnuchin, whom Trump named as his treasury secretary, has weathered heavy criticism of his work with a mortgage lender that turned people out of their homes during the financial crisis.

Yet for all the negative attention lavished on Sessions, Tillerson and Mnuchin, the fight for their confirmation is largely symbolic in light of the Senate rule changes.

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That doesn’t mean Trump’s staff intends to allow attacks on them to stand unchallenged, however.

The transition team revealed Friday that it had tapped veteran Republican strategist Ron Bonjean to handle the confirmation counteroffensive, a move that could signal the team’s intention to begin disrupting Democrat-driven narratives.

Mark Serrano, a GOP strategist, said the fight over Trump’s nominees is a strictly “perceptual” fight to define prospective Cabinet members, not to block them outright.

“All that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer has is a pulpit, and he can gnash his teeth, he can threaten, and he can protest … but the truth is the vast majority of the time, they will not have the votes,” Serrano said. “All they will have is a communications war that they can fight.”

The media will play an outsized role in a fight focused more on optics than anything else, Serrano said, because a “bad story” could “unravel” prospects for controversial nominees in such a thinly-divided Senate.

“There are still a handful of Republicans who are in a marginal position politically, and so we’ve got to keep the majority Republican votes together no matter what,” Serrano said. “You don’t want a Republican who’s in a weak political position back home to lose his or her courage based on political and media attacks against nominees, because then you could lose that vote, and a nomination could begin to unravel. We’ve seen many, many cases of that historically.”

Several of Obama’s nominations fell apart at the outset of his presidency in the face of negative findings from their respective pasts.

For example, Obama’s first choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, saw his confirmation chances dashed amid controversy over unpaid taxes. He ultimately withdrew from the process in February 2009.

Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner survived confirmation in 2009 despite the discovery of unpaid taxes on his record, but the scrutiny that accompanied his hearings cast a pall over the early days of his tenure and weakened his credibility during a critical moment in the country’s economic recovery.

Trump’s nominees may be subjected to even greater levels of vitriol in the sharply divided Senate when confirmation hearings begin on Tuesday.

“Ultimately it’s all about media attacks, leftist political attacks, that must be defended against. You must,” Serrano said. “When they don’t have the votes, they’re going to scratch and claw for every political advantage they can.”

Al Weaver contributed to his report.

Meryl Streep uses Golden Globes speech to deliver warning about Donald Trump

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Award-winning actress Meryl Streep begged the press to hold President-elect Trump accountable in an impassioned speech at the Golden Globes Sunday night.

Accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award honoring her body of work, Streep used the stage to defend Hollywood and implore her peers to use their influence help keep the new White House in check.

“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage,” Streep said. “That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood foreign press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists.

By Daniel Chaitin

01/08/17 10:38 PM



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