In this week’s politics chat, we ponder what Donald Trump’s latest Cabinet pick tells us about his approach to politics. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Trump officially made perhaps the most important pick in his Cabinet on Tuesday, naming Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as his nominee for secretary of state. We’ve already written a bit about how much trouble Tillerson might face in the Senate and how Tillerson’s experience running Exxon might translate to the State Department. But today I want to talk about what the Tillerson selection tells us about how Trump might approach politics — in particular, how he’ll deal with Congress.
To set us up, though, Clare, give us the context of this pick. Like, Trump is sitting with his advisers trying to decide whether to name Tillerson — what are the pros and cons they’re weighing?
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer):
Pros: WASHINGTON OUTSIDER. Did you know that was a big part of Trump’s campaign? Trump has praised Tillerson’s business acumen. It’s no secret that our president-elect is in the thrall of those who are good at dealmaking, and Tillerson has run a huge, huge company. Steve Coll wrote an entire book, “Private Empire,” about how Exxon Mobil is basically its own country, so Tillerson has a lot of international experience.
Cons: RUSSIAN TIES. Did you know that Americans, particularly Americans in the United States Congress, are pretty pissed at Russia right now? Tillerson has done a lot of business in Russia, winning a friendship medal from the Putin-run government, and as Marco Rubio, former Nate Silver favorite, tweeted the other day:
In other words, this guy is gonna be difficult to confirm in the Senate, which means you’re burning some political capital right off the bat.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): That, I think, is the main con: This is potentially one hell of a challenging confirmation in the Senate. Start with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where (as with other committees) Republicans will have only a one-vote edge. Rubio’s a part of that committee, and he could scuttle the nomination on his own.
clare.malone: Feels so good to be relevant again.
natesilver: So are Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Cory Gardner, who have been hawkish on Russia issues. And Rand Paul, who’s not a Russia hardliner but is sort of unpredictable.
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Here’s the thing that is so weird to me: The Trump team put out a trial balloon on this nomination over the weekend. There was a lot of negative reaction. But Trump went ahead and nominated Tillerson anyway. Either Trump is asking for trouble or truly believes he can flip some votes. Perhaps he can. Still, it was rather odd.
micah: So that seems like one of the central takeaways with Tillerson: His nomination suggests that Trump might not GAF/won’t defer much to political winds or Congressional considerations.
clare.malone: You can’t tell from one move with Trump.
micah: Normally, if a trial balloon is bombarded with crap, it isn’t then cleaned off and re-released officially.
micah: OK … how about: Normally, if a trial balloon is popped, it isn’t then patched up and re-released officially.
clare.malone: But yes, Trump must just like the cut of Tillerson’s jib an awful lot, to go against the blowback.
natesilver: Well, there are three or four interpretations. Interpretation No. 1: The honey badger don’t give a shit. Trump’s gonna Trump, even if it’s sort of a risky move where the downsides outweigh the upsides.
micah: But maybe this is partly why voters like Trump: He clearly thinks Tillerson will do a good job and doesn’t give a damn about what John McCain or Rubio thinks. Or any other D.C. naysayers.
natesilver: There’s also interpretation No. 2: Trump thinks it’s good power politics to make everyone subservient to his whims instead of compromising. They’ll confirm this guy, who got some freakin’ medal from freakin Putin — at the very moment that Putin’s suspected of meddling with/hacking the American election? Why, yes, they maybe/probably will! And that proves how far Trump can go and how much power he has.
clare.malone: I wonder how much he listened to his team when they inevitably raised the confirmation challenges that would come with Tillerson. I’d love to know if Romney was in the final two. No matter what Roger Stone says, I don’t think Trump was interviewing him just for show.
harry: I’ll get into this in a forthcoming article, but Democrats and Republicans have tended to have pretty similar views on Russia. That is, Russia has mostly been a bipartisan issue. Here are some numbers from Gallup:
I think we’re already seeing that in the congressional opposition to Tillerson. I guess Trump thinks he can move heaven and Earth to get Tillerson through, and given that he has already done that to some degree during this entire campaign season, maybe he can.
