The first of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees headed to Capitol Hill this week to begin their Senate confirmations. And while there were some tense moments and stumbles, overall his Cabinet picks were well-received, and most should get quick confirmations as soon as Trump is sworn in next week.
But the major theme that emerged in committee hearings was that some of the president-elect’s top would-be advisers revealed some major policy breaks with the future president on issues Trump championed and views he expressed on the campaign trail — from Russian hacking, torture, a Muslim ban and registry, mosque surveillance, NATO, the Iran nuclear deal, even infrastructure, deportations and that border wall.
It demonstrates the potential constraints the president-elect could run into if he seeks to implement some of the more provocative aspects of what he campaigned on. But it also raises questions of just how much Trump actually meant what he said when he campaigned and about the breadth of discussions he has had with his Cabinet picks on critical policy points. That lack of cohesion could lead to friction in the near future and potential difficulty governing — if the nominees carry their beliefs forward in their roles in the administration.
The views, tempered or opposite of Trump’s, could also be a reflection of just how difficult it would be otherwise for a nominee to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, espousing the kinds of boastful campaign opinions the president-elect has expressed.
Because there were so many, here’s a quick recap, all in one place, of this past week’s hearings:
Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions
The Alabama senator had the most exhaustive confirmation hearing of the week, stretching into two days. NPR’s Meg Anderson had a recap:
“Democrats don’t have the votes to stop Sessions’ appointment. Perhaps as a result, they focused primarily on fleshing out what Sessions’ relationship would be with the president as attorney general and reminded him of the importance of an independent Justice Department. Sessions spent a lot of the day reassuring his colleagues that he would follow the law, first and foremost, and expressing his disagreements with some of the president-elect’s more extreme proposals.”
Sessions said he opposed bringing back waterboarding as an extreme interrogation technique, and he also said that he opposed other Trump campaign proposals of banning Muslims from coming into the U.S. amid terrorism concerns and also said he opposed any type of registry of Muslims either.
“And I think we should avoid surveillance of religious institutions unless there’s a basis to believe that dangerous or threatening illegal activity could be carried on there,” he added.
Sessions’ record on race was a key focus, 30 years after his hopes of a federal judgeship were scuttled by the same committee over allegations he had used racist language as a U.S. Attorney. Sessions denied those allegations, reiterating that, “I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas I was accused of. I did not.”
But that didn’t stop some of Sessions’ colleagues from taking an unprecedented step in testifying against his confirmation. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow senator during a confirmation hearing, said Sessions’ record “indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to the justice system.”
And Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a venerated civil-rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., told the Judiciary Committee that “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’ calls for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then.”
Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson
The former Exxon Mobil CEO’s confirmation hearing was the roughest of the week. He faced grilling from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over his close ties with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, along with questions about lobbying and deal-making during his four decades with the oil giant.
Tillerson faced particularly aggressive questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a former Trump primary opponent. Rubio pushed the would-be chief diplomat on whether he would label Putin as a war criminal, while Tillerson dodged. He also pressed Tillerson on his views on human-rights violations in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, and Rubio was flabbergasted when Tillerson said he’d need more information to make such pronouncements despite widely available documentation of atrocities in both countries. Rubio hasn’t said yet whether he will support Tillerson’s nomination, which could be a major complication for his confirmation.
Tillerson was also tripped up over his tenure at Exxon Mobil and whether the country had lobbied against Russian sanctions. He initially said he had no knowledge that the company had ever “directly lobbied,” to which even a supportive Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., interjected that Tillerson had even called him about the sanctions at the time. Tillerson also claimed he didn’t recall whether Exxon Mobil had done business with Iran, Syria and Sudan during his tenure.
But Tillerson did express some differences with Trump on key issues. He began by sounding a more hawkish tone toward Russia, and said he believes intelligence reports that the country was involved in cyberattacks designed to influence the U.S. elections. He also said he opposed a potential ban on Muslims coming into the U.S. and any type of Muslim registry, either.
Tillerson also said he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Trump has loudly opposed and pledged to abandon.
Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis
Trump’s choice to lead the Pentagon also struck a very different tone from the president-elect on foreign policy, testifying Thursday that Russia was a major threat to the U.S.
“I’m all for engagement,” Mattis said, “but we also have to recognize reality in terms of what Russia is up to.”
And the retired four-star Marine Corps general also reiterated his strong support for NATO, an alliance Trump openly questioned and doubted on the campaign trail. Mattis said he believed Trump was “open” on the issue and understood his steadfast position.
