Washington: You can’t really call them “yes men.” Maybe we’re meeting Donald Trump’s “yes, but” men. Some of the incoming president’s most important Cabinet choices are at odds with him on matters that were dear to his heart as a campaigner and central to his promises to supporters.
Trump says he doesn’t mind the disconnect. He wants his Cabinet members to be themselves, “say what you want to say,” he told reporters Friday in New York. “I may be right, they may be right.”
But despite that breezy dismissal, the differences laid bare in a week of confirmation hearings raise questions about whether Trump will roll over his Cabinet on immigration, Russia, national security and more, bend to his top advisers’ stated convictions or watch them backtrack from pronouncements that may be helping them win Senate approval.
It’s a team of rivals, with this twist: The mercurial Trump can be a rival to himself.
He proposed, then appeared to move away from, a plan to freeze the entry of Muslims into the U.S. His similarly provocative call for a big border wall with Mexico has gone through several incarnations. His crowd-rousing vow to prosecute Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton melted into a tribute to her public service when she conceded the election. On Friday, he tweeted anew she was “guilty as hell.”
Trump’s team isn’t nearly as inflammatory or unorthodox. Several are more traditional Republicans who toed the line on established GOP positions, even when they contradicted the boss.
The result is Trump is assembling a potentially discordant amen chorus at the dawn of his presidency.
Trump’s nominees to run the CIA, State Department and Justice Department gave credence to U.S. intelligence assessments on Russian hacking that the president-elect ridiculed for weeks before he grudgingly accepted it Wednesday.
Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, nominated as CIA director, said the report concluding that Russia interfered in the U.S. election trying to help Trump win was “an analytical product that is sound.” Rex Tillerson, nominated as secretary of state, told senators it’s a “fair assumption” the hacking couldn’t have happened without Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, chosen for attorney general, said “I have no reason to doubt” the report’s conclusions.
Trump has declared the focus on Russia and the election a “political witch hunt,” while acknowledging this week that Russia was probably behind the hacking of Democrats during the campaign.
RUSSIA and NATO
Trump’s national security and diplomatic leaders have voiced sharp skepticism about the prospects for a warmer relationship with Moscow despite Trump’s praise of Putin.
“Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts,” retired Gen. James Mattis, chosen to run the Pentagon, told senators. “I have very modest expectations for areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin,” who he said is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”
Tillerson expressed unqualified support for NATO’s “inviolable” Article 5, which requires the allies to come to the defense of any member that is invaded. This, after Trump in the campaign suggested the U.S. might not defend its NATO allies if they came under attack if some did not contribute more money to the alliance.
In the campaign, Trump proposed a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S. and at one point suggested requiring Muslims already in the country to register. The proposals then evolved into one that would halt immigration from countries linked to terrorism, though Trump never explicitly took a Muslim ban off the table, nor renounced the registry advocated by some who supported him.
Tillerson told senators: “I do not support a blanket-type rejection of any particular group of people.”
Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, nominated to lead the Homeland Security Department, also weighed in: “I don’t agree with registering people based on ethnic or religion or anything like that.” Nor should religion be a basis for criminal or counter terrorism investigations, he said.
Sessions also repudiated “the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”
Tillerson dissociated himself from Trump’s inflammatory description of Mexicans crossing illegally into the U.S. as criminals and rapists. He contended he would “never characterize an entire population with any single term at all.” Mexico is a “long-standing friend and neighbor of this country,” he added, offering a diplomatic bow to a country that Trump says has been taking advantage of weak U.S. leadership.
For his part, Kelly stated that a border wall alone cannot be a cure-all for illegal crossings. “There has to be really a layered defense,” Kelly said. “If you are to build a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, you’d still have to back that wall up with patrolling by human beings, by sensors, by observation devices.” Although he’s held out the wall as a “beautiful” solution to a porous border, Trump also has called for beefing up patrols.
“Torture works,” Trump said in the campaign. “Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”
Torture doesn’t work, Mattis told him after the election.
Trump pronounced himself “surprised” and “impressed” by that assertion and suggested he would rethink his repeated vow to reinstate waterboarding and “worse” in interrogations of terror suspects. He said Matthis told him beer and cigarettes are more effective at getting people to talk.
In the confirmation hearings, Session said current law “absolutely” bans waterboarding and other torture techniques, despite his own past support for such practices.
Pompeo said that if Trump ordered the CIA to use waterboarding, he would “absolutely not” go along.
Trump railed against the “disastrous” Iran nuclear deal in the campaign and promised to dismantle it. The multinational deal lifts sanctions against Iran in return for the suspension of its nuclear program.
Trump’s nominees gave a more measured response when asked about ripping up the agreement.
Mattis called it “an imperfect” pact but said, “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it.” Tillerson merely said he would support a review.