For a man who seems particularly averse to criticism and dissent, President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Cabinet nominees who appear unafraid to disagree with him is a welcome development.
The willingness of key appointees to break with Trump — even on major policies — during recent confirmation hearings was as striking as it was unexpected.
That spark of independence should be encouraged. As perhaps the least experienced president-elect in U.S. history, Trump will need a Cabinet that can pressure-test his proposals, temper any impulsiveness and occasionally stand up to especially wrongheaded ideas.
Rex Tillerson, former Exxon head, nominated for secretary of state, has already taken the lead, displaying a wariness of Russia that could at least provide some counter to Trump’s star-struck admiration for Vladimir Putin. On the Paris climate accord, which Trump has said he would pull out of, Tillerson is more cautious, astutely noting the importance of the U.S. “maintaining a seat at the table.”
Trump may consider NATO to be “obsolete,” but his pick for secretary of defense, Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, was unabashed in recognizing its value. Mattis called NATO “the most successful military alliance probably in modern world history.” Mattis also recognizes what Trump has not, that Putin “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Those are viewpoints Trump needs to hear — and often.
For example, Retired Gen. John F. Kelly, tapped by Trump to lead Homeland Security, broke with Trump on torture, saying in his hearing that, “I don’t think we should ever come close to crossing a line that is beyond what we as Americans would expect to follow in terms of interrogation techniques.” Trump would do well to consider Kelly’s wealth of experience in this area. A Marine since 1970, Kelly has commanded forces from South America to Iraq.
Trump, to his credit, has been sanguine about his nominees’ policy departures, tweeting that “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” It should be noted that Trump spokesman Sean Spicer later said that Trump wants to encourage differing views among his advisers, but he took care to add that ultimately, “each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda and Trump vision.”
These first appointments are encouraging for the independence they show. That includes attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is a disturbing choice for many — including both of Minnesota’s senators — but who nevertheless opposes Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban and is supportive of the intelligence community that Trump has so roundly criticized.
That Trump is willing to allow his nominees to disagree publicly with him on even important policies shows a confidence that could serve the new president well if he also is wise enough to trust their counsel and change course when a credible argument for doing so is made.