Tactic or circumstance: Trump's nominees avoid talking future policy

Story highlights

  • Nominees have avoiding answering key questions
  • Price is expected to decline to get into details of repealing Obamacare

Washington (CNN)Willfully or skillfully, Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees are avoiding answering key questions on the details of how their agencies will run, sticking to big-picture ideas instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of policy.

One case in point is likely to be Rep. Tom Price when he takes his turn for confirmation hearings on Wednesday.
The Georgia Republican has previously introduced his own legislation to repealing and replacing Obamacare. But the Health and Human Services nominee has been assiduously kept out in the dark on Trump's replacement plan in an effort to inoculate him from fielding questions about it during his hearing, according to a senior transition official.
    Price is expected to say he hasn't been involved in the planning efforts if he is asked what the administration intends to do about the Affordable Care Act, the source said. Instead, Price will try to focus on his potential role as a policy implementer as opposed to get into the details of setting policy, an official said.
    Price will be just the latest example of a Cabinet pick avoiding future policy details during a confirmation hearing. The tactic prevents a nomination from getting stymied thanks to a potentially unpopular policy and prevents the nominee from saying something that the future administration would be held account for.
    Trump's State Department nominee Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security nominee John Kelly both pleaded ignorance when asked specifics about their plans at agencies and what conversations they've had with Trump himself on the topic.
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    Tillerson, the longtime Exxon CEO, drew amazement from New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez when he said he has only spoken to Trump about the world in general terms and has had no specific conversations about Russia, its President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's attempts to influence the election, one of the Hill's biggest concerns on both sides of the aisle.
    "That has not yet occurred," Tillerson said.
    "That's pretty amazing," Menendez responded.
    In similar fashion, Kelly, a retired general, told senators he has not been involved in policy conversations about how to proceed on the campaign promise of deporting undocumented immigrants.
    Kelly said only that he expects undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, who were protected from deportation under an Obama administration policy, will not be first on the list for enforcement actions.
    "The entire development of immigration policy is ongoing right now in terms of the upcoming administration," Kelly said. "I have not been involved in those discussions. If confirmed, I think -- I know -- I will be involved in those discussions."
    One nominee did admit to in-depth discussions with Trump on policy matters, but still demurred on what the administration was planning.
    Retired Gen. James Mattis, nominated to be defense secretary, told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain that he is a strong supporter of the US alliance with NATO, and has expressed that to the President-elect. Trump has been an outspoken critic of NATO throughout the campaign.
    "I have had discussions with him on this issue," Mattis said. "He has shown himself open, even to the point of asking more questions and going deeper into the issue about why I feel so strongly."
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    But Mattis said working through what the administration's vision is will wait until the national security team is assembled.
    "He understands where I stand, and I'll work with the other members of the team, the national security team, once the Senate confirms them, to carry these views forward," Mattis said.
    Mattis and Trump's attorney general nominee, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, also deployed another tried-and-true tactic in their hearings -- declining comment due to ignorance.
    "I'm not current on this," Mattis said to a question about specific Syria strategy. "If confirmed I will get current as fast as I can."
    Sessions said he had "not studied" four different issues, and said he didn't have enough "research" on three others.
    Some of the subjects Sessions demurred on included hot topics, like the guidelines put out by the Obama administration on Department of Justice pursuit of journalists and their sources, how the emoluments clause of the Constitution applies to the President on conflicts of interest, Voting Rights Act enforcement and overseeing the appeals court for immigration proceedings.
    A transition official who worked on nominee prep said it's natural for nominees to wait on some details -- especially given that they will not be operating in a vacuum if confirmed.
    "Sometimes the questions are asking for a level of detail that it just wouldn't be prudent to answer," the official said, "in terms of getting ahead of the policy experts that you should talk to and who have been working at that department or who you are going to bring into that department."
    And, of course, the official added that a lot will be up to the President-elect.
    "You never want to get ahead of the boss."