It's not surprising that Donald Trump's key Cabinet nominees are being asked to defend his most controversial statements at their confirmation hearings. What's surprising is the way some of them are responding: by telling skeptical lawmakers that they hadn't actually discussed the issues with the president-elect.
John Kelly, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, says he hasn’t talked to Trump about immigration. Rex Tillerson, nominated for secretary of state, says he hasn’t talked to Trump about Russia.
Given that President-elect Trump has an unconventional managing style (or, to put it less charitably, often appears uninterested in the basic business of running the federal government), the surprising thing would in some ways be if Trump had had substantive policy chats with them.
That’s the real takeaway from the first wave of Trump confirmation hearings: Even with Inauguration Day looming, nominees to top posts don't seem capable of saying what the Trump administration will actually do once in office. And that means the public can’t either.
Trump hasn’t talked to relevant Cabinet nominees about his biggest foreign and domestic priorities
It’s not a stretch to say that immigration is Trump’s signature domestic issue, and that reducing tensions with Russia has become his signature priority in foreign policy.
You’d certainly think that his appointees to lead the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department would be key advisers on each issue, respectively. You’d certainly think that, by the time they went before the Senate for confirmation hearings — with scarcely a week before inauguration — they’d be deeply involved in discussions about the specifics of the administration’s policy agenda.
You’d be wrong.
Kelly told the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday that there are “ongoing” conversations among Trump’s team about immigration policy, but that “I have not been involved in those discussions.”
Tillerson, for his part, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that he’d talked to Trump “in a broad construct, and in terms of the principles that are going to guide” US foreign policy.
But when Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked if the two men had discussed Russia, Tillerson said, “That has not occurred yet.”
These issues aren’t just important — they’re urgent.
Kelly’s admission that he hasn’t discussed immigration policy with Trump came in an exchange about what he’d do with the 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who’ve been protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) — which Trump might end during his first days in office.
Many DACA recipients are worried that they could lose their jobs in a matter of weeks — and, furthermore, that it’s going to be easy for immigration agents to track them down and deport them, since Trump’s administration (and Kelly’s DHS) will have access to the information on their DACA applications.
The president-elect’s attitude toward Russia is if anything even more urgent, since he’s setting the tone for that even before being sworn in — for example, in tweets Wednesday morning using Russian government denials to cast doubt on unverified but widely circulated allegations that his campaign has had direct contact with the Russian government.
Does this mean Trump’s Cabinet appointees will be independent, or simply ignored?
Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, hasn’t had any of these moments. That’s not surprising. Sessions has always been a key Trump adviser — and often been in the position of defending the president’s less tempered statements.
But both Kelly and Tillerson are new additions to the Trump team. And both of them are showing a certain degree of independence — which is helping their cases for confirmation.
Tillerson won the respect of some senators in private meetings because he was willing to take a relatively hawkish line on Russia— sparking hopes he’d moderate Trump’s tendency to dismiss any evidence of Russian wrongdoing. And before admitting he hadn’t spoken to Trump about Russia, he voiced support for keeping sanctions in place against the country (Trump supports lifting sanctions, and Tillerson appears to have lobbied against them).
Kelly said in his opening statement that he’s “never had a problem speaking truth to power” — a sentiment multiple Democrats on the committee invoked throughout the hearing. Despite not having talked immigration with Trump’s team, he was willing to speculate that he didn’t think that DACA recipients would be “priorities” for deportation (something that might surprise Trump advisers and allies who’ve called for the Trump administration to get rid of policies dictating who immigration agents ought to prioritize).
But it’s impossible to know whether Kelly’s or Tillerson’s statements mean anything. It’s hard to speak truth to power if you and power don’t speak.
President-elect Trump has shown very little interest in the boring, day-to-day work of running the executive branch of the federal government. One of the biggest questions facing his presidency is how that will play out.
It’s possible that, while Trump is off engaging in showmanship, Cabinet appointees like Kelly will quietly do their jobs more or less unmolested, without the White House getting terribly involved. Maybe Trump (and his White House staff) really don’t care all that much about whether people who currently have DACA protections get deported or not, as long as Trump can claim that he’s cracking down on illegal immigration. Maybe Tillerson will be able to keep some sanctions on Russia without the White House picking a fight. For people who are concerned about the effects of Trump’s agenda, it might be some comfort to know that maybe he won’t care enough to follow through.
But it’s also possible that Trump and company will require that Cabinet picks run their departments as they've been told to, and assume that appointees like Kelly will work out the details themselves.
That would be a waste of Trump’s more experienced nominees, like Kelly, a former Marine general deeply versed in US policy toward South and Central America, and Jim Mattis, the decorated general Trump has tapped to run the Pentagon.
Nominating someone well-known as a “straight-talking general,” then depriving him of any opportunity to deliver straight talk, would confirm that Trump wanted yes-men, not officials willing to stand up to him or his other advisers.
It would also be extremely bad for the day-to-day working of the federal government.
DHS is a notoriously difficult Cabinet department that needs a coherent plan and a firm hand. The State Department, meanwhile, is the key cog in the nation’s foreign policy apparatus. The president sets the direction, but it’s left to America’s top diplomat to hone the details and actually lead the talks with other governments. That's hard to do if the secretary of state isn't regularly discussing those issues with his own boss.
And that means lawmakers aren't the only ones waiting to learn key details about Trump’s policies. The officials charged with putting them into place are, too.