Over the past month, the names have trickled out of Donald Trump's transition headquarters like water from a leaky faucet. The president-elect appears to be stacking his inner circle with campaign allies, Beltway insiders and industry executives, with each new cabinet nominee raising more eyebrows than the last. With a whirlwind of confirmation hearings on the horizon, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester isn't just jotting down his own notes. He's crowdsourcing questions.
"The idea came to me when I was visiting with some folks in a coffee shop," Tester tells the Indy. "I happened to be in Great Falls, and they were giving me some input on what I ought to be asking these guys. I thought, 'You know, this wouldn't be a bad idea—just get the ideas from every coffee shop in Montana.'"
Since launching a public comment portal on his website in mid-December, Tester's office has received more than 1,200 responses regarding Trump's growing list of cabinet nominees. Tester still has quite a few to sort through in the coming weeks, but he notes that several points of common concern have already emerged—namely, worries about Trump's nomination of Betsy DeVos to the Department of Education and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to the EPA.
"A lot of folks are concerned with climate issues and how [Pruitt]'s going to deal with it," Tester says. "We'll find out. I've been told, through the media, that he's a climate change denier. He doesn't think it exists, which is a hard one to explain. But we will ask questions of him on those and other issues."
Pruitt is just one nominee generating backlash from Senate Democrats ahead of the yet-to-be-scheduled confirmation hearings. Some of those Democrats, while acknowledging their inability to block Trump's appointees, have vowed to do everything they can to drag out the confirmation process. Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, invoked the nearly yearlong refusal of Republicans to consider Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, telling Politico that, "What goes around comes around."
Tester may have concerns about Devos' lack of classroom experience and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's ties to Russia, but he has no desire to delay the confirmation process as some sort of political stunt. "I'm not going to do any of that," he says. Whether in committee hearings or private meetings, Tester intends to vet each potential cabinet member based on input he gets from Montanans. And that includes Congressman Ryan Zinke, who was considered a possible Tester challenger in 2018 before being nominated in December to lead the Department of Interior.
"I told Ryan he's going to be put through the same process as everyone else," Tester says. "Personally, I think he'll do fine. But if he doesn't answer our questions satisfactorily, we'll have a problem."