‘I want them to be themselves’: Donald Trump shrugs off talk of splits with cabinet picks
Nominees warned of the threat posed by Russia, hailed Nato, repudiated torture, defended the US intelligence community and cautioned against withdrawing from the Iran nuclear treaty
US president-elect Donald Trump on Friday downplayed talk of ideological splits within his incoming cabinet on Russia, torture and other key issues, saying he wanted his nominees to “be themselves”.
With inaugural preparations gathering steam one week before he enters the White House, Trump shrugged off the strikingly divergent positions adopted by several of his cabinet nominees, who publicly contradicted him in Senate confirmation hearings.
“All of my Cabinet nominee (sic) are looking good and doing a great job,” he said in an early morning tweet. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
The 70-year-old Republican later elaborated, telling reporters at Trump Tower: “I could have said, ‘Do this, say that.’ I don’t want that. I want them all to be themselves.
“And I’m going to do the right thing, whatever it is. I may be right. And they may be right.”
Over three days of feisty hearings this week, Trump’s nominees warned of the threat posed by Russia, hailed Nato, repudiated torture, defended the US intelligence community and cautioned against withdrawing from the Iran nuclear treaty and the Paris climate accord.
On virtually every controversial foreign policy stance that Trump took during the campaign, they hedged and backtracked and sought to assure senators that they shared the consensus that has shaped Western strategic thinking and institutions since the second world war.
The contrast was all the more striking against the backdrop of an ugly feud between Trump and the US intelligence agencies, stoked by the leak of an unsubstantiated report that Russia had gathered compromising personal and financial material on the president-elect.
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
“Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans - FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists,” Trump tweeted early Friday.
“Probably... released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be. My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!”
In his confirmation hearing Thursday, Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, said he had not seen evidence the intelligence agencies were politicised.
Asked if he would pursue reports of contacts between Trump and the Russians, Pompeo noted those claims were unsubstantiated but pledged: “I promise I’ll pursue the facts wherever they take us.”
Pompeo also promised he would “absolutely not” comply with any order to revive the “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used after 9/11 and are widely regarded as torture, crossing out another Trump campaign pledge.
Trump, who sees an opportunity to cooperate with Moscow in fighting jihadist groups like the Islamic State, has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and only reluctantly accepted US intelligence’s conclusion that Russian hackers acting on Putin’s authority interfered in the US elections.
His nominee for defence secretary, retired Marine Corps general James Mattis, however, painted a stark picture of Russian intentions Thursday, warning Putin was “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance”.
Trump the candidate questioned Nato’s relevance – an idea his choice for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, differed with, calling US commitment to Nato “inviolable” and deeming Russia an international threat.
Mattis, though a hawk on Iran, differed with Trump’s vow to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement struck by Barack Obama’s administration, saying: “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
And Tillerson offered similar sentiments on the Paris agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions that Trump has threatened to cancel.
“It’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table with the conversations around how to deal with the threats of climate change,” said Tillerson.
The first round of hearings for Trump nominees wrapped up with a week to go before Obama hands the Manhattan billionaire the keys to the White House.
Several members of Trump’s cabinet including Tillerson, Mattis and his national security advisor, Mike Flynn, were at the White House on Friday for a series of crisis simulations designed to prepare them for taking office.
The White House said the table-top exercises would go over scenarios like natural disasters, national security emergencies or foreign policy crises.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the simulation aimed to ensure a “seamless transition.”
Trump himself was said to be working on his inaugural address, which Spicer said would focus on uniting Americans, restoring national pride and putting more Americans back to work.
“It will be very visionary,” said Spicer, adding: “It’s a work in progress.”
US authorities said Friday they expect up to one million people – including 99 different protest groups – to amass in downtown Washington for the inaugural ceremony.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the government sees no immediate threats surrounding the event.
But security preparations will nonetheless include tough barriers against the kinds of jihadist-inspired truck attacks that left dozens dead last year in France and Germany.