Dissenting nominees give hope to GOP skeptics of Trump

Dissenting nominees give hope to GOP skeptics of Trump
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE’s cabinet nominees are dissenting from his views during their confirmation hearings — and that is just fine with those in the GOP who are skeptical of the president-elect.

Nominees for major posts including would-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and attorney general-designate Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsA better way to run the Federal Bureau of Prisons Trump admin erases key environmental enforcement tool DOJ should take action against China's Twitter propaganda MORE (R-Ala.) have differed from Trump on topics as diverse as waterboarding and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

Republicans who are wary of Trump take that as a good sign — not only because of the specifics of the positions outlined by the nominees, but because they see it as evidence that Trump’s cabinet might be able to rein him in.

“There are a lot of opportunities for his cabinet nominees to influence him, to be the ones that set the direction of policy,” said Dan Judy, a GOP consultant whose firm worked for the 2016 presidential bid of one Trump rival, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Fla.).

“Generally, it is the president who sets the agenda,” Judy added. “In this case, I don’t think we are going to have a president who has particularly strong convictions on these issues.”

Trump is adamant that all will be fine. Speaking briefly to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower on Friday, the president-elect said the differences “will all get straightened out.”

“We want them to be themselves,” he added, referring to his nominees. “I told them, ‘Be yourself, and say what you want to say, don’t worry about me.’ I’m going to do the right thing, whatever it is. I may be right, they may be right. But I said, ‘Be yourself.’”

Trump supporters take comments like those as a sign that he will remain true to his own political instincts rather than being coopted by more establishment figures.

But the fact remains that the list of significant differences between Trump and his nominees grew almost every day during the first confirmation hearings.

Trump’s deeply contentious proposal to ban non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States remains on his website, even though aides have said he has moved away from the idea. There is also confusion over whether the president-elect is open to some kind of Muslim registry.

Sessions was clear-cut before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. “I do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied entry to the United States,” he said. 

The Alabama senator also said, “I would not favor a registry of Muslims in the United States,” adding that he thought the government should “avoid surveillance of religious institutions unless there’s a basis to believe that dangerous or threatening illegal activity is going on there.”

Tillerson has said he does not oppose the TPP, despite Trump having blasted the trade agreement over and over again. A few weeks after his election win, the president-elect released a video in which he promised to issue an intent to withdraw from the TPP, which he called “a potential disaster for our country.”

It is not just Sessions and Tillerson who have failed to toe the Trump line.

Gen. John Kelly (ret.), the nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, was asked whether he accepted the intelligence community’s reports into alleged Russian hacking during the election. Kelly replied, “With high confidence.” 

Trump only acknowledged for the first time last week that he believed Russia was responsible for hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump takes aim at media after 'hereby' ordering US businesses out of China Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Taylor Swift says Trump is 'gaslighting the American public' MORE aide John Podesta; he had previously cast considerable doubt on that conclusion.

Another retired general, James Mattis, who has been nominated as Secretary of Defense, has said he would not oppose the Iran nuclear deal, an accord that Trump has repeatedly weighed in against.

Trump aides have played down the importance of these differences, even as they insist that the president, not his cabinet members, will be deciding policy.

On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, transition spokesman Sean Spicer said that “at the end of the day, each one of them will pursue a Trump agenda and a Trump vision.”

But, more broadly, Spicer said Trump was “not asking for clones. He’s asking for people to go out and, because of their expertise…make sure he’s got the best advice and [is] pursing the best policies.”

A similar note was sounded by Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz.) on Friday, as he told NBC News’ Katy Tur that Trump was not seeking “automatons.” Franks said he himself disagrees with the president-elect on some issues, and “he knows that and he understands that.”

Among those more skeptical of Trump, though, there are growing hopes that would-be cabinet members can bend the president-elect to their views.

Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist who worked for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (Texas) during the 2016 Republican primaries, said he suspected Trump would “actually be quite flexible” once in office, in part because “he hasn’t really had a library of fixed policies.”

But Tyler also expressed some concern as to whether Trump was guided by anything other than the popularity of a given course of action — something that could complicate policy consistency, if the policy in question ceases to be expedient.

“At heart, he is a populist and he will adjust his polices not based on some ideological or principled foundation, but on whether the country wants him to do it,” Tyler said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Trump try to persuade the country on a particular policy. If the country doesn’t like the policy, it would be Trump’s style to adjust the course.”

Dan Judy largely agreed, arguing that the battles between Trump and his nominees may be just beginning.

“I think anybody in this administration is going to be performing a bit of a high-wire act,” he said. 

Ben Kamisar contributed.