Full Episode: The Trump Transition: A deep dive into his unconventional cabinet picks

Dec. 09, 2016 AT 4:17 p.m. EST
President-elect Donald Trump continued to announce the team that will help implement his new agenda in the White House, but several of his picks are raising concerns among his critics. Trump tapped a climate change denier to lead the EPA, a minimum wage critic to lead the Labor Department and three retired generals to key national security posts. What do Trump's choices signal about his key policy priorities and the shift in American foreign policy when he is sworn in as president?

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MICHELE NORRIS: I’m Michele Norris. Donald Trump taps another retired general and a couple of business tycoons to join his administration. And President Obama launches an investigation of the 2016 election. We look inside the Trump transition tonight on Washington Week .

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We will have two simple rules when it comes to rebuilding this country: Buy American and hire American, all right? Buy American. (Cheers.)

MS. NORRIS: Days after striking a deal that provided millions in tax breaks to keep hundreds of jobs in Indiana, the president-elect threatens to slap other companies with a 35 percent tax if they transfer operations overseas. Republican leaders say there may be a better way to keep jobs here.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The real solution down the road is to have America be the most competitive place in the world to do business. That involves two things: a tax structure that works and not overregulating. And we don’t have either right now.

MS. NORRIS: The incoming president adds a third combat-experienced general to his Cabinet, raising concerns about the influence of the military on American policy. And two unlikely Cabinet choices are sparking controversies. A fast-food executive, opposed to raising the minimum wage, is nominated to be secretary of labor. And a climate change skeptic gets the nod to head up the EPA. Plus, the person of the year now says he really likes the person he’s replacing, and vows to unite the divided nation.

Joining me around the table with news and analysis, Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Michael Crowley of POLITICO , and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week . Once again, from Washington, Michele Norris.

MS. NORRIS: Good evening. President-elect Donald Trump stepped up his transition process this week, naming a third retired general to his Cabinet, and announcing his choices to run the Pentagon, the Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Small Business Administration. Some nominees are expected to get quick confirmation, while others are more controversial. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt will lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is currently involved in a lawsuit with 23 other states against the EPA. He’s an outspoken skeptic of climate change and supports the Keystone XL Pipeline. Democrats are gearing up for a confirmation fight.

SENATOR TIMOTHY KAINE (D-VA): (From video.) I don’t mind having an EPA critic. That is not my concern. He’s a climate science denier.

MS. NORRIS: And corporate fast-food executive Andrew Puzder has been – Puzder, excuse me – has been named labor secretary. Puzder does not support raising the federal minimum wage. He’s opposed to expanding overtime pay.

Joining us now are our panel to discuss this week. We have a lot to cover. I want to begin with Pruitt. Does he send a signal about what we can expect from the EPA? And what does this say about Donald Trump’s real sort of fist in the eye, you know, style of politics right now, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY: Look, I think what we’re seeing among all of the – or the majority of the members of the Cabinet we know right now, a lot of outsiders, very limited government experience, if any, and in those cases not much, and people who are opposed ideologically to some of what their agency regulates. And this is not to be a big surprise or shock. Had any Republican won, it would have been, you know, a complete turnaround from the Obama administration, obviously. But this goes, I think, a little bit farther here. These people individually are people that Donald Trump uniquely chose. I think had an establishment Republican won, I don’t think these people would have been in a Jeb Bush Cabinet, per se.

So these are people who are going to roll back a lot of the Obama-era regulations. But I think the theme of outsiders here is super interesting. And Democrats can certainly raise objections, but can do very little about it. I’d be very surprised, unless we learn some things – we always learn things in these hearings – they may all get confirmed.

MS. NORRIS: Michael Crowley, what does this mean, for instance, for the Paris accord? If Donald Trump, with Steve Pruitt now at the EPA, wants to start to roll back some of this, how easy is it for them to actually do that?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, I mean, the U.S. doesn’t have to live up to its commitments in the Paris accord. They’re not binding. You know, there are reasons why other countries might want to follow through. China, for instance, has terrible pollution problems in its major cities, and has an interest in pushing on with clean energy on its own. And, you know, the United States isn’t the only country where people realize the dangers of climate change.

