After a few days of confirmation hearings, a couple of points have become certain. First, all of Donald Trump’s appointments will wind up being confirmed. Rex Tillerson’s probably closest to being on the bubble, but at least so far there’s nothing to suggest that he’s going to lose three Senate Republicans in the final floor vote. We haven’t seen all of Trump’s Cabinet picks, but Tom Price knows his way around a Congressional hearing, and Betsy DeVos has had plenty of practice at parrying attacks over the last couple of weeks.
The second thing we know is that Trump didn’t exactly hire “yes men.” In every confirmation hearing thus far, his nominees have put daylight between themselves and key Trump campaign positions. Karen Tumulty reports on the surprising trend for the Washington Post:
Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, in their first round of confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, have one after another contradicted the president-elect on key issues, promising to trim back or disregard some of the signature promises on which he campaigned.
A fresh set of examples came Thursday, the third day of hearings.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee to be defense secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States must honor the “imperfect arms-control agreement” with Iran that Trump has vowed to dismantle because “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
There was plenty more than that, from Mattis and others. Mattis holds a much more skeptical view on Russia than Trump has publicly stated, a key difference when it comes to the strategy and planning at the Department of Defense. Mattis explicitly testified that Russia wants to break NATO and that the alliance is key to Western security, both somewhat off-message from Trump. Tillerson wants to keep engaging on climate change, itself a surprising position for the former head of ExxonMobil. John Kelly and Jeff Sessions disavowed the “Muslim registry” plan that Trump promoted, and both he and Mike Pompeo rejected Trump’s call to restart enhanced interrogation techniques.
These are not minor differences, and they call into question just how well the administration will work together — or whether they’re working together at the moment. The Morning Joe team offered a lengthy mashup of the contradictions earlier this morning, and appeared stumped about what’s going on:
Trump Cabinet nominees contrast with President-Elect: How big is the daylight between them? https://t.co/trYnCoDjDs
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) January 13, 2017
Trump, for his part, cheered his nominees this morning for speaking their minds:
All of my Cabinet nominee are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2017
So … what are we to think about these contradictions? As Joe Scarborough points out, these nominees didn’t just show up at the hearings cold; they got prepared by Trump’s team. All of these contradictions appear to fall into the formula Salena Zito offered a few months ago, which is that we should take Trump seriously but not literally. Trump attracted voters with his tough talk and willingness to shift the Overton window for effect, not because voters necessarily thought his literal rhetoric should transfer to policy. Clearly, Trump thinks the same way, or he would have nominated people who supported his literal rhetoric — and those might never have been confirmed, Republican majority or not.
Trump seems to have gathered that voters wanted some sacred cows slaughtered, but mostly want governance based on competence from a Right-leaning perspective. The Senate should take away from this that personnel will truly be policy, and that while Trump might push the rhetorical boundaries, his Cabinet officials will take a more traditional path. At least, that’s true of these Cabinet officials. Maybe it behooves them to confirm these, lest others come along with more problematic consistency to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
Addendum: Just to boil down why I think “seriously, not literally” applies: Trump picked these people for these positions. If personnel is policy, then these are the policies that Trump actually wants implemented, and his campaign rhetoric on these points was mainly for effect. That also explains why Trump picked an existing VA exec rather than go for an outsider for radical change.