Nominees pull away from Trump on major issues
WASHINGTON >> America should not torture. Russia is a menace. A wall at the Mexican border would not be effective. A blanket ban against Muslims is wrong. Climate change is a threat. Those statements are in direct opposition to some of the most significant declarations President-elect Donald Trump made before his improbable ascension to the White House. They are also the words of his own nominees to lead the nation’s most important government agencies.
In their first week of grilling before congressional panels, Trump’s Cabinet nominees broke with him on almost every major policy that has put Trump outside Republican orthodoxy, particularly in the area of national security.
James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who long ago expressed his opposition to torture, said Thursday that if he were confirmed as defense secretary, he would support the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump has derided. “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies,” Mattis said at his hearing, a stark contrast from Trump’s view that the Iran negotiations produced “one of the dumbest deals ever.”
Rex W. Tillerson, whom Trump has chosen to be secretary of state, parted ways with the president-elect on a range of issues this week, calling President Vladimir Putin of Russia a regional and international threat who should be countered with “a proportional show of force.” Tillerson rejected a ban on Muslim immigrants, called the United States’ commitment to NATO “inviolable” — again contradicting Trump — and said he did not agree with Trump’s previous comments that Japan should perhaps obtain nuclear weapons.
And Trump’s pick to head the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., vigorously defended the intelligence agencies, which Trump has derided. Transition officials said they were unconcerned by the differences. Sean Spicer, who will be the White House press secretary, said that Trump had chosen people for their expertise, not their ability to parrot his own positions.
STILL, ALL SIGNS indicate that the last word on policy will be Trump’s.
“At the end of the day, each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda and a Trump vision,” Spicer told reporters Thursday.
But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the broad gulf between Trump and the nominees was unusual.
“It suggests to me that Donald Trump wants advisers who will bring him different views,” said Collins, a member of the Senate intelligence panel that grilled Pompeo on Thursday. “That would be very healthy. Or it could lead to confused messages both to our allies and our adversaries.” Democrats took a harsher view.
“A number of the nominees have tried to sprint away from the president-elect’s out-of-the-mainstream positions to try to show the public they’re reasonable,” said Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Senate Democrat. In many cases the nominees have long records in public service and are stating long-held positions. The Trump team also recognizes that the president-elect’s most unorthodox and belligerent stances — while helpful in a populist campaign for the White House — would be unlikely to pass muster with many members of the Senate, even fellow Republicans.
The nominees seem to be determined to create the impression that they could prevail in crucial policy discussions.
“I find it a strength that the president-elect has nominated people that have different views from the ones he has previously expressed,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. Trump’s Cabinet nominees are being meticulously prepared for their meetings with senators and for confirmation hearings, several senators said. In those preparation sessions, the appointees are often questioned on issues they know could snag them.
Most notably, the nominees have taken strong positions against Russia in the confirmation hearings. Trump, by contrast, has spent a year defending his desire to have strong relationships with Russia and Putin, and only this week seemed to acknowledge what the intelligence agencies agree on: that Russia interfered with the election.
TILLERSON, in particular, was grilled on his views by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., given Tillerson’s long-standing relationship with Putin while he was the head of Exxon Mobil and his advocacy for dropping sanctions against the nation. On Wednesday, Tillerson said that Russia had been involved in the election hacking, although he did not go as far as Rubio seemed to want, by declaring Russia a rogue nation.
Mattis was uncompromising on the topic. “Since Yalta we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia,” he said. “We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard. And I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with, with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps — the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic and military and the alliance steps, the working with our allies — to defend ourselves where we must.”
Tillerson told lawmakers that he favored remaining a party to the global climate accord reached in Paris in 2015.
It is not clear whether he will get that chance. Although Trump told The New York Times last month that he had an “open mind” on the Paris Agreement, he promised in a speech in May that “we’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payment of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global-warming programs.” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s nominee for attorney general, did not go as far on torture as Pompeo, who, when asked whether he would allow the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” if ordered to do so by Trump, replied, “Absolutely not.” But Sessions did say that waterboarding was illegal.