White House

Trump Shakes Things Up. His Future Cabinet Calms Things Down.

So far even the most controversial contenders to lead the new administration are saying very Washington things.

Jeff Sessions and the other nominees are thinking inside the box.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Congress begins the confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's nominees, a paradox emerges. Trump refuses to bow to official Washington, but his future cabinet echoes official Washington's policy mantras.

Trump tweets that the intelligence community -- accused of leaking that senior U.S. officials were briefed on allegations about his sexual conduct in Russia -- is akin to the Gestapo. He tells a CNN reporter that his network is "fake news," for reporting that. He claims that no one except the press cares about his tax returns. He proposes a commission on childhood vaccinations after meeting with someone who believes the unproven theory that they cause autism. The next president rocks the boat.

So far, his nominees don't. Take retired general Michael Flynn, Trump's incoming national security adviser. He has earned a reputation as a maverick inside the intelligence community, and its mandarins whisper to the press that he has a wicked temper. At the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, Flynn defied that perception. He spoke about the importance of alliances and the incoming administration's deep faith in American exceptionalism. He asked the audience of establishment foreign policy experts to clap for his predecessor, Susan Rice, and he singled out Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, for praise.

It was hard to believe this was the same guy who joined in with the crowd at the Republican convention this summer in chants of "lock her up." On Tuesday, Flynn sounded like he was about to be inducted into the Charlie Rose hall of fame.

It wasn't just Flynn. John Kelly, the retired Marine general who is Trump's choice to be the next secretary of homeland security, sounded like someone Barack Obama would have nominated. He told senators that he agreed with the conclusions of the FBI, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia tried to influence November's election by hacking the e-mails of leading Democrats. Trump had not conceded this until Wednesday at his press conference.

Kelly also said he disagreed with the idea of registering anyone based on their religion or ethnicity. Progressives and civil liberties groups have urged the president-elect not to make good on a campaign promise to instate a "Muslim registry" for screening visa applicants.

Even former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who hit some road blocks Wednesday in his confirmation hearings because he repeatedly failed to acknowledge his company's lobbying against sanctions, expressed a preference for middle-of-the-road policies for the most part. For example, he said that if other NATO members did not pay their dues, he wouldn't recommend threatening to withdraw U.S. commitments for mutual self-defense. Over the summer, Trump suggested such an approach in an interview with the New York Times.

On Russia, Tillerson at times lost his footing. That's important because Exxon forged energy exploration deals with Russia during Tillerson's tenure. In a bruising exchange with Senator Marco Rubio, Tillerson declined to call Vladimir Putin a war criminal. It should be said that the Obama administration does not refer to Putin this way either -- though Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation  into Russia and Syria after a humanitarian convoy to Aleppo was bombed this fall.

On Tillerson's overall approach to Russia however, he was very much in line with establishment thinking. He said he would not favor acknowledging any Russian claim to Crimea, the territory Putin's government annexed in 2014, unless it was part of a deal that was acceptable to Ukraine's government. He also said that for now he would recommend keeping existing sanctions on Russia in place until the new administration formulated its policy and met with counterparts in Moscow.  

Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, has generated so far the most controversy among the next president's nominees. On Wednesday, Democrat Cory Booker became the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow senator at a confirmation hearing, claiming Sessions was hostile to civil rights. But even Sessions is striking moderate notes. He said on Tuesday that if he were confirmed to lead the Justice Department, he would not authorize waterboarding or other kinds of torture of detainees because such techniques were illegal. Trump famously said during the campaign that he would bring back waterboarding and worse, but he softened that stance after the election following his conversations with James Mattis, the retired Marine general nominated for secretary of defense.

In some ways this is to be expected. During the campaign, Ohio Governor John Kasich said Donald Trump Jr. called one of his aides to offer the vice presidential slot on the ticket. Kasich said he was promised he would be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy. When asked what the president would do, the son answered he would be making America great again. So who will be running the country in Kasich's absence?

Trump chose as his running mate the conservative governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, a man who is less controversial than the Golf Channel. Pence is the chairman of the transition committee, which presents Trump with candidates for appointments to lead his government. So far the cabinet, unlike the next president, reflects a steady conventionality.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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