“My view is that nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies don’t,” Mattis said, calling it “the most successful military alliance probably in modern world history, maybe ever.”
Mattis also expressed acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal and said he believed it was likely workable. Trump has been hotly critical of the deal and has threatened to pull out of it.
Senate and House committees, along with the full Senate, also approved a waiver to allow Mattis to serve as defense secretary. He only retired in 2013, while current law requires a wait of seven years to serve in that position.
Homeland Security Secretary nominee John Kelly
Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, also broke with Trump on several key points during his Tuesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
On Trump’s seminal campaign promise, to build a wall along the Mexican border, Kelly acknowledged that “a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job. It has to be a layered defense” of human patrols, drones and other sensors. On the administration’s deportation policies, Kelly also broke with Trump, saying that undocumented children who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would “probably not be at the top of the list” and that he would “keep an open mind.”
The former head of the U.S. Southern Command also repeatedly stressed working with other Latin American countries to better curtail drug and human trafficking.
Kelly also said he opposed reinstating waterboarding and also said he had “high confidence” in U.S. intelligence findings on Russian attacks on the elections.
And Kelly said he opposed any kind of surveillance on mosques or any creation of a Muslim database, testifying that, “I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to focus on something like religion as the only factor” when looking to prevent terrorism.
CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo
The Kansas GOP congressman Trump has chosen to lead the intelligence department also broke with the president-elect, opposing waterboarding as a form of torture.
In this hearing, in which the power was lost and the C-SPAN camera feed went down (just as they were talking about Russia), Pompeo also said he had confidence in the current U.S. intelligence program and said he agreed with their findings that Russia had tried to meddle in the elections, again putting him at odds with the man he would serve, NBC News reported:
“In his opening remarks, Pompeo took aim at Russia, saying that Moscow has ‘reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe and doing nothing to aid in the defeat of ISIS.’
“He later said, ‘It’s pretty clear about what took place here about Russia involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy.'”
Housing and Urban Development Secretary nominee Ben Carson
In the former famed neurosurgeon’s confirmation, it was a question of whether Carson had enough experience dealing with housing issues to lead the agency. He got a warm reception though before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Thursday.
He told them that he wanted to oversee HUD because it’s not just “putting roofs over the heads of poor people, it has the ability to be so much more than that.” Carson said he wants to use his role to to take “a holistic approach” to help “develop our fellow human beings.”
NPR’s Brian Naylor reports Carson also “would not say that housing properties owned by Trump won’t benefit from HUD programs” in a tense exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:
“Carson responded it would not be his intention ‘to do anything to benefit any American,’ quickly adding that anything the department does ‘is for all Americans.’ Carson said, ‘If there happens to be an extraordinarily good program that’s working for millions of people, and it turns out that someone that you’re targeting is going to gain, you know, $10 from it, am I going to say ‘no’?’ Carson asked. ‘Logic and common sense probably would be the best way.’
“Trump’s family made its fortune in real estate, and it still owns some rental properties in New York. Trump has refused to divest his assets, and Warren, who tangled with Trump during the campaign, charged the president-elect is ‘hiding his family’s business interests from you, from me, from the rest of America.’
“In a later exchange, Carson said he would report to lawmakers on any dealings HUD has with properties owned by Trump or his family.”
Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao
The AP described Chao’s confirmation hearing as a “lovefest,” which was a pretty accurate characterization. Yes, the former labor secretary in the George W. Bush administration had already been confirmed before and has a long resume that makes her qualified for the position, but the fact that she’s the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t hurt, either.
NPR’s David Schaper reported that Chao talked about the “bold vision” Trump has to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure, but acknowledged that “the government doesn’t have the resources to do it all.”
Two planned confirmation hearings for this past week were postponed. Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos will now testify Tuesday amid concerns over an incomplete ethics review and financial disclosures. The Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions said the delay was “at the request of Senate leadership to accommodate Senate schedule.”
Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., Trump’s nominee for interior secretary, will also have his confirmation hearing Tuesday.
On Wednesday, a key hearing sure to garner lots of attention — Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, will have his confirmation hearing.
Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross also saw his confirmation hearing delayed, pushed to Wednesday, also amid a paperwork delay.
And on Thursday, Rick Perry testifies to convince senators why he should lead one of the three agencies he said he wanted to eliminate during his 2012 presidential run, the Energy Department.
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