On a number of issues — Russia, Iran sanctions, NATO, torture — some of President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet nominees have testified they would not support the positions he stated during the campaign. Clearly, this serves a purpose for Trump, as his nominees are more likely to get confirmed. But once the hearings are over and he is inaugurated, his history suggests he will simply sideline dissenters.
During his confirmation hearing to head the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) was asked by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) if he would comply if Donald Trump asked him to reinstate torture. “Absolutely not,” he replied.
Pompeo’s answer signified a major break with Trump, who bluntly advocated resuming the use of waterboarding and “much worse” in the fight against terrorism.
On the one hand, it is an indictment of Trump’s contemptible position on torture. On the other, Trump benefits from looking as though he chose independent-minded people to serve in his administration, and the appearance of independence is more likely to ensure their confirmations garner Democratic support.
Some or all of the nominees may even genuinely hold opposing views to Trump.
But Trump has repeatedly shown he seeks vengeance on anyone who criticizes or disagrees with him. Even if his cabinet nominees were the most principled people on the planet, who intend to and would stand up to him, we have every reason to anticipate that Trump would simply marginalize them or get rid of them completely.
On their face, these critical divergences from some of Trump’s more odious campaign positions are reassuring:
BLITZER: You have been watching the confirmation hearings of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for the CIA and the Defense Department. And as we’ve learned more about where Trump’s picks stands on all the critically important issues, one thing became very, very clear over the past few hours: These men, along with the Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, they have sharp differences with the president-elect on various topics, including Russia, Iran, torture, and more. Here’s just a portion of what President-elect Trump’s nominees had to say.
MATTIS: It is an imperfect arms control agreement. It’s not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it, and work with our allies.
POMPEO: With respect to Iran, we must be rigorously objective in assessing the progress made under the joint comprehensive plan of action. While I oppose the Iran deal as a member of Congress, if confirmed, my role will change.
MATTIS: We have a long list of times that we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard. And I think, right now, the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.
POMPEO: It’s pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy. I am very clear-eyed about what that intelligence report says.
MATTIS: My view is that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies don’t. And so I would see us maintaining the strongest possible relationship with NATO. I have had discussions with him on this issue. He has shown himself open, even to the point of asking more questions, going deeper into the issue, about why I feel so strongly. And he understands where I stand. I can tell you that in my many years of involvement in the military, I had a close relationship with the intelligence community. I could evaluate their effectiveness at times on a daily basis. And I have a very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community.
FEINSTEIN: If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the army field manual, would you comply?
POMPEO: Senator, absolutely not.
SESSIONS: Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies.
BLITZER: Very strong statements coming up from three of President Trump’s [sic] nominees for critically important positions in the cabinet.
But we can only be reassured insofar as we believe that Trump will listen to and adopt the recommendations of members of his cabinet.
And there is precious little reason to believe that he will.
His campaign went through a number of staff shake-ups, with his final campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, securing a place is his inner circle after promising to “let Trump be Trump.” By his own admission, he does not change his disposition easily, or at all: “I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t wanna change. Everybody talks about, ‘Oh well, you’re gonna pivot, you’re gonna’ — I don’t wanna pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
He is famously resistant to advice, and perhaps even more famously willing to use his bully pulpit, whether on Twitter or behind a podium, to intimidate, harass, insult, and try to silence critics, whom he regards as his “enemies.” And, like many authoritarians who can brook no dissent, he has elevated family members to key advisory positions.
Our expectations must be informed by Trump’s campaign to discredit the intelligence community, the end game of which was revealed by Conway in a casual aside during an interview in December: “He absolutely respects the intelligence community. He’s made very clear he’s going to put his own people in there as well.”
When people tell Trump things he does not want to hear, he replaces them.
That leaves us with very little reason to expect that his cabinet nominees will be effective in pushing back on some of his radical proposals, even if they are willing to try.
The one wild card in this dynamic is Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, who, by virtue of Trump’s desire to let his second-in-command run policy, is emerging as the most powerful veep ever. Already, after strategy sessions with Pence, Senate Republicans have abandoned Trump’s promise to protect key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, with Trump’s stamp of approval.
If Trump simply allows Pence to assume the true leadership role in the administration, and is willing to abandon all commitments to any of his campaign promises, then perhaps the cabinet members’ positions will matter.
But that scenario is contingent on Pence’s own positions on these issues, many of which are unclear, given that he did not have to go through the bother of running for president in order to assume the power of one.