But I will say, it’s a real setback to people who thought that Donald Trump, when he went in to see The New York Times editors and said some things that suggested he might be taking climate science seriously, might want to stick with the Paris agreement, were encouraged by that. Then Al Gore comes in and meets with Trump and his daughter, tells them all about climate change. And I think some people thought, wow, he might surprise us. And this is really – throws a wet towel on those rising hopes, I think.

MS. NORRIS: Alexis, can you tell us a little bit more about Puzder, his view of unions, some of the statements he’s made about overtime pay, and interesting things he’s had to say about robots possibly replacing workers in fast-food franchises, and elsewhere?

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, Andy Puzder, if confirmed, would come into the Labor Department representing the prospective of low-wage, you know, low-educated workers in the fast-food business. And what he’s described – and he has been as outspoken as Donald Trump in many ways in what he’s said and he’s written – is an antipathy towards the kinds of things that in his industry he has felt have held down growth or productivity. So, for instance, he’s in favor of automation, which is interesting because Donald Trump has said he is for, you know, growing jobs and helping working class Americans, right?

Andy Puzder has said that he is very wary of what minimum wage has done in the restaurant business. What Democrats and advocates for the Labor Department are arguing is that the Labor Department is supposed to represent workers, right? And he is coming into this environment representing the perspective of a business community, or part of an industry – not manufacturing, not construction, not, you know, middle class, middle wage kind of incomes, but lower wage. And he’s also said he’d be very interested in letting more international workers to come in to fill out his restaurant business.

MS. NORRIS: Donald Trump is also turning to an old friend, and fellow billionaire, to head the Small Business Administration. Former professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon and her husband turned a small, Connecticut-based business into a global sports entertainment empire. McMahon also invested an estimated $100 million of her own wealth into two failed campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012.

Michael, this is an interesting choice, not just in terms of her selection to head this administration, but also in the way that it tells us something about his view of campaigning, his connection to the crowds in the campaign, and the celebrity status that he walked into this campaign with.

MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, yeah, I think he’s been friends with Linda and Vince McMahon for quite a while. He appeared as a guest wrestler, essentially, body-slamming her husband in an episode of, I think, one of the pay-per-view wrestling matches. And I think, you know, what it does show – the similarities for people who’ve spent some time watching professional wrestling and a Trump event are pretty clear. I mean, what Trump brought to politics was this idea that there is a bad guy and there is a good guy and they are both in the room at this rally. And we are going to jeer the bad guy and we’re going to cheer the good guy. And he really transformed the spectacle of campaigning.

And I think he’s always admired that culture. I think also, you know, the – a lot of his supporters were attracted to his ability to play on that level. Whereas other politicians would look at something like professional wrestling and say it’s beneath the dignity of what I’m after, or the statesmanship of the presidency, Donald Trump, you know, if you read his tweets to this day as president-elect, just doesn’t ascribe to that view.

MS. NORRIS: And he knew his audience.

MR. SCHERER: He knows his audience.

MS. NORRIS: He knew his audience would hear that message. Donald Trump named a third combat-experienced general to join his team. Retired Marine General John Kelly will lead the Department of Homeland Security. Not only will he be responsible for combatting terrorism at home, but he’ll be in charge of executing Trump’s plan to crack down on illegal immigration. Jeff, has he signaled at all his views on how exactly he would carry out some of the statements that Donald Trump had said repeatedly on the campaign trail, or what he thinks about the possibility of building this wall?

MR. ZELENY: I think the idea of the wall is slowly falling by the wayside. I was out with Donald Trump this week at a rally in North Carolina and a rally in Iowa. The wall was barely mentioned, if at all. That was a rallying cry during the campaign. The reality here is, A, no one knows – everyone knows that Mexico is not going to pay for it. And, B, the U.S. can’t afford it. And it’s not practical. So I think what we’re going to hear are some more specifics about a fence probably, more than a wall.

But in terms of John Kelly specifically, I think he was picked, again, as part of a pattern of strength. I think that one thing that – or, the thread through most of these choices is strength, someone who – you know, Donald Trump, for all his criticism of the generals during the campaign, likes to surround himself by strong men, and I think – and strong women, in some cases. And I think that that’s what he brings to it.

