Trump’s Cabinet picks aren’t standing by some of his controversial opinions — or even discussing them – Los Angeles Times
With the Senate having held confirmation hearings for seven of the incoming administration’s choices for top positions, a clear pattern has begun to emerge — prospective Cabinet members have carefully walked away from some of President-elect Donald Trump’s more controversial promises.
In the process, the public has begun to get a sense of which campaign pledges are likely to be put into action and which are likely to be pushed aside.
Waterboarding of terrorism suspects, registries for Muslim Americans, religious-based immigration bans and a more trusting relationship with Russia all drew strongly worded objections from Trump’s designees.
Trump’s views on global warming and the potential usefulness of building a wall along the Mexican border also drew skepticism.
By contrast, the Cabinet choices appear to share the president-elect’s often-expressed chilliness toward China, his support for greater military spending and his desire to see less federal scrutiny of how state and local police do their work.
Trump’s aides say the gaps between his positions and those of his Cabinet picks should not be a problem. Asked Thursday about the issue, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said that in cases of disagreements, the president-elect’s agenda would prevail.
Cabinet selections needn’t be “100% pure” and were chosen for their expertise so that they could help shape Trump’s views, Spicer told reporters on a conference call, adding that “he’s not asking for clones.”
But despite public insistence that Trump would still be, as President George W. Bush used to say, “the decider” in his administration, another theme emerged this week: The sometimes startling degree to which the president-elect and his choices for the senior-most positions in his administration have not discussed key issues.
Some involve policies they will need to start acting on in just over a week.
After posing a series of questions Wednesday about Russia to Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of State, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked, “For all of these answers that you’ve given me, does the president-elect agree with you?”
“The president-elect and I have not had the opportunity to discuss this specific issue or the specific area,” Tillerson replied.
He and Trump had talked about “a broad construct and in terms of the principles that are going to guide” foreign policy, Tillerson said, but a conversation about dealing with Russia “has not occurred yet, Senator.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” Menendez said.
The impression of a president-elect who is detached from the details — or in some cases even the broad outlines — of policy could change next week when Trump’s choices for key economic policy posts are scheduled to have their confirmation hearings.
In his public statements, including his frequent messages on Twitter as well as his news conference Wednesday, Trump has appeared most engaged in policies that involve jobs.
For now, however, the confirmation hearings have contributed to the overall uncertainty about how much Trump grasps, or intends to shape, the policies of the administration he will soon head.
That’s an image Democrats have been eager to emphasize.
“I’m not being a wiseguy here. It’s hard to know what the president-elect’s position is because his style is so different than any president or president-elect that I’ve been associated with,” Vice President Joe Biden told reporters Thursday. “I never know what he means.”
Even on immigration, a signature issue for Trump, the hearings highlighted uncertainty about Trump’s policy.
Asked about a key issue facing the Department of Homeland Security — what to do about the more than 700,000 young people in the country without legal authorization who have gotten temporary protection against deportation under the Obama administration’s program for so-called Dreamers — Trump’s pick to head the department, Gen. John Kelly, said he was uncertain.
Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, applicants gave the government information not only about their own whereabouts, but also for family members who may also be in the country without legal authorization.
Asked by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) whether he would abide by current rules that bar the Homeland Security Department from using that information for immigration enforcement, Kelly said he couldn’t say.
“I do not know right now where the upcoming administration is going with this,” Kelly said.
Distance from Trump’s campaign rhetoric fits with an overall pattern that the president-elect and his top aides have followed since the election.
Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway recently said that people should not focus on Trump’s precise words, but on what is “in his heart.” His former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, took the press to task in November for having paid too much attention to Trump’s words.
“You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” he complained.
Democrats, by contrast, have done their best to keep Trump’s statements in the public eye, and they have peppered the confirmation hearings with questions that start, “Donald Trump said….”
That has led to a series of significant disavowals.
On Trump’s repeated statements that he would back the use of waterboarding “or a hell of a lot worse” against terrorism suspects, for example, his designated attorney general and his picks for secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security and State and CIA director all are now on record in opposition.
“Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Trump’s attorney general designee, testified Tuesday.
“I would enforce the law,” he said.
On Thursday, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Trump’s choice to head the CIA, responded to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) by saying that he would refuse to carry out any order to resume waterboarding or other “enhanced interrogation” techniques.