natesilver: OK, interpretation No. 3: This is still part of some elaborate tactical ploy. If Tillerson gets confirmed, that’s not a bad outcome. But Trump will be relatively willing to cut bait from Tillerson if and when it starts to consume his political capital — certainly before it goes to a floor vote. He’ll position it in such a way that it looks like he’s compromising, and therefore he can definitely get his second choice (John Bolton?) confirmed, but that might actually be his first choice. I tend to think this is pretty unlikely now that he’s actually gone through and named Tillerson officially.
micah: No. 3 is implausible to me. A combination of Nos. 1 and 2 seems the simpler explanation.
natesilver: Yeah — because that’s what trial balloons are for, and this has gone past the trial balloon stage. Withdrawing Tillerson now would be at least a little bit embarrassing.
clare.malone: You don’t think that he fears a big PR blowback from having to withdraw a nominee, Nate? Or do you think it would feed his image with a certain part of the public that thinks the establishment hates him and is trying to mess with his agenda from the get-go?
harry: It could be that Trump thinks that this is the type of pick that will play well among his base. This is one of the first Cabinet selections where I really see “draining the swamp” in action. Tillerson has not one iota of government experience. That is quite unusual for a secretary of state.
natesilver: Clare, I just want to point out that Trump does have this mode where he stakes out an extreme negotiating position and then takes a slightly-less-extreme position and everyone praises him for pivoting. So No. 3 is a tactic in his playbook. But, yeah, I agree that’s probably not the case this time around.
clare.malone: I wonder who the back-pocket pick is, if this is scenario No. 3!
natesilver: Well, Bolton is reportedly set to be Tillerson’s undersecretary. So he might seem like the most obvious alternative.
clare.malone: Retired Gen. David Petraeus would have been interesting.
harry: Why can’t it be as simple as Trump likes Tillerson, and he believes his base will too?
clare.malone: Yeah, Harry, that’s probably it! When you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras.
micah: What do you make of the fact that Trump doesn’t seem at all concerned with the impression that he’s in some way beholden to Russia?
harry: Cause he likes Putin?
natesilver: I think Trump clearly regards the Russia stuff as a feature rather than a bug.
clare.malone: This is something that’s not going to go well for very long for Trump with the American people. (I think?) Americans are suspicious of Putin! And Russia!
natesilver: And they should be.
clare.malone: He’ll likely have a honeymoon period with his base, but if he starts to seem like a Russian patsy, people in the Republican leadership might actually speak up.
natesilver: If Democrats are smart, they’ll focus on the Russia angle of Tillerson’s nomination and not the oil-company-CEO angle or the climate-change angle. Because as Harry noted, the Russia concerns poll a lot better all along the ideological spectrum.
If Tillerson’s confirmation starts to become a standard partisan fight, then Rubio and McCain, et al., will be happy to hand a defeat to liberals who they say oppose free enterprise, etc. Drill, baby, drill.
clare.malone: Yeah, I think that sounds about right. The Other plays well in whipping up political support, as 2016 has shown.
natesilver: There’s also interpretation No. 4, which is that Trump is actually doing Putin’s bidding, and nominating Tillerson is sort of like in the 1919 World Series when Eddie Cicotte hit Morrie Rath in the back, signaling that the fix was in.
clare.malone: I learn something new every day around here.
natesilver: I guess that’s crazy, though, and we should ignore it.
micah: I disagree. It seems crazy/very unlikely, but I think it should be on the table. Or, at least in the back of our minds.
harry: Studs Terkel was great in “Eight Men Out,” but I guess that’s neither here nor there.
natesilver: It is worth noting that Russia apparently hacked a lot of Republican National Committee information and has not released it.
micah: OK, so now to the swamp part. There are two ways of looking at this:
- The swamp is government, career politicians and maybe lobbyists. So appointing someone like Tillerson or Steven Mnuchin (former Goldman Sachs employee, hedge fund manager and Hollywood financier) to his Cabinet is entirely in keeping with Trump’s #draintheswamp pledge.