But in terms of the specifics he’s talked about, he has border experience, of course. But I haven’t heard many specifics in terms of how we are going to address – how the U.S. will address the people here in the country already. And that is certainly one of his challenges. But there were a lot of people sort of breathing a sigh of relief at Homeland Security because they think he’s very experienced.

MS. NORRIS: So let us address the other big question on the table: Who is going to be Donald Trump’s secretary of state? This is a long and drawn-out process, carried out in a very public fashion. When do we expect this decision to be made? And what can we glean from the way he’s carried out this decision?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it feels a little like a reality show, doesn’t it? I mean, everything about Donald Trump feels like a reality show, but this particular part of it feels like this very public audition, and you come and you meet with him and you’re paraded before the cameras and then people are kind of gossiping and sniping at you behind your back, and in some cases saying nice things. And so one thing it tells me, which I find peculiar, is it suggests that Donald Trump didn’t spend much time thinking about this incredibly important job before he was elected. Now, he may not have had expected to have had to do a transition, because like many people there was this assumption that Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead. But you would have liked to have think that he would spend some more time on this beforehand.

The other striking thing here is just the spectrum. I mean, on the one side you have Dana Rohrabacher, a California congressman who has talked about the need to mend fences with Russia, we can cooperate with Vladimir Putin, no Russia did not interfere in our election, all the way over to Mitt Romney who in 2012 called Russia America’s greatest geopolitical threat, is fairly hawkish, has maybe even slight what you would call neocon tendencies, whereas Donald Trump is very much opposed to the neocon project of American intervention and democracy promotion. Then all these other people in between, including James Stavridis, who he met with I think today or yesterday, who was on Hillary Clinton’s short list to be her vice presidential running mate. So it’s a real mess. And you ask me when we might get a selection? Maybe next week, but no one’s sure.

MS. NORRIS: Just very quickly, though, the timing of this. Isn’t this usually one of the first things that a president will announce, or president-elect?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s – the timing is always a little different. But there is precedent for a really fast pick. In fact, I think a good historical data point is that George H.W. Bush on the morning after his election, the Wednesday after the Tuesday of Election Day, announced James Baker as his secretary of state – came right out of the gate with him. So this is a very different kind of thing.

MS. NORRIS: So, turning from the president-elect to the president, with less than six weeks until the end of his term, President Obama delivered his final speech on national security as commander in chief. Speaking to troops at MacDill Air Force Base, the president defended his record on counterterrorism, and talked about the importance of fighting terrorism without sacrificing people’s civil rights.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) The United States of America is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny or carry a special ID card or prove that they’re not an enemy from within.

MS. NORRIS: This was a somewhat emotional speech for the president. He talked about how sentimental he was, hearing on the road the ruffles and flourishes as he approached the podium. But when he’s speaking there, who is the president’s intended audience? He’s not just speaking to the troops. He’s obviously speaking to the people on the other side of the camera. But is he also sending a signal to Donald Trump?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, absolutely. The audiences are multiple, but he was definitely talking – and the White House made no bones about it – that part of the message was supposed to be received by Donald Trump. And let’s remember, President Obama has been talking to Donald Trump personally. This is not a mystery. He doesn’t need to use the microphone to necessarily transmit this message to Donald Trump. They’re talking. But what’s interesting is that there’s an international audience for this. There’s a domestic – half the country, the president believes, voted for someone, you know, other than Donald Trump. And that message is for them and it’s for his legacy, and obviously his supporters.

But the argument the president made that I thought was so interesting was to try to make the point, again, this is not a new message, that the rule of law and the Constitution helps us be a safer country. And it helps us with our values and to transmit a message. And so he was trying to argue – because we know Donald Trump initially was enamored with the idea of waterboarding as torture. And let’s, you know, try to target the relatives of terror suspects, and try to see if that threatens them, right? And so part of this message is to encourage Donald Trump to expand his thinking. And General Mattis, who is Donald Trump’s pick for DOD, does not agree with Donald Trump on torture.

