WASHINGTON ― A day after President Donald Trump delivered yet another denunciation of NATO, calling it obsolete and putting himself at odds with most of the GOP, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sat down with Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
Did Tillerson, the man who was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday to carry out Trump’s foreign policy, believe that NATO was obsolete, Durbin asked him.
Tillerson, who had publicly disagreed repeatedly with his would-be boss during his confirmation hearing, came down in line not with Trump, but with the rest of the GOP, saying NATO was not obsolete. What Trump really meant, he explained, was that the venerable alliance needed to be made stronger.
“I hope that’s true. It doesn’t sound like a consistent interpretation, but I hope that what Mr. Tillerson said was true,” Durbin said after the meeting in his office last month.
But since Democrats eliminated the filibuster on all nominations except for the Supreme Court in 2013, nominees no longer need to worry very much about the minority party or its senators’ opinions. They only need to satisfy the party in power.
Normally, that shouldn’t be a problem for a Republican president’s picks in a Republican-run Senate. As long as nominees reflect the opinions of their party’s leader, all is well. But Trump is not normal. His views on the world often differ from those of mainstream Republicans, diverging on a gamut of topics such as NATO, Russia, the intelligence community, free trade and the acceptability of torture, to name a few.
Yet, like Tillerson, numerous nominees have been asserting positions contrary to the president’s time and again, lining up more with GOP orthodoxy. It raises a conundrum: How do lawmakers know if nominees are telling the truth, or just telling Republicans what they want to hear?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Durbin said.
“Many of [President] Trump’s statements and tweets are irrational and irresponsible. And if his nominees for these Cabinet positions came and repeated them as the policy of the United States of America, their chances of winning even Republican votes are in doubt,” Durbin said. “So they’ll come in and publicly disagree.”
The issue would seem to pose a difficult problem for Republicans who don’t want to hamstring their new administration, but also presumably would like to be sure they are getting a government that aligns with their values and won’t embarrass them come the next election.
Nevertheless, no Republican asked by The Huffington Post over the last couple of weeks expressed the least bit of doubt about the sincerity of Trump’s nominees or whether their disagreements with their boss might be purely strategic.
“No,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been notably cool toward Trump. “I trust them. When you trust people, you take them at their word.”
“No. I think the nominees are answering the questions fully from their perspectives,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). “I think they’re telling us what they believe.”
“No. These are big-time people. They know they’ve got to be truthful,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “Listen, I work them over pretty hard when they come into my office. They know they’ve got to tell the truth to me.”
But it is more than a theoretical question. In the past week, two secretary nominees ― Steve Mnuchin for the Treasury Department and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for the Department of Health and Human Services ― were caught saying things that were not true.
Mnuchin said his former bank’s aggressive foreclosure efforts did not include robo-signing, one of the practices that sparked the mortgage meltdown in 2007 and 2008. But his OneWest Bank used the mechanism extensively. Price said that he paid the same for a stock as anyone else, when really the $50,000 to $100,000 he invested was part of an insider deal only available to a few.
Angry Democrats blocked the two appointees’ votes Tuesday before the Finance Committee, which Hatch chairs, by boycotting the proceeding.
Hatch was incensed and suspended committee rules on Wednesday to advance the nominations to the Senate floor anyway.
He said he saw no attempts to deceive ― except maybe by Democrats, who he said were just out to derail the Trump administration.
“These two candidates are about as honest and decent as you can be,” Hatch said, with particular contempt for the worries that Price’s activities, involving a company that benefited from his legislation, amount to insider trading.
“Oh, come on. They found $300,” Hatch said, although he misstated the amount of the investment. “He invested $300 in this company, and it’s probably not going to be profitable. I mean, that’s bush-league crap. It really is.”
“You could find something wrong with everybody’s finances if you want to. The question is, is it substantially important? Is it something that indicates they lied? Is it something that is justifiably serious enough to stop their nominations? If it was, I would have stopped it,” he continued. “I don’t even know if it was true.”
In that, he’s in a spot not too dissimilar from Durbin, although Mnuchin’s and Price’s statements are clearly untrue to people who have checked, and Durbin can only guess at the truthfulness of Tillerson’s words.
“So where does that leave us?” Durbin asked rhetorically, musing over the possibility that Trump’s Cabinet choices are just saying what they need to say.
He was not sure, but he suggested the answers matter more in a Trump presidency than they usually do amid the typical partisan gamesmanship that accompanies nominations and new administrations.
“We don’t know what President Trump is going to do, whether he is going to insist on his irrational and unreasonable positions, or whether he’s going to listen to these cooler heads and more experienced people and come up with a more reasonable approach,” Durbin said. “All we can hope is that those who do make it through the confirmation process have the strength to confront him and those in his administration who harbor these ridiculous positions.”
If Republicans feel the same way, they’re not saying so.
One, Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.), allowed that there could be a downside if nominees are freed from the need to please at least some members of the other party, but he still cast it in the familiar partisan fashion.
“Well, there’s always a downside,” Roberts said. “But [Democrats] have got to cooperate first. They’ve been AWOL.”