WASHINGTON — The lack of fireworks surrounding Senate consideration of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks may reflect a host of statements his choices have made contradicting positions the billionaire businessman has taken on issues ranging from Russia and NATO to Muslims, climate change and nuclear weapons.
Trump acknowledged the differences early Friday, posting a message on his Twitter account saying: “All my Cabinet nominee are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
This week’s confirmation hearings produced an odd political chemistry where, for instance, one of the harshest examinations of a Trump Cabinet choice came from one of Trump’s fellow Republicans, presidential campaign rival Sen. Marco Rubio.
Despite Democrats’ dismay over some of Trump’s selections, the hearings were relatively tranquil, with Democrats generally restrained even in quizzing the more contentious picks. The reason, according to a few Democrats: The nominees are proving more palatable than Trump himself.
“As I meet members of the Cabinet I’m puzzled because many of them sound reasonable,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “Far more reasonable than their president.”
That could change in weeks to come, because some of the most potentially explosive hearings are still pending, including the scrutiny of former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary.
Several of Trump’s Cabinet selections this week made statements this week contradicting policy stances espoused by their soon-to-be boss.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, picked for attorney general, said he’s against any outright ban on immigration by Muslims, in contrast to Trump’s onetime call to suspend admittance of Muslims until U.S. officials could learn more about nature of the threat of extremism.
His secretary of state candidate, Rex Tillerson, took a relatively hard line on Washington’s dealings with Russia, even though Trump has been talking about improving relations between Washington and Moscow and held out for days before saying he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow meddled in the U.S. election process.
Tillerson demurred, however, when one senator tried to lure him into calling President Vladimir Putin, whom he knows, a “war criminal,” although he emphasized support for NATO commitments that Trump had questioned. The secretary-of-state designate also said the United States should not back away from its efforts against nuclear proliferation, notwithstanding Trump’s suggestion earlier this year that some key U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea provide their own defense.
Some of the toughest questioning of Tillerson came not from Democrats but from Rubio, who grilled the Exxon Mobil executive on human rights issues.
As Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing approaches, Democrats have set up a website to solicit stories from the thousands of people whose homes were foreclosed on by OneWest Bank while he headed a group of investors who owned the bank. They hope to use Mnuchin’s nomination hearing to attack Trump’s populist appeal with working-class voters and cast themselves as defenders of the middle class.
Thus far, though, Republicans are congratulating themselves for generally smooth sailing. And overall, the lack of drama may also be due to the decision by Democrats while in the Senate majority to lower the vote threshold for Cabinet nominees and others from 60 votes to 50, allowing Republicans to ensure approval as long as they can hold their 52-seat majority together.
“The purpose of confirmation hearings is to examine the record and views of potential nominees and I think that’s what these hearings are doing,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “I think it’s likely that all of the Cabinet nominees are going to be confirmed, I think the hearings have gone quite well this week.”
A hearing Thursday for neurosurgeon Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development featured some pointed questioning from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but also warm exchanges between Carson and other committee Democrats. Afterward Carson thanked the panel and said that it “was actually kind of fun.”
Sessions was denied confirmation once before by the Senate, but that was three decades ago for a federal judgeship. This time around the Alabaman is a sitting senator and was treated gently, for the most part, by his colleagues, even when Democrats brought up the racial issues that brought him down him last time around. There was potential for drama as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., broke with Senate tradition to testify against his colleague, but it came on the second day of the hearing after Sessions had finished testifying, so he was not even in the room.
Tillerson had the rockiest outing thus far, with Rubio pressing him on Russia and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon confronting him about climate change and other issues. With Rubio and others undecided on supporting Tillerson, his ultimate confirmation is in question. But even with Tillerson, Democrats seemed to pull their punches at times.
“I don’t want to argue with you,” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico remarked at one point, seeming to speak for several colleagues.
And it was practically bipartisan lovefests at the hearings for the choices for Central Intelligence Agency, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo; retired Gen. James Mattis for Defense; and retired Gen. John Kelly for Homeland Security.
“Pompeo’s very popular, Mattis, Kelly — these are popular selections,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The hearings seemed to underscore some emerging dynamics of Trump’s relations with Capitol Hill. Despite his highly unconventional approach, and his lack of Capitol Hill experience, many of his appointees and aides could have been selected by any other Republican, and the Senate is responding accordingly.
And even where Trump’s surprising approach raises the potential for problems, congressional Republicans are working overtime to paper them over, not highlight them.
“We are in complete sync,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., insisted Thursday in a discussion about a different topic, health care.
That could change in weeks to come, as the Senate holds hearings on Mnuchin and other more divisive selections. These include conservative Rep. Tom Price for Health and Human Services; Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a vocal denier of climate change science, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; and fast-food executive Andrew Puzder to head the Labor Department.
Still, given that it’s the Senate, not daytime TV, there may be a limit to the potential for conflict, said Ben Marter, Durbin’s communications director. “You have to adjust your excite-o-meter down a little bit, because it’s a Senate hearing. It’s not Maury Povich.”