Sen. Angus King of Maine said Tuesday he is “open-minded but skeptical” about the latest Cabinet picks by President-elect Donald Trump.

“I find it troubling to have people appointed to lead an agency (when) they expressly disagree with the mission of the agency, or in this case, think the agency should be abolished. That’s troubling,” the independent senator said during an editorial board meeting at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

He was responding to reports Tuesday that Trump has selected former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the Energy Department.

During a 2011 presidential debate, in an infamous gaffe, Perry said he wanted to eliminate three federal agencies – Commerce and Education – and then forgot the name of the third, which was Energy. It effectively ended his presidential bid.

“I’m not a sure ‘no’ vote,” said King, who sits on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which will hold the confirmation hearing for Perry. “But I plan to ask a lot of questions, (like) how will you steward this important agency that plays a significant role in the future of this country?”

King also is skeptical about Trump’s secretary of state pick: Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil. Tillerson has close ties to Russia, and the nomination takes place amid upheaval over intelligence assessments that Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election to help Trump.

“Russia is an adversary,” King said. “So, I am worried about the Russia connection and the depth of those ties (between Tillerson and Russia.)”

King, who is regularly briefed on intelligence matters as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said it was “ridiculous” that Trump was dismissive of the intelligence reports on intentional Russian interference in the election.

He ticked off five findings of the consensus view of 17 intelligence agencies: That Russians were behind the hacking, they were also behind the leaks to WikiLeaks, that the intent was to “interfere” with the election, that the orders came from “the highest levels” of government, and that they also tried to hack the state-level election process.

“To me, that’s pretty close to indisputable,” he said. “I’ve read a lot of intelligence briefs. This is one of the least equivocal I’ve seen, which was unusual.”

King said the allegations of Russian hacking are in line with what he learned firsthand during a trip with intelligence committee members to Eastern Europe this year.

“We got to Poland and the first thing they wanted to talk about was Russia messing around with their elections. And that they were under a constant barrage of Russian misinformation and propaganda, all designed to undermine the public’s confidence in Western values, America and the democratic process. We went to Ukraine and heard the exact same thing,” King said.

Two weeks ago, delegations from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in Washington reported the same issue.

“They said exactly the same thing: ‘We are under constant assault from the Russians. What you just experienced is exactly what we’ve been dealing with for years,'” King said.

“That’s why I’ve been pushing for public hearings” on the hacking, he said. “The American people need to know this is just a fact of life.”

But King also said he planned to work with Trump as much as possible.

“I’m a congenital optimist,” he said. “You’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt you. I’m going to look for areas of agreement, and fight like hell in areas of disagreement.”

And a Trump administration is not necessarily highly partisan, he said, noting that many Democrats support border security, a Trump priority, while Republicans backed the Trade Promotion Authority in which Congress gives the president power to negotiate trade deals, something Trump targeted during his campaign.

“I do not think of Trump as an ideological guy. I don’t even think of him as a Republican,” said King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “He’s Trump.”

On other matters, King said:

n Trump should participate in the daily intelligence briefing prepared for the president, although King noted that past presidents didn’t always do so. President Richard Nixon never attended the briefings, getting the information from Henry Kissinger, who attended them.

“Not taking those briefings is a mistake,” King said. “He’s going to be called upon to make very important decisions with long-term ramifications and in that situation he ought to have all the information he can get, as unfiltered as he can get.”

“How else is the president going to learn, if he’s not trusting the people whose job it is to get (the intelligence?)” he said. “I hope and suspect that as he gets into the job, he’ll learn who he can trust, and that these people are in fact professionals.”

n King said a plan to repeal Obamacare now, with a plan to replace it in three years is “a terrible policy.” “It’s repeal and chaos,” he said. “We’ve had six years for a replacement plan and we haven’t seen it.”

King said any system that leaves “40 to 50 million uninsured is just wrong. People die when they don’t have insurance.”

“I don’t understand the impulse to take insurance away from people,” he said. “I’m going to oppose it every way I can.”

n The election itself illuminated deep divisions in the country, and a more polarized population.

“People just wanted change,” he said. “People, who for whatever reason, feel alienated from institutions: From the media, the government, the universities, the schools. There’s this alienation that is really disturbing and dangerous.”

“Another thing, people were looking for a different approach. Their disaffection and anger didn’t necessarily have anything to do with government. But this election was the only way to express it.”

 


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