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  • Robert Wirtz

Trump nominee hearings provide insight into future policy makers

While the month of January leading up to the inauguration is a busy time for any president, President Donald Trump had a more frantic month than most. From a former British intelligence operative who alleged compromising material of the President to a public conflict with a member of Congress and civil rights leader on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the President has created controversy and conflict. Unfortunately, the massive news coverage of the President and his activities have distracted from other stories, most notably the confirmation hearings for the President’s cabinet nominees. While many nominees have be questioned I have chosen to cover just three who I believe will have the greatest impact on US policy both home and abroad. These are Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Defence nominee General James Mattis. The hearings, which began on Jan. 10 and will continue through the end of the month, are an opportunity to gain insight into not only his nominees but also the members of Senate who must decide whether confirm their appointment.

Facing skepticism from both sides of the aisle during his Jan. 11 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson diverged with Donald Trump on several points of policy as he attempted to assuage lawmakers of fears that his close ties to world leaders, most notably Vladimir Putin of Russia, would compromise his ability to be impartial and protect US interests. Trump’s choice of Tillerson has been questioned by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ), who saw Tillerson’s connection with Russia as troubling. When questioned by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) Tillerson was more hawkish in his stance towards Russia than President Trump. In the CSPAN recorded coverage of his nomination hearing he stated that when it comes to Russia "We aren't likely to ever be friends. ... Our value systems are starkly different," but he added that, "we need to move Russia from being an adversary always to being a partner sometimes." Tillerson also expressed strong opposition to Russian military activities in Eastern Europe, an area in which President Trump’s views are unclear. "That was a taking of territory that was not theirs," CSPAN quoted Tillerson as saying in regards to the Russian annexation of Crimea, and he added that he would have recommended that Ukraine use its military assets to line up along the eastern border and that the U.S. and NATO should have helped with supplies and air surveillance. Russia would have understood and responded to such a "powerful response," Tillerson concluded. Asked whether he believed U.S. intelligence reports that Russia was involved in cyberattacks intended to meddle in the U.S. elections, Tillerson said he had not seen the classified information but that the public report "clearly is troubling." He said it was a "fair assumption" that Putin was directly involved. Despite this, Tillerson showed a reluctance to vilify Russia completely. Aggressively pushed by Rubio in his initial round of questioning, Tillerson wouldn't label Putin as a war criminal over the Russian military's alleged involvement in the Syrian civil war in targeting and killing civilians. New York Times coverage of the hearing on Jan. 17 reported Tillerson said "Those are very, very serious charges to make and I'd want to have much more information before reaching that conclusion". He also wouldn't say whether he believes the Kremlin is behind the killing of journalists and Putin critics, saying he would need to see more classified information to make a determination.

Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) went before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 17 to face similarly fiery questioning. Like Tillerson Sessions’ nomination has faced opposition from members of congress who have pointed to comments made by the senator while Attorney General of Alabama regarding the Ku Klux Klan and civil rights. Opponents of the senator have also raised question regarding his strict stance on drug prohibition, which includes the enforcement of the federal bans on marijuana use. Sessions also mirrored Tillerson as he diverged from the President on some important issues. Notably, Sessions said that he would oppose torture; a ban on Muslims entering the country and a Muslim registry, three things for which Trump has at times expressed support. Regarding violence against women, Sessions stated that the actions described by President Trump in the now infamous Access Hollywood tape constituted sexual assault, which he had previously denied. Sessions also fielded several questions on his stance on civil rights, for which he has received much criticism in the past. The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 10 that Session replied by saying, “I care about civil rights… I care about voting rights” and cited his record as evidence. He said that he’d been involved in 30 desegregation cases as a prosecutor, and he stated that four civil-rights cases were among the 10 most important cases he’d worked on in his career.

Perhaps the least hostile confirmation was that of retired Marine General James Mattis, whose hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee was cordial. The nomination of General Mattis caused concern within Congress and the general public by those who believe Secretary of Defence should be a civilian as opposed to a member of the armed forces. Civilian control of the military has always been maintained in the United States and General Mattis’ confirmation would require a special exemption to allow him to take the post. When asked whether he intended to reverse programs regarding greater inclusivity in the armed forces Mattis stated that he doesn’t intend to reverse Obama administration policies that opened combat positions to women, allowed gay and lesbian men and women the ability to serve openly, and lifted bans against transgender men and women serving. The Hill reported on January 12th that in contrast to President Trump, Mattis stated that he intended to strengthen NATO, which Putin was attempting to undermine. The United States, he added, must use “diplomatic, economic, military and alliance steps, working with our allies, to defend ourselves where we must”. As opposed to the hopeful partnership with Russia some Trump administration members have envisioned, Mattis described Russia as a “strategic competitor”, especially regarding their military activity in the Middle East.

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