- The swamp is powerful interests generally, which includes lobbyists, big business and career politicians.
Trump is clearly hewing somewhat to No. 1.
clare.malone: Right, but I think lots of Americans take the broader interpretation, No. 2. Remember how no one likes big banks? How the release of “The Big Short” in movie form reignited the banker hate of 2008? I do.
micah: But they elected Trump.
clare.malone: Yeah, because Trump doesn’t look like a slick banker — he’s packaged differently, more accessibly. That was his greatest talent. Let it never be underestimated.
harry: Isn’t Trump big business? So if he is draining the swamp, he can’t possibly adhere to No. 2.
natesilver: Is an Exxon Mobil guy really all that popular with the base? It’s not as though it’s a beloved company, and Tillerson was not a widely known guy. It would be different if, like, it were the CEO of Caterpillar Inc. or some other good old-fashioned American manufacturing company.
clare.malone: Yeah, Caterpillar or any company that made things in Pennsylvania, for example, instead of extracting them from the Papua New Guinea ground, you mean?
harry: Trump thinks business is business, and he can sell that. I don’t think most Americans think that much about which companies are admired or not. They know it’s a brand name, and Trump can slap his seal of approval on it. I’m not saying it’ll work, but …
micah: But I guess my point is that maybe Trump’s base doesn’t draw that much of a distinction — as long as his appointees are not of Washington, they’re good.
So the moral here is that Trump pursues an anti-Washington agenda that benefits business — basically, a normal GOP administration on steroids.
natesilver: I dunno. There was Mnuchin too, and Goldman Sachs is one hell of a tough “drain the swamp” sell.
Perhaps we should advance interpretation No. 5: Trump is nominating people he thinks will carry out his personal interests.
clare.malone: There’s a good one. He’s got shares in Goldman and Exxon, FYI
micah: OK, last question: Democrats may not be able to fight every Trump Cabinet pick. Let’s say, to be most effective, they can only really fight one to two — who would you go after if you were Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer?
natesilver: Since Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, doesn’t need Senate confirmation, the obvious choices seem like Tillerson and Mnuchin. Or at least, those are the two most winnable fights. You could argue that the Environmental Protection Agency is pretty important too, but Democrats aren’t likely to find success there.
harry: They could fight Ben Carson’s nomination to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
clare.malone: I was just about to say, they’re going to be getting a lot of pressure from progressive groups on the EPA. Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is basically as averse to the EPA’s mission as a person can get.
micah: I hope they don’t go after my boy Rick Perry at the Energy Department.
clare.malone: It is seriously such poetic justice that he is being nominated for the very agency that he forgot all those years ago:
Also, our first “Dancing With The Stars” Cabinet nominee!!!!
micah: Note to copy editors: Make sure you fact-check that claim ^^^.
[Copy ed. note: CQ]
harry: Most of Trump’s picks aren’t outside the Republican mainstream, so Democrats don’t have that many ripe targets.
micah: They’ve been hardline Republican, but not off the map.
natesilver: I’m not sure if it’s a struggle to come up with candidates that Democrats should oppose so much as that it’s probably advisable to pick one’s battles.
micah: But appointing people to run agencies they don’t think should exist is both pretty hardcore and perfectly in line with GOP dogma over the past decade.
But if Democrats really want to block someone, they need to pick a fight that doesn’t just break down along partisan lines … I agree with Nate that Tillerson is probably the best bet on that front. Mnuchin is tougher in that regard.
harry: What Cohen is saying.
micah: Closing thoughts?
clare.malone: I wonder if the agency dismantling will actually happen should Pruitt/Perry be approved. But those are just thoughts into the wind.
harry: We’ve only just begun. There are more than enough Republicans who didn’t endorse Trump to stop him in the Senate. This could just be the opening shots.
natesilver: Trump gets a lot of mileage out of assuming that his opponents are weak-willed, in part because he’s usually proven right. We’ll see how much Rubio is willing to stand up for himself. He has a lot of leverage over Trump on Tillerson, and we’ll see if he’s willing to use it.