Inside President Trump’s confirmation-hearing war rooms

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·White House Correspondent
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Secretary of Energy nominee former Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, is sworn in before testifying during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Secretary of Energy nominee former Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, is sworn in before testifying during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 19. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Now that President Donald Trump has taken the oath of office, all eyes are turning to the confirmation process for the members of his Cabinet and other administration appointees. Trump’s transition team has set up an elaborate operation led by veteran Capitol Hill aide Eric Ueland to prepare his nominees for their hearings. Yahoo News spoke with Ueland and other members of the transition team on Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration, to learn about how the key figures in Trump’s administration are being prepared to win confirmation.

Trump’s team has been tight-lipped about its confirmation efforts, which have included mock hearings complete with staffers playing the parts of senators and even protesters. According to Ueland, the team members want to “ensure the focus is on” Trump, Vice President Mike Pence “and the personnel and policies that they are promoting and advocating.”

“We’ve just kept ourselves very anonymous as we’ve gone about doing our jobs,” Ueland said.

The confirmation efforts were run out of a narrow “war room” ringed with televisions in the transition team’s office inside the General Services Administration building in Washington, D.C. Mock hearings were conducted in the GSA’s ceremonial room on the building’s sixth floor that was made up to resemble a congressional hearing room. According to the transition team, there have been more than 40 of these practice hearings, lasting nearly 100 hours, with an average of 123 questions per session. Mock interruptions by “protesters” were part of the drill.

A transition team official who requested anonymity to discuss details of the operation said the war room is “staffed by a group of more than 40 communication and media relations professionals who work to promote the nominees through social media and traditional media outlets.” The transition team official said Ueland “is in charge of the confirmation efforts without an official title.”

Ueland joined Trump’s transition team last year from the Senate Budget Committee. He was hired in 2013 by Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who was at the time ranking member on the committee, and stayed on when Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., took over as the committee’s chairman in 2015. He worked with the Republican Party during its convention last year, and afterward was asked to join Trump’s transition team. He said his work has involved coordination between Trump’s transition offices in New York and Washington, as well as confirmations, nominations, “policy integration work in anticipation of agency action” and compliance. Ueland also said his work has included “a lot of troubleshooting and problem-solving.”

“Eric Ueland, a guru of all things Capitol Hill, and Christine Ciccone, who served as a special assistant to former President George W. Bush, were charged with preparing nominees to testify before and answer questions from U.S. senators and ultimately get confirmed,” the transition official said. “Ueland and Ciccone recruited a team of more than 90 volunteers, affectionately referred to as ‘sherpas,’ to help each nominee climb Capitol Hill.”

The transition official said the “sherpas” included veterans of government agencies, Congress, Cabinet agencies and presidential campaigns. Their work included conducting meetings between nominees and members of the Senate, preparing briefing materials and questions for the mock hearing, coordinating with the transition’s legislation team and congressional relations to ensure that nominations moved toward a Senate vote, and registering nominees in the internal White House system so that all paperwork necessary for them to take the oath of office was completed.

“Ueland and Ciccone’s experience was invaluable to the effort, as it was pointed out at one point that the 20-somethings working on the transition were in elementary school the last time the GOP had a presidential transition team,” the official said.

According to the official, other key members of the confirmation team included Matt Well and R.C. Hammond of the Herald Group consulting firm, who set up and managed the war room with former Trump campaign staffer Bryan Lanza. Ed Mullen, a principal of the Georgetown Group and former House staffer, was responsible for drumming up support for nominees from outside organizations and serving as a spokesman. Lanza also was in “daily contact” with nominees to offer “coaching and counseling.” The transition official also said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean “served as a jack-of-all-trades helping with nominee media relations.”

Despite these elaborate preparations, Trump had fewer confirmed picks by Inaugural Day than prior presidents. While Trump has announced his Cabinet picks, according to an analysis updated by the Washington Post on Friday, he has selected nominees for only 30 of the 690 key executive-branch positions that require Senate confirmation. The transition team official suggested this was a factor of the secrecy surrounding Trump’s confirmation operations.

“There’s a large difference between not having them announced and not having them filled. A number of these positions have been secured and they have yet to be announced,” the official said. “It will be announced in short order because we have to have our Cabinet nominees selected and starting to go through the process. Now, that we’ve had our Cabinet nominees selected, the heads of agencies and the various sub-Cabinet level deputy positions will be announced.”

Ueland said the sherpas worked with the transition team’s policy and legislation teams to solidify their agendas and prepare questions for the mock hearings. He described it as a “rigorous” process that included people doing extensive prep work to get into character as members of the Senate.

“There’s a lot of study and research done on each individual member, their priorities, their policies, how they work, what they do when they’re at a committee hearing, how they go about formulating questions, how they interact with witnesses,” Ueland said. “We have staff who support the confirmation process here who spent weeks studying individual members of the Senate in order to take on more fully who they are and how they operate in a committee environment.”

Some of the mock hearings have involved actual members of Congress. However, Trump’s team is staying tight-lipped about the elected officials who are helping with the process.

“We have attempted to keep the participants on the [quiet] and I’m going to respect that piece of the process, but we’ve had over 400 people come in and play mock senators including some current and former members of the United States Senate and a few House members as well,” said Ueland.

Ueland said part of the need for secrecy could be the backlash “if it were ever to come back” that a member of Congress played a mock version of one of their colleagues.

“You don’t know how that might play out on the Senate floor,” Ueland said.

Yahoo News asked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Energy, what he thought of the mock hearings as he jumped into a car outside the transition team’s office last Wednesday. Perry offered praise for one of the unnamed actors.

“Well, let me just leave you with this. The fella who played Bernie Sanders was magnificent,” Perry said.

Eric Ueland, a staff member with the Senate Budget Committee, stands behind copies of U.S. President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2017 Budget in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)
Eric Ueland, a staff member with the Senate Budget Committee, stands behind copies of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

Along with people playing the role of senators, the mock hearings also featured an actor playing the part of protesters — Ueland himself.

“I am the protester who shows up to agitate in the back from time to time as individuals are going through their mock hearings,” Ueland said.

Ueland said he tried to replicate the protests that activist organizations staged during confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees, including Sessions.

“A protester on the Hill is usually sitting as an audience member and, at some point, he or she will stand up and start chanting on behalf of a particular cause, ideology, or philosophy, or issue that he or she cares about. So, we’re careful to replicate that in a topic-specific manner. For a Foreign Relations mock hearing, you might hear one set of protest agitation. For an Environment and Public Works hearing you might hear a different set of agitation and protest,” Ueland said.

Ueland said his goal was “to reflect what we know is a culture of protest up on Capitol Hill” to “try to make sure that nominee is prepared.”

“So, when an interruption or ruckus begins behind him or her at the witness table, he or she is prepared and is able to very patiently wait thought it as the protester is escorted out,” said Ueland.

Actors playing the role of Capitol Police pull Ueland out after his outbursts in the mock hearings. And Ueland said he has no problem accurately playing the part of the protesters.

“I grew up in Portland, Ore., and I attended college in San Francisco,” Ueland explained. “There’s no need for me to get into that mindset because I lived it for many, many years.”

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