WASHINGTON – In two days of Senate confirmation hearings, Donald Trump’s national security nominees have shown they aren’t afraid of disagreeing with their boss, even on matters at the heart of his campaign promises.
Trump’s picks for defense secretary, secretary of state and Central Intelligence Agency chief contradicted or toned down the president-elect’s rhetoric on a number of issues, starting most directly with Russia.
They acknowledged Russia’s role in hacking last year’s election campaign, in contrast to Trump’s desire to move past the accusations and build better ties with President Vladimir Putin. They rejected torture where Trump has backed it, and they called for a stronger NATO after Trump questioned it. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said he wasn’t opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, while Trump has pledged to kill it.
“Whether it’s by inattention or acquiescence or by design, the fact that he seems to have hired people who are prepared to go public and fundamentally contradict him without cost or consequence so far is an interesting and intriguing piece of all this,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser at the State Department.
Trump said he wasn’t perturbed by the differences and welcomed the nominees’ views.
“All of my Cabinet nominee are looking good and doing a great job,” Trump wrote in a tweet Friday morning. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Later in the day, he told reporters at Trump Tower in New York that he had said to the nominees, “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to do the right thing, whatever it is.”
While there’s a long history of nominees offering shades of difference with their new boss, analysts said these confirmation hearings were a marked departure. This past week’s hearings featured Tillerson, Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis, CIA director choice Mike Pompeo and John Kelly for Homeland Security.
In a foreign policy speech in April, Trump warned allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to spend their fair share on defense — a total that amounts to 2 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product. According to NATO reports, only five nations in the 28-member bloc meet that threshold.
If they can’t reach that marker, “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” Trump said at the time. “We have no choice.”
Tillerson, though, testified that the U.S. commitment to its allies in the NATO alliance is “inviolable.”
Mattis went further in a comment on the multinational accord aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear program. While Trump has lambasted the deal that the U.S. and five other nations reached with Iran, Mattis said the U.S. was duty-bound to uphold it despite its imperfections.”It’s not a friendship treaty,” he said. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
At Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, ticked off seven examples where Trump and the nominee disagreed, from Tillerson saying it would be a bad idea for Japan or South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons to coming out against Trump’s campaign promise for a ban on immigration by Muslims.
“You have a notable difference of view from at least some of the concerns based on some campaign statements by the president-elect,” Coons said. “How will you work through those differences? And just reassure me that you will stand up to the president when you disagree on what is the right path forward in terms of policy.”
Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., replied that Trump has been “open and inviting of hearing my views and respectful of those views.” Asked later how he’d resolve any contradictions, Tillerson said: “I have his cell phone number and he’s promised me he’ll answer, and he does.”
Part of the challenge for the nominees is that Trump has changed, or at least reformulated, his stance many times. During the campaign, Trump was a vocal advocate for restoring waterboarding to extract information from suspected terrorists, widely agreed to be an illegal form of torture.
But after winning, Trump told the New York Times he was surprised to have heard from Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, that torture didn’t work as well as sitting down with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.” Pompeo also came out against waterboarding in his hearing. Similarly, Trump backed away from his initial call for a Muslim ban, more recently proposing “extreme vetting”‘ of those from countries plagued by terrorism.
Tillerson, who called Russia a “danger” to U.S. interests, said he hadn’t even spoken to Trump about that issue. “That has not occurred yet, senator,” he said in response to a question.
The differences in view between Trump and his nominees are “par for the course,” especially given that Trump has been so vocal on so many issues, said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“They’ve been called upon to refute more incendiary statements, and I don’t think anyone would have any expectations that they would come out and say, ‘Yes, I’m glad you asked, I do think all Mexicans are rapists,'” she said. “Trump doesn’t finesse stuff, and these guys do,” Pletka said.
For all the talk of welcoming dissent, the ultimate question is whether many key decisions on foreign policy will be made by Trump on the advice of his national security adviser, as was the case in the Obama White House, or by the Cabinet secretaries. Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is more in lockstep with the president-elect’s stated views, including his outreach to Russia.
Asked at his hearing whether he anticipates tension with Flynn — whom he outranked in the military — Mattis said the national security process requires that different ideas are strongly argued.
“It’s not tidy, it’ll be respectful — of that I’m certain — and I don’t anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win,” Mattis said.