Hearings reveal Cabinet nominees’ views at odds with Trump

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Retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as defense secretary in Washington, U.S. January 12, 2017.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX2YOX8

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STEVE INSKEEP: When President-elect Trump is inaugurated next week, he inherits enormous power.

During confirmation hearings for his Cabinet secretaries this week, senators have taken steps to limit that power.

They pressed the president-elect’s Cabinet nominees to admit climate change is real, or that Russia is a threat, or that torture is illegal. It’s still considered unlikely that the Senate will reject his nominees, but senators are setting terms of employment for the administration ahead.

The terms are often different than what Mr. Trump proposed while campaigning.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: I have these guys, torture doesn’t work. Believe me, it works, OK? And water-boarding is your minor form.

STEVE INSKEEP: That’s what the candidate said in early 2016. In early 2017, a Democratic senator asked Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, if torture is legal.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, Attorney General-Designate: Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies.

STEVE INSKEEP: Sessions effectively committed himself to telling the president the U.S. can’t do that.

Elaine Kamarck has written a book on the presidency.

ELAINE KAMARCK, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution: This is the United States Senate reminding President-elect Trump that there is a Constitution, and the Constitution has divided powers in it, and that we are a government of laws, not men.

STEVE INSKEEP: A president can override the attorney general, but it can be politically costly. In 1973, Richard Nixon’s attorney general resigned, rather than follow his orders during Watergate.

In 2004, George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, rejected a secret wiretapping program. This week, senators are asking nominees if they’re ready to push back against the president’s promises. The president-elect has scorned the Iran nuclear deal.

DONALD TRUMP: Never, never, ever, in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran.

STEVE INSKEEP: His choice for defense secretary, James Mattis, was skeptical too, but told senators he favors keeping it.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), Secretary of Defense-Designate: Sir, I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement. It’s not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.

STEVE INSKEEP: Some of the same allies work with the United States on climate change.

DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of the United States tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.

STEVE INSKEEP: Rex Tillerson, the choice for secretary of state, said he’d rather not walk away from this issue.

REX TILLERSON, Secretary of State Nominee: I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address threats of climate change, which do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.

STEVE INSKEEP: This afternoon, the president-elect said he’s not concerned about these different views.

DONALD TRUMP: No, that all gets straightened out. We want them to be themselves, and I told them, be yourselves and say what you want to say. Don’t worry about me.

STEVE INSKEEP: But Paul Light, who studies presidential transitions, has rarely seen so much daylight between a chief executive and his nominees.

PAUL LIGHT, New York University: They are setting themselves up for scrutiny. If they violate their own promises to the Senate, it creates an issue with the president. The Senate isn’t going to come in impeach and a Cabinet secretary. But the media and outside groups will put pressure on the president to force the resignation or change his own policy.

STEVE INSKEEP: The Senate hearings have also reflected some senators’ anxieties about this president.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.): Congressman, during the campaign, the president-elect essentially laid out something that looks to me like outsourcing surveillance.

STEVE INSKEEP: Consider the hearing for Congressman Mike Pompeo, now the nominee to run the CIA. Oregon’s Ron Wyden asked if the new president might receive surveillance information on Americans gathered by Russia.

REP. MIKE POMPEO, CIA Director-Designate: It is not lawful to outsource that which we cannot do under — the agency cannot do under its laws. That can be too clever by half.

SEN. RON WYDEN: But that’s not the question. You can’t request the information from a foreign government. We understand that. But the question is, what happens if it’s provided to you, especially since it’s being encouraged?

REP. MIKE POMPEO: Senator, my understanding is that the same set of rules that surround the information if it were collected by the U.S. government apply to information that becomes available as a result of collection from non-U.S. sources as well.

STEVE INSKEEP: Scholar Elaine Kamarck, a Democrat who’s been critical of the president-elect, ended this week of hearings feeling better.

ELAINE KAMARCK: I think the nominees, in their disagreements with Trump, what they are doing is, they are saying, almost uniformly, we will abide by the laws of the land.

And that’s pretty good. Now, if, down the road, the Congress wants to change the laws of the land well, we elected them, and that is what we have got.

STEVE INSKEEP: The nominees do not differ from the president on everything. Elaine Chao, the choice for transportation secretary, said she will support the president-elect’s plan to buy American.

ELAINE CHAO, Secretary of Transportation-Designate: It is his policy, and, of course, all Cabinet members will follow his policy.

STEVE INSKEEP: Even though Chao once wrote that it was like digging a moat around America. There will be only one president of the United States, and his name will be Trump.

By the way, both the House and Senate have passed the waiver for General Mattis to serve as secretary of defense. It awaits the president’s signature.

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