Donald Trump has insisted he does not expect his Cabinet nominees to agree with him on all issues. But a new batch of confirmation hearings this week, leading up to the inauguration, might test the president-elect’s tolerance for public dissent.
Eight more of Trump’s picks for Cabinet posts are slated for their Senate hearings Tuesday through Thursday, and many will likely face uncomfortable questions about disagreements with Trump or their outright political attacks on him in the past.
The nominees’ turns in the spotlight will follow a string of hearings last week in which other Cabinet nominees starkly diverged from Trump on matters of both substance and style. Trump shrugged off those instances, telling reporters Friday, “We want them to be themselves.”
“I told them, ‘Be yourself and say what you want to say. Don’t worry about me.’ I’m going to do the right thing, whatever it is. I may be right, they may be right,” Trump continued. “But I said, ‘Be yourself.’ I could have said, ‘Do this, say that.’ I don’t want that. I want them all to be themselves.”
Trump, as showcased during his presidential campaign and since, often seems to be driven less by ideology than by political pragmatism and expediency. Still, the contrasts with his nominees drew widespread attention, suggesting cracks in the administration before Trump is even sworn in.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s would-be secretary of state, used harsh terms to describe Russia, which Trump has framed as a potential partner, and defended America’s commitment to NATO, which Trump has questioned.
Retired Gen. James Mattis, nominee for secretary of defense, likewise warned of Russian President Vladimir Putin “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” And Rep. Mike Pompeo, the president-elect’s nominee to lead the CIA, defended the agency’s work in light of Trump’s suggestions that the intelligence community has worked to undermine him, and his doubts about its report on Russian hacking to influence the election.
Now, a second round of hearings promises to raise both new and familiar areas of divergence between the president-elect and his slate of Cabinet secretaries.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s choice to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, who will appear for her hearing Wednesday, was formerly a sharp critic of Trump during the Republican presidential primary. In her response last year to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Haley rebuked Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims traveling to the United States, saying, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
But Haley will also likely be made to answer for Trump’s posture toward the United Nations, which he has suggested is no longer relevant, and the role she envisions for it.
“The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” Trump tweeted last month. “So sad!”
Like Haley, Gov. Rick Perry also formerly opposed Trump — first challenging him for the Republican nomination, then labeling Trump’s candidacy a “cancer on conservatism.” Now, Perry is Trump’s pick for secretary of energy, with his confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday, when Perry will need to defend Trump’s policies on nuclear weapons and much more.
In some cases, Trump’s statements have put his nominees in awkward positions shortly before their hearings. Rep. Tom Price, nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, is poised to become the Trump administration’s point man on reforming Obamacare. But, in advance of Price’s confirmation hearing Wednesday, Trump has suggested a direction at odds with the approach most Republican lawmakers — Price included — have planned.
“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump told the Washington Post last week. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”
The unusual dynamic between Trump and his would-be Cabinet secretaries, many of whom bring a more conventional Republican perspective, has afforded Democrats an opportunity to put the nascent administration’s ideological splits on display.
During Tillerson’s hearing, Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, listed the nominee’s views that countered Trump’s.
“All of these to me are quite encouraging,” Coons said. “But these suggest some tensions with the president-elect.”
Tillerson noted that Trump had indeed “been very open and inviting of hearing my views and respectful of those views.”
“My sense is we’re going to have all the views presented [at the] table and everyone will have an opportunity to express those and make the case,” Tillerson said. “And the president decides.”