MS. NORRIS: So you were at a breakfast this morning where some interesting news was made. Lisa Monaco talked about – from the national security team – talked about the fact that she has not met with her counterpart in counterterrorism on the Trump transition team. And she also announced that the Obama administration will begin an investigation into the possibility of hacking in the U.S. election.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, Lisa Monaco is the homeland security and counterterrorism advisor to President Obama. And, you know, she was saying, I haven’t had – she was asked – I haven’t met with my counter – you know, my counterpart. I’m looking forward to it. There’s lots of information to transmit. We should stipulate right here that Donald Trump has only named four people to the White House staff, which is – you know, we’ve got 40 days left. That’s a big staff to fill.

MS. NORRIS: And they will all leave.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And then they will – the place empties out, right? So we’re waiting to see more.

What she announced today in response to a question was that this question about would the president declassify information about Russian hacking during the election, she said the president ordered up a report that he hoped would be completed by the time he leaves office to be distributed to stakeholders and members of Congress. And she described it as the president’s desire to describe lessons learned. Donald Trump, get that message, lessons learned, meaning the administration has believed and has said that Russia was behind hacking during the election. Donald Trump has refuted that.

MR. ZELENY: I thought the White House – it was interesting, though. Eric Schultz, the press secretary – acting press secretary, the other day said this is going to go back to 2008. Any malicious cyber attacking in elections since 2008. So they’re trying to make it look like it’s not just this most recent election.

MS. NORRIS: It’s not just this.

MR. ZELENY: You know, but they have 42 days to get that report on the president’s desk.

MS. NORRIS: And, Michael, how hard is it to do that in 42 days?

MR. SCHERER: I think they can do something. I mean, how comprehensive the report is – I mean, I think they have most of this already done. I mean, they’ve already reported they have a high confidence that Russia was behind these hacks. They’ve already been investigating this for months. It’s just a matter of compiling the report. I think this is planting a public flag. This is a report that can be leaked after Donald Trump becomes president in some classified or unclassified form, because Donald Trump when I spoke to him last week – not only does he say I don’t believe Russia was behind the hacks of Hillary Clinton’s emails, we asked him, do you think the intelligence assessment is politically motivated? And he said yes. Which is a remarkable thing, to have a president-elect basically publicly fighting his own intelligence community before he comes into office. And I think the White House and the intelligence community wants to have a document in place in case that same view –

MS. NORRIS: A benchmark. That would make sense.

MR. CROWLEY: Quick, two more beats on this. One, it will be frustrating to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, who wish we could really throw a counterpunch to Russia. But I think the White House feels like we can’t win a cyber escalation game with Vladimir Putin. He will always be a little more crazier than us, and we are more vulnerable. If Obama does sanctions through executive orders, Trump can just repeal them. But Republicans in Congress have said that in January they want to have hearings about this, and they might consider steps. And this report will sort of throw a log on that fire and give them fodder, give them momentum to try to do something that might include sanctions.

MS. NORRIS: President-elect Donald Trump added to another title to his name this week. He was named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. Donald Trump called it a tremendous honor during a phone-in interview with morning television, and he reminded everyone in that interview that he thought he should have won this title last year.

Michael, you did the original cover story with the team – with the candidate. You visited him in his three-story penthouse apartment. You’ve spent a lot of time with him. I’m curious how you’ve seen him change, and particularly as he moves closer and closer to walking into the front door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This is someone who takes his own counsel, who lives a life where he enjoys quite a bit of freedom. And the White House is much like a gilded cage.

MR. SCHERER: It is. So I mean, how – what’s remarkable is how he hasn’t changed, first of all, and that he’s so different to interview or talk to than any other politician I’ve dealt with – so much more freewheeling, also much more enthusiastic, in strange ways, to be talking with reporters. I mean, he really enjoys the process. He likes the give and take. He wants to sort of respond to where you’re going with a question.

To the extent he has changed, I think there is a weight on his shoulders now that there wasn’t, you know, when I talked to him last year, or in August of last – of 2015, or even in 2011 when he was first talking about running for this office. Then he was very much still someone who was sort of playing in this new space. He was sort of, you know, experimenting with what he could do in politics. He was coming up with ideas as he went.

I think he has internalized the gravity of the position he’s in. It doesn’t mean he’s not tweeting. It does mean that he’s aware – more aware of where his provocations could lead. And it’ll be interesting to see how much he reins himself in, because the reality is he has advisors around him who are regularly telling him to do things differently than he chooses to do them. And he often doesn’t follow their advice. And so it will be interesting to see what he chooses when he becomes president, when he takes that office, how to – how to adjust his performance.

