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Trump cabinet differences set stage for confusion

If Donald Trump was concerned by the clashing views that emerged from his cabinet nominees in the first days of Senate confirmation hearings, he did not show it on Friday.

“All of my Cabinet nominee (sic) are looking good and doing a great job,” the president-elect tweeted before sunrise in New York. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”

But the sharp differences between Mr Trump and his team on basic questions such as whether Russia is a partner or adversary raises the spectre of chaos as an untested chief executive prepares to assume the presidency.

Clashing cabinet secretaries are nothing new, analysts say, citing rivalries between Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz under Ronald Reagan or between Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell under George W Bush. But the sheer number of differing policy views among Mr Trump’s appointees — and between them and their boss — along with the existence of rival power centres within the new White House may herald a shaky start. 

“I’m a little bit afraid,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration Pentagon official. “It doesn’t sound very coherent.”

Possibly the most glaring discrepancies involve Russia. Mr Trump and his future national security adviser, retired general Mike Flynn, appear eager to engage with Vladimir Putin. Yet the retired general Mr Trump has named to be defence secretary — James Mattis — on Thursday labelled Russia the chief threat to American security.

Differences also emerged on Iran, with Mr Mattis saying the US should meet its treaty agreements while Mr Trump has called for the nuclear deal to be renegotiated. Mike Pompeo, the nominated Central Intelligence Agency director, said he would refuse a presidential order to waterboard terror suspects despite Mr Trump’s embrace of the practice.

Rex Tillerson, the likely future secretary of state, backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr Trump opposes, and said he favoured remaining in the Paris climate change agreement despite Mr Trump’s assertion that global warming was a Chinese hoax.

“This is just unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Thomas “Mack” McClarty, former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, who said none of his administration’s cabinet nominees had testified in such open disagreement with the president’s policies.

Asked about differences between himself and Mr Flynn, Mr Mattis said it would be unhealthy if a new administration began with a “tyranny of consensus”, saying a cabinet instead should be a team of rivals, a reference to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Sean Spicer, Mr Trump’s nominee as press secretary, said on Thursday that the president “is not asking for clones”.

But much depends on the ability of a new president, who lacks governing experience, to establish a reliable process for melding competing views into effective policies. Mr Trump’s habit of firing off policy statements on Twitter clashes with the meticulous policy formation process normally followed in the White House.

Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defence for policy in the George W Bush administration, said Mr Trump appeared to have an informal approach that was less reliant on established staff and more on personal connections with a handful of advisers.

The risk of not having a good formal staff system is that it would leave him “more open to the winds of fortune, or misfortune”, he said.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has worked on defence both in Congress and the Pentagon, said that Mr Trump appeared to be giving the nominees wide latitude to form their own opinions, even if the president-elect would have the last word.

The differences emerging “are more encouraging than worrisome”, she argued. “He picked in most places highly qualified and competent people to take these jobs and I think he expects them to make policy in the absence of him having one.”

On national security matters, Mr Flynn’s role will be critical. Experts point to Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under George H W Bush, as a highly successful “honest broker” who fostered smooth policy decision-making. By contrast, Henry Kissinger is said under Richard Nixon to have excluded the secretary of state at the time, William Rogers, from decision-making.

“The wild card in all of this is General Flynn,” said PJ Crowley, a retired Air Force officer and state department official, and author of a new book, Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States.

“We don’t yet fully understand what kind of process he’s going to lead.”

Retired general Mike Flynn © Getty

Mr Flynn, a highly regarded intelligence officer in Afghanistan, struggled as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and was ultimately forced into retirement a year before he was expected to leave the post. Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations said there were questions surrounding Mr Flynn’s likely approach. “He has strong views, is hard-driving, and pushes his own ideas. It will be a real test to see if he is able to do that job in a way that gives a full hearing to others,” he said. 

Another unknown is how much influence members of Mr Trump’s inner circle, such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner, counsellor Steve Bannon, and chief of staff Reince Priebus, will have.

Concerns are not limited to foreign policy. On trade, Commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, economist Peter Navarro at the new National Trade Council, and Robert Lighthizer, named the next US Trade Representative, will battle for supremacy.

Likewise, Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs power broker who will head Mr Trump’s national economic council, and Mr Kushner are expected to have a say. Some already are forecasting a rocky start for the new team. “Everyone thinks they are in charge,” said one Washington insider.

Additional reporting by Shawn Donnan

Via FT