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Foreign Relations Committee Delays Consideration of Darrell Issa after Menendez Raises Serious Outstanding Vetting Issues

WASHINGTON – The Senate Foreign Relations committee today postponed the consideration for the nomination of Darrell Issa to be Director of the United States Trade and Development Agency after Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) outlined a series of pending vetting issues for two of the nominees testifying before the committee this morning.

Today’s hearing was convened over the objection of  Ranking Member Menendez and all other Democrats on the Committee, breaking decades of Committee bipartisan practice known as comity. At issue was the Trump Administration’s refusal to provide critical background information to the Committee that is directly relevant to two of the nominees’ fitness for Senate confirmation.

On Darrell Issa in particular, the White House ignored a bipartisan letter requesting access to the FBI background investigation on Mr. Issa for all Foreign Relations committee members so that they could be fully informed of potentially disqualifying information prior to moving his nomination.  There is ample precedent for the White House to provide such expanded access in these situations.

Menendez made a motion to allow the committee to go into closed session to talk through the nominee’s background in private as to avoid any embarrassing information to be discussed publicly. The Chairman opposed the motion, and the Committee deadlocked after a vote (11-11). After multiple Senators from both parties supported Ranking Menendez’s vetting concerns, the nomination of Darrel Issa was abruptly pulled until the Trump Administration provides the requested information to avoid having committee members operate without insight on critical vetting matters.

The hearing continued to consider the nominations of Marshall Billingslea, to be Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; Adam Seth Boehler, to be Chief Executive of the United States International Development Finance Corporation; and Michael Pack, to be Chief Executive Officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Below are Senator Menendez’s opening remarks as delivered:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman, I have to be honest, I wish we were not here today. We could be holding a normal nominations hearing, where we ask the nominees about the serious challenges facing our country and the world. Where we could spend the Committee’s time wisely, discussing policy, and judging the substantive qualifications of the witnesses for ourselves.

But today is not a normal nominations hearing. And I think that your process has made sure of that.

This hearing is occurring over my objection, and the objections of every Democrat on this Committee—something I have never witnessed during my time on this committee for fourteen years, and something I never did when I served as Chairman.

And let’s be clear: our objection was not over policy—although for as long as I am aware, members on this Committee and in this body – Democrats and Republicans alike – have objected at times to specific nominees on policy grounds.

Our objection is over the Administration’s refusal to provide Committee information to secure basic vetting information. We requested that you not move forward with Mr. Billingslea and Mr. Issa until members had the information needed to assess whether these two nominees are fit for confirmation.

Instead, we are being asked to evaluate two nominees without knowing the facts. 

Why don’t we know all the facts? Because there is information that the White House controls and this administration refuses to share. And I’m not talking about a nominee’s favorite color or where they had dinner. I’m talking about serious issues that go to credibility and suitability for these positions.

Mr. Chairman, my concerns about the fitness of nominees is not hypothetical. Senior officials have been allowed to engage in corrosive, unacceptable retaliation against career employees—sometimes without any consequences for the offender even despite shocking findings by the State Department inspector general.

Another senior official forcibly resigned after it came to light he—and I wish I was making this up—carried a whip around the office and harassed employees. Another left following allegations of mismanagement.

And that is only for the State Department. If I went down the list of issues for the whole administration, we’d be here all day. There are real consequences for the men and women who work in the State Department and across the federal government.

So yes, Mr. Chairman, it has taken some time to try to get answers. But it is not for lack of trying. For Mr. Billingslea in particular, we have asked the exact same questions, in some cases for almost a year, without any serious response.

What is astounding and dismaying is that while these efforts to get answers were ongoing, you decided to schedule this hearing anyway.

We have a constitutional duty. At a minimum, advise and consent means that we ensure that the individuals we are sending to serve as senior Department officials, to serve at embassies overseas, to manage career federal employees are not only experienced and qualified, but suitable for public service. But we can’t do that if we don’t even have the basic facts.

Now, Mr. Chairman, you have told me that, as a former prosecutor, you treat a nominations hearing like a trial. We gather all the relevant information, air it at the hearing and let the chips fall where they may.

I hope you’ll help me understand this, because, based on that, you’re not even meeting your own standard. We simply do not have the information we need to make an informed decision.