MS. NORRIS: You mentioned his tweeting. He’s taken to Twitter again this week. And people wonder if this sort of improvisational communication strategy is just that, is it improvisational, or is there some strategy behind it? Is there – is this strategic in some way? Is there some logic behind what he’s doing when he takes to Twitter, often late at night?

MR. ZELENY: He often is tweeting on something he’s seen on television. You can sort of mark a pattern exactly of him watching something, or potentially reading something but usually watching something. The flag incident last week, “Fox and Friends” was airing an episode on burning the American flag, 20 minutes later he tweeted. This week the union president in Indiana at the factory there was pretty harsh on him. He said that he sort of built the workers up there thinking that they could all keep their jobs, and they can’t. Donald Trump went after him hard, directly by name.

Unprecedented for someone who’s about to be president to call someone out directly on Twitter like that. But Donald Trump believes it’s a good form of communication. He’s going to keep doing it. He hopes he is. We’ll see if his advisors sort of rein him in. But I think for all the talk about is there going to be a new Donald Trump, no, there’s not. We see sort of several Donald Trumps. But I think we’re going to see all of these as president. I don’t think he’s going to suddenly change.

MS. NORRIS: So from external communication to internal communication, one of the things we’ve also learned is he’s approaching his office with a different tempo in terms of the security briefings that he receives. Normally at this point they would be receiving – he would be receiving daily security briefings. He does it once a week.

MR. CROWLEY: That’s what we’re hearing. Once a week, very unusual. And, you know, you would assume that if you have access to this miraculous intelligence, this information that the great apparatus of the United States can gather, you would want to see it, especially when it was a new thing. I would certainly want it, want as much of it as possible. And when you’re going to be commander in chief and confronting a very unstable, fluid, dangerous world, and you don’t have a background in government or foreign policy, you presumably would want to use this opportunity, as many people are encouraging him to do, to learn up, get the vernacular and vocabulary, understand how things work, get the feel for it. And he doesn’t seem to want to.

And so that fits in with this larger concern, which is: Does Trump really understand – you talked about the weight he seems to feel on his shoulders. But does he yet really grasp what it means to be commander in chief and have – be at the helm of the greatest country in the world, the strongest country, the largest military, and all the responsibilities that entails. That’s reflected in concerns about some of his early national security appointments, his national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, very controversial figure. So it’s very worrisome to foreign policy professionals.

MS. NORRIS: Alexis, you had noted that Donald Trump has talked about – and as have some of his advisors – talked about the frequent phone calls that he’s had with the current president. How often are they actually talking?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, it’s interesting, because it’s an unusual thing for a president-elect, who’s basically denounced his predecessor as just a disaster, to reach out to that president and then later, as Donald Trump has said, say we’ve built respect. I think on my end there’s respect. And I think he’s a great president. You know, he’s had all these effusive things to day. They’ve talked, the White House says, about a handful of times.

Donald Trump has done more talking with his team about the calls than President Obama has done to disclose the nature of the calls. But it’s very clear, to me, that President Obama approached Donald Trump from that very first meeting that they had in the Oval Office with respect, talked about trying to be helpful, and has made good on that. The White House says, when Donald Trump calls, President Obama gets on the phone.

MS. NORRIS: OK. Well, before we go tonight, we want to acknowledge the passing of a man who inspired millions of Americans to reach for the stars. John Glenn was a World War II veteran who became an astronaut for NASA and, in 1962, was the first American to orbit Earth in space. He went on to serve his home state of Ohio in the United States Senate for 24 years. He made history again when he returned to space in 1998 at age 77, becoming the oldest person to ever fly in space. President Obama awarded Glenn the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. John Glenn was 95 years old.


Thanks, everyone. Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra , where we’ll talk about how the Trump administration’s writing a new playbook when it comes to disseminating policy and communicating with the press and the public. And while you’re there, check out some interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the everyday people on the trail who made a lasting impression on some of our Washington Week political reporters during the 2016 presidential campaign. You can find both at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. I’m Michele Norris, have a good night and a great weekend.


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