Politics & Government

Trump’s nominees depart from his positions on key issues

Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. AP

Several of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees headed to Capitol Hill this week as the president-elect prepares to take over the federal government and install a new administration in Washington. But even before his picks take office, some have departed from foreign policy and national security stances Trump sketched out during his controversial campaign.

Trump’s nominee for secretary of state Rex Tillerson deflected on several foreign policy issues during part of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, perhaps most notably on Russia, whose president Trump has praised repeatedly as a strong and savvy leader.

When pressed on how he would respond to Russia as America’s top diplomat, Tillerson deflected by saying his conversations about the nation with the president-elect had only been discussed “in a broad construct.”

But Tillerson also told the Foreign Relations Committee that he believed Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal. Trump, when questioned about Ukraine during the campaign, initially stated incorrectly that Russia had not invaded the neighboring country at all, then walked back his comments and said he might consider recognizing the annexation as legitimate.

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., laid out several points of apparent conflict during the hearing, including Tillerson’s stance on climate change and the Paris climate accord. Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, acknowledged climate change as a “risk,” though Trump has said in the past he regards climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Trump has also spoken out against the Paris agreement, though he said after the election he might consider America’s role in the treaty.

Tillerson also rejected banning Muslims from entering the U.S. during his hearing — a policy Trump not only espoused, but proposed, on the campaign trail — though Tillerson declined to state a position on a possible Muslim registry, which the president-elect has also suggested.

James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, also broke with the president-elect on foreign issues during a confirmation hearing Thursday morning. Mattis said he believed America should continue to enforce the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration despite his personal misgivings, though Trump has promised repeatedly to nullify the deal and reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran.

“I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it's not a friendship treaty,” Mattis said, when questioned about the deal, which several other countries have also agreed to. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

Mattis has also expressed support for preserving the United States’ role in NATO, particularly in keeping military resources in the Baltic states, though Trump repeatedly criticized NATO on the trail.

Mattis’ differing positions have already challenged Trump to re-evaluate his stance on waterboarding, which the retired general opposes. Trump had expressed support for the torture tactic, but said his conversation with Mattis after the election had surprised him when the general said he did not find it useful for gathering information. Trump added his conversation with Mattis had not necessarily changed his mind, but had “impressed” him enough to reconsider the strength of his support for the practice.

Trump’s choice for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, also spoke out against torture during his confirmation hearing Thursday.

Politico reported that Democratic senators plan to continue interrogating possible differences of opinion between Trump and his nominees, particularly when Treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin and Georgia Rep. Tom Price, his nominee to lead the Health and Human Services department, appear for confirmation hearings in the next few weeks.