With regard to Mr. Issa, as you know, there is information in his FBI background investigation that concerns me greatly, and that I believe members may find problematic and potentially disqualifying for Senate confirmation. I firmly believe that every member on this Committee should have the opportunity to review that information.

There is ample precedent for doing so. And you joined me in requesting that the White House make good on that request, which we appreciated. So I’m a little confused as to why we have Mr. Issa before us today when no other member has been granted access.

Our joint request to the White House concerning Mr. Issa’s file has gone unanswered. Let that sink in for a moment. The White House has simply ignored the joint request of the Chairman and Ranking Member of this Committee for additional information on an executive branch nominee. Yet here we are holding a hearing for that very nominee.

In the case of Mr. Billingslea, the Administration has not been forthcoming on two separate vetting-related matters: The first is related to Mr. Billingslea’s role in the development and implementation of Bush-era detainee torture policies while working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Secretary Rumsfeld.

Given that Mr. Billingslea, if confirmed, would be the senior U.S. government official responsible for human rights, a fulsome and accurate understanding of his involvement in detainee torture matters is both essential and directly relevant to his current nomination.

It took the Administration months to dig up memos that Mr. Billingslea authored or approved on torture. First it was two, then ten, then a few more. From the beginning it was clear that documents were, according to the Department, ‘missing’—missing attachments, missing pages, but each time, the Administration, and the Chairman’s staff, said that this was it. ‘The search was complete.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ‘Stop asking.’ And then, when we pressured, they would find more.

My staff, at my request, first asked for more information on these ‘missing documents’ in November of 2018. That’s almost a full year ago. Despite repeated requests, the Administration has not shared how many documents are ‘missing’ or the titles of those documents; and they have refused to provide any information on how they searched for the ‘missing’ documents.

Instead, in effect, they said ‘trust us.’ Well, I’m sorry but ‘trust us’ does not cut it when it comes to ‘missing’ torture documents, and it doesn’t cut it when it comes to this Administration and its propensity for obfuscation and lies.

The second line of inquiry related to Mr. Billingslea pertains to a concerning incident that we have sought more clarity and details on, but have been stonewalled. These allegations are more appropriate for discussion in closed session so I will not, at the moment, go in to detail on the substance.

What I will say is that the Administration has refused to provide any information related to these allegations, and it was only until this morning—in a way that I am unable to ascertain the veracity of it—that Mr. Billingslea has come forward with some information.

I would also add that we are talking about two nominees here, Mr. Chairman. Two. Despite the fact that under this administration, we are facing an unprecedented number of nominees, who in the past never would have made it out of the White House, let alone to a Committee hearing, Democrats have joined Republicans in agreeing to advance more than 150 nominees through this Committee and to confirmation. Only a small fraction have moved at a slower pace, largely due to concerns of personal character or fitness.

Need I remind my colleagues of the not-so-distant past? Need I remind them of the more than 50 ambassadorial nominees that stalled in this body under the last administration? Of nominees who languished, some for years—for years—without ever receiving a hearing or a vote?

Need I read back to the list of reasons that they have cited for holding up nominees, which had nothing to do with vetting concerns and everything to do with sticking it to the administration?

Mr. Chairman, even you would agree, that is not your quibble here. We have raised some very serious, very basic, concerns. We are discussing the same concerns now that I discussed with you at the beginning of this Congress.  And it is stunning that this is where we are.

It is no secret what is happening here. Starting with the President, this Administration seems to view Congress as a nuisance. Unless they absolutely need to engage us, they will not. Why would the Administration bother to respond even in a cursory fashion to future vetting requests as long as, at the end of the day, they know the Chairman will move a nominee anyway?

So, my fellow committee members, I appreciate your forbearance. I know that I have spoken for quite some time – longer than I have ever felt compelled to speak at a nominations hearing – but I believe it is critical for you to understand exactly how we wound up at this moment and reflect on it. If this White House gets away with treating the Committee with such disdain, you can bet future presidents, regardless of what party they come from, will do the same.

Given the nature of the outstanding vetting questions related to Mr. Billingslea and Mr. Issa, I continue to believe that it is preferable to discuss those matters in closed session so that, at a minimum, Senators can have a frank discussion about what we currently know and how best to proceed. And so we can have that discussion without causing embarrassment or harm to the nominees.”