WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump’s numerous controversial and nontraditional stances aren’t just troubling to millions of people around the world. Apparently even his own nominees ― “the best people,” as he tells it ― disagree with him on many issues, according to testimonies they delivered this week during their respective Senate confirmation hearings.
It’s not clear whether their differing opinions will matter, since the men and women in the president’s Cabinet will ultimately have to execute their boss’ orders. But the degree to which all of Trump’s top-level choices disagree with him is remarkable.
Nearly every nominee who testified this week put significant daylight between themselves and the president-elect, including defense secretary nominee James Mattis, CIA director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and homeland security secretary nominee John Kelly.
Retired Gen. James Mattis
The man chosen to lead the Pentagon broke with the president-elect on a number of key issues during his confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Mattis said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “trying to break” NATO, describing the current world order as being “under the biggest attack since World War II.” Trump has expressed his admiration for Putin, and has repeatedly declined to criticize his meddling in the U.S. election.
The retired general said the U.S. must abide by the Iran nuclear deal, even though he said it had imperfections, because America must keep its word. Trump has promised to rescind the deal.
And the defense secretary nominee expressed a “very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community.” Trump has criticized the intelligence community in recent days, calling it “politicized.”
Rep. Mike Pompeo
The man chosen to lead the CIA implied he would uphold the Iran nuclear agreement, even though he was one of its most outspoken critics on Capitol Hill. At his hearing on Thursday, he acknowledged that, if confirmed, “my role will change.”
He also broke with Trump on the matter of Russia meddling in the U.S. election.
“It’s pretty clear about what took place, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and have an impact on American democracy,” Pompeo told the Intelligence Committee. “It is something that America needs to take seriously.”
Former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson
Trump’s nominee to lead the State Department seemed to diverge from Trump on a number of pertinent issues.
He said Wednesday that he finds U.S. intelligence assessments that say Russia interfered in the election “clearly troubling.” He criticized Moscow for its behavior on the world stage ― something Trump has refrained from doing ― by denouncing its annexation of Crimea in 2014. He also said he supported existing economic sanctions on Russia, even though his former company lobbied against them.
Tillerson said he did not agree with Trump when the president-elect said last year that it wouldn’t be “so bad” if more countries possessed nuclear weapons.
On climate, the former Exxon Mobil CEO hinted that he would support keeping the U.S. in the historic Paris climate agreement.
He also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump reviles, and opposed a Muslim ban.
Tillerson told Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) that he wanted to the job despite these many differences, because Trump “has been very open and inviting of hearing my views, and respectful of those views.”
He admitted, though, that ultimately “the president will decide.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions
The Alabama Republican declared waterboarding illegal, even though Trump has pledged to reinstate the torture method.
“Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The controversial immigration hawk said he doesn’t support Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, an early promise that the campaign subsequently altered to focus on “extreme vetting” of people coming from certain countries.
“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” Sessions said at the hearing. “We have great Muslim citizens who have contributed in so many different ways.”
Like other Trump nominees, Sessions also expressed his faith in the U.S. intelligence community.
“I have no reason to doubt that and have no evidence that would indicate otherwise,” Sessions said of the intelligence community’s findings regarding Russia meddling in the election.
With many women’s rights groups opposed to his nomination, Sessions also took a firmer stance on the issue of sexual assault. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked the nominee during his hearing on Tuesday whether grabbing a woman by her genitals ― a reference to the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump could be heard boasting about grabbing women without consent ― constituted sexual assault.
“Clearly it would be,” the attorney general nominee said.
Prior to the election, Sessions reportedly said he wasn’t sure if the actions would be considered sexual assault, according to the Weekly Standard.
Retired. Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly
Regarding Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, the homeland security pick told a Senate committee on Tuesday that he does not “agree with registering people based on [ethnicity] or religion or anything like that” and would not bring back a registry program “unless there was some really compelling reason.”
Perhaps most remarkably, Kelly seemed highly unimpressed with Trump’s signature pledge to build a huge wall along the United States’ border with Mexico, saying it “will not do the job.” Kelly said he favors a much more comprehensive “layered” approach that starts with working with leaders south of the border to stem the problems at their source.
Despite all the apparent differences, a Trump spokesman pledged that the soon-to-president’s Cabinet members would all march to the leader’s beat.
“At the end of the day each one of them will pursue a Trump agenda,” incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday on a daily call with reporters. “They’re being asked their personal views, they’re giving them,” he added, noting that Trump was “not asking for clones.”