It was supposed to be a week of clarity. But after four days of testimony from President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed foreign policy team, the incoming president’s plans for major international matters remained as elusive as ever.
By the end of the day Thursday, the most notable revelation after hours of testimony from men like James Mattis, the retired Marine general who was nominated for Secretary of Defense, and Mike Pompeo, the Kansas congressman tapped for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was how much they disagree with Trump on key policies, including ones that were central to his populist campaign.
Pompeo contradicted the president-elect on torture — an issue that Trump repeatedly revisited on the campaign trail — saying he would “absolutely not” comply with an order from the president to break the law. And both he and Mattis promised not to waver on recently instituted policies making their respective institutions friendlier to gay and lesbian employees.
But the biggest break came over Russia, a subject where Trump’s foreign policy views are most out of step with mainstream thinking. Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested that he’d like to see America’s foreign policy reorient itself to more fully align with Russia’s objectives. At his press conference Wednesday, Trump said that a good relationship with Putin would be “an asset, not a liability.”
But the next day, Mattis, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, took a starkly different view. “I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality,” Mattis said. “There’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and increasing numbers of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.”
These divergent stances may have been nothing more than tactical — meant to ease the way through an otherwise tough confirmation process. But Tom Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been studying Trump’s foreign policy philosophies for more than a year, says these inconsistencies follow a more longstanding trend in Trump’s foreign policy, and aren’t likely to resolve soon.
“We may see two different strands of foreign policy in the administration,” Wright said. “There will be the foreign policy the president will say — a roller coaster of tweets and off-handed comments — and then you’ll have a steadier ship in departments and agencies, where they’re trying to blunt the worst aspects of what the White House does. It’s all very unusual.”
Trump’s foreign policy team does seem split broadly in two: the confirmation camp, who had to appear before Congress, and see Russia as an adversary; and the adviser camp, people like National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who do not need congressional confirmation, and share Trump’s views on Russia.
As president, Trump will have to arbitrate between their competing visions.
“Ultimately, Trump is going to have a huge impact on his own foreign policy,” Wright said. “He’s not a guy who’s going to willingly delegate. And he’s going to do things that are going to bring him into conflict with his own team.”
Of course, that’s even assuming Trump relies on people like Pompeo or Tillerson for counsel. Over the course of the week, those men often seemed not just in conflict with Trump but also unclear on what exactly he believed.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, arrived on Capitol Hill as one of the biggest unknowns on his policies towards Russia. As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson had negotiated a multi-billion dollar oil-exploration deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and received in return a symbolic Order of Friendship award. But he’d previously said little about what sort of policy he’d promote as America’s premier diplomat, other than to express skepticism about the value of sanctions.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-Fla., tried to press Tillerson on this, and on the question of whether he or Trump believed the Putin had committed war crimes in Syria. Tillerson demurred, saying he hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss it with the president elect.
Menendez scoffed, citing Tillerson’s prepared remarks in which he’s promised to explain Trump’s worldview. “I assume to some degree that you’ve had some discussion about what it is that that worldview is going to be, in order to understand whether you’re willing to execute that on behalf of the person you’re going to work for,” Menendez said.
“In a broad construct, and in terms of the principles that are going to guide that, yes sir,” Tillerson replied.
“And I would have thought that Russia would be at the very top of that, considering all the actions that’s taken place, did that not happen?”
“That has not occurred yet, Senator.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” Menendez said.