Tales From the Inside: How Presidential Nominees are Usually Nominated

Wednesday January 11, 2017

This past week has brought to light exactly how abnormally this Presidential transition is going. I might not be privy to insider info anymore (in which case, I wouldn’t be in a position to share it anyway) but I can at least explain how this usually goes.

In prior administrations, there would be a whirlwind of activity before someone was even nominated aka before you even heard their name mentioned out loud for a certain government position, let alone before they got to a confirmation hearing.

This whirlwind of activity centered on two things: an FBI background check and a government ethics disclosure. Both would kick off simultaneously, involving at a minimum 5 different government bodies, run by apolitical career staff (political staff/supervisors were kept out of it, even at very high levels).

(I worked under two administrations, so trust that what I’m saying was the routine process under both Republican and Democratic administrations.)


The FBI Background Check

The FBI and Department of Justice work on the FBI background check — a grueling bit of paperwork that is at least a quarter inch thick, wherein the potential nominee discloses every job they’ve ever held, every address they’ve ever lived in, people who knew them at each of those addresses, financial information and debts, past drug use, foreign travel, your family’s foreign travel, and disclosures about close relatives that live overseas. (This wasn’t my line of work, so I don’t even know if that entails all of it.) To say it is a shocking amount of information about yourself is an understatement.

The FBI then takes this information and seems to go around confirming it. Like, tracking down in person that 2 month internship you had sophomore year in college. They do call your friends, but only to get your friends to give them phone numbers of other people that know you. I assume because your friends may be loyal and won’t spill uncomfortable information about you, whereas acquaintances might be feeling a bit more chatty. For months, I had all sorts of random people coming out of my past to tell me the FBI had questioned them about me. Supergreat!

So, that’s one leg of it. If any red flags crop up, the nominee could be dropped. (No, I have no idea what constitutes a red flag.)

Government Ethics Financial Disclosures and Agreement

On the other side of things, you have financial disclosures. It’s a criminal violation (like a go-to-prison-violation) to use a government office to financially benefit you or your family. (Yes, that does seem kind of quaintly old school in this current climate.) Nominees have to fill out forms disclosing their financial assets, ongoing positions (“head of the PTA”), as well as debts. For most of us, this is like two boxes of mutual funds, a 401k, and a student loan. For nominees worth millions (or billions), this can be a half inch filing itself.

Three separate offices handle financial disclosures: the White House, the Office of Government Ethics, and the agency that the potential nominee would run/work for. (Yes, the White House government ethics leg is composed of career staff too. Like an in-house ombudsman.) The research that goes into financial disclosure forms can take weeks — with OGE knowing the rules best and the agency knowing the potential conflicts best. They all work together to analyze each financial holding, and determine whether it poses a conflict of interest with the agency’s work or not.

That may sound simple, but remember that many funds aren’t mutual funds. They may be hedge funds or privately held funds or even family trusts, in which case each of the underlying assets of the fund or trust has to be analyzed in and of itself. So, a disclosure that someone has money in just one hedge fund could result in a list of thousands of stock holdings. And then each of those has to be analyzed to see if it poses a conflict with the agency.

(If the hedge fund refuses to disclose their underlying holdings, then the potential nominee would be asked to divest from the hedge fund entirely.)

If something is a conflict, the potential nominee is usually either asked to divest or recuse themselves from the line of agency’s work that would be affected. (So, if someone has a lot of stock in a poultry farm, and they’re about to head up the USDA, then either sell the stock or recuse yourself from working on anything that could affect poultry farms. Then apply that to potentially thousands more stock holdings.) As long as they continue to hold the stock, they aren’t allowed to work on those matters.

Debts, of course, matter too. Someone indebted to another is someone who can be blackmailed or manipulated.

After the research and review is finalized, the potential nominee will have to sign an ethics agreement, agreeing to either sell off or recuse themselves from potential conflicts, in addition to resigning from any positions that could conflict with their work. (And, remember, this is for their own protection, since they could be prosecuted if they violate the government ethics laws.) Only once that happens, does his or her name move forward.

So. USUALLY, ALL of this happens before you even hear a person’s name mentioned on TV as a nominee. Which I think is how it should be? Like, nothing in your past too galling, no financial stakes in the government agency you’ll be running. Most people would agree with this, I hope.

What’s happening now is that 1) not only have people been nominated before all of this work was done, 2) the Senate is trying to hold confirmation hearings for them before either of these things are done. So, confirmation hearings before the FBI has completed its background check. Confirmation hearings before nominees even know what their criminal conflicts of interests might be, before they’ve agreed to sell troublesome stock and other financial assets.

The head of the Office of Government Ethics (an agency run by career employees, so as apolitical as you can get) has said, to his knowledge, he doesn’t know of a situation in 40 years where a nominee has had a senate confirmation hearing before having an ethics agreement in place.

It is troublesome. This isn’t simply a partisan issue; this is an issue of responsible and trustworthy government that is run with only the public’s interest in mind. I’m curious where we go from here, but already, I’m worried a harmful precedent has been set.


(Let me know if you have any other questions about how this works. The more people know about how hard our government works to stay honest, the better for everyone.)


2 Responses to “Tales From the Inside: How Presidential Nominees are Usually Nominated”

  1. Very interesting. I’m trying to keep afloat learning about this transition stuff-new to me and not many to teach you. Most of it seems to be word of mouth.


    1/11/2017 at 10:44 pm

  2. If you have any specific questions, I might be able to answer them for you. I think part of the problem is that each transition goes a little differently, so there aren’t many hard fast rules, you know?


    1/12/2017 at 9:53 am