From Russia to Iran, and from Pacific trade to nuclear proliferation to climate change, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to lead his government this week staked out sharply different positions than those taken by candidate Trump.
Many of the disagreements covered the signature issues the New York businessman rode to the White House, and seemed to leave in doubt whether Trump will govern as a populist outsider or adopt more traditional Republican Party policies.
“It is highly unusual for Cabinet nominees to express their disagreements with their president or president-elect so openly and fully,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
On Russia, for example, nominees for the State Department, Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency took a tougher approach than the president-elect, who tweeted January 7, “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it [relations with Russia] is bad.”
But Trump’s choice for secretary of defense Thursday named Russia as one of the nation’s three most important adversaries.
“I think it [the United States] is under the biggest attack since World War II,” said retired Marine General James Mattis, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
WATCH: Mattis, Pompeo Tough on Russia
“It [Russia] has invaded the Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war,” Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The nominee to be secretary of state, however, refused to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes despite sharp questions from Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.
Trump praised Putin during the campaign and afterward as a strong leader.
“I always knew he was very smart,” Trump tweeted about the Russian president, after Putin decided not to respond to the Obama administration’s decision to expel Russian diplomats for the country’s election-year hacking. Putin was similarly upbeat on Trump, saying his success in business showed that he is a “clever man” who will quickly understand his new responsibilities as president.
The president-elect sharply criticized U.S. intelligence agencies who accused Russia of interfering with the presidential campaign, favoring Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Yet the nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency contradicted the stance Trump took for months.
WATCH: Pompeo Discusses the Russian Hacking Report
“It is pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” testified Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, the CIA director-designate. “I am very clear-eyed about what that intelligence report says and I have every expectation we can continue to develop the facts.”
The week of open disagreement with the future boss left some political analysts puzzled.
“Clearly, they have been given permission by Trump or his transition team to do so,” Sabato said. “One can only speculate about why this is happening.”
As the domestic news media began pointing out the inconsistencies, Trump defended his nominees. They “are looking good and doing a great job” he tweeted. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
Iranian nukes, trade deals
Trump’s picks also indicated they would back two measures roundly criticized by the president-elect during the campaign, including the Iran nuclear deal — called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP).
“I do not oppose TPP,” Tillerson said, responding to questions. “I share some of [Trump’s] views regarding whether the agreement that was negotiated serves all of America’s interests the best.”
Trump has consistently declared the massive trade pact signed by 12 Pacific Rim nations to be a bad deal that hurts the American worker and kills U.S. jobs.
While Trump has blasted the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “incompetently negotiated,” Pompeo vowed the CIA would remain neutral under his leadership. He indicated he would assess Iran’s compliance objectively.
“While I opposed the Iran deal as a member of Congress, if confirmed my role will change,” he said.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would re-establish interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. In a November rally, Trump reiterated his stance.
“Believe me, it works,” he said. “And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”
Days later, Trump backed away from such stark rhetoric after a meeting with the defense nominee.
“If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the Army Field Manual, would you comply?” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, asked at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“Senator, absolutely not,” Pompeo responded. “There’s no doubt in my mind about the limitations it places not only on the DoD and the Central Intelligence Agency, and I’ll always comply with the law.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, nominee for U.S. attorney general, also called waterboarding “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Nuclear proliferation, climate change
Despite Trump’s position that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” his likely future secretary of state said: “I do not agree.”
“We just simply cannot back away from our commitment to see a reduction in the number of these weapons on the planet,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson also contradicted Trump’s typical Republican position on climate change, saying the “risk of climate change does exist” and “action should be taken.”
The contradictions were largely unexplained in the Trump camp, though his press secretary was quoted as saying that after the inauguration, it would be the future president who would decide policy.
As to why Trump would allow nominees to take such divergent views, Sabato could only speculate.
“Maybe Trump is signaling that he’s considering a change in his positions. Or perhaps he is trying to muddy the waters to help the nominees get confirmed,” the political analyst said.
Confirmation hearings will continue next week, and the Senate is expected to take the first votes to confirm Trump’s Cabinet.