Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein is being considered for a top position within President-elect Donald J. Trump’s Justice Department, according to two independent sources. (Baltimore Sun video)
WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump's choice for housing secretary, a longtime critic of government spending, assures lawmakers that he sees a role for the safety-net housing programs on which tens of thousands of Marylanders rely.
The likely next attorney general, who would be tasked with upholding the federal end of the consent decree signed Thursday by the city of Baltimore and the Justice Department to reform policing, says he's skeptical of such agreements.
After the parade of Senate confirmation hearings last week, the contours of the incoming Trump administration — and how its policies might affect Maryland — are beginning to take shape.
In some cases, the responses of the nominees have surprised adversaries and allies alike.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, drew Trump's secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, into an unexpected back-and-forth over climate change last week. The Maryland Democrat asked Tillerson, a former ExxonMobile chairman and CEO, about a global climate agreement signed by the United States in 2015.
While Trump has described climate change as a "hoax," and has promised to "cancel" the emissions-reduction agreement. Tillerson called rising temperatures a "threat," and said he thought it was important for the United States to "maintain its seat" at international negotiations on the issue.
"I don't want to get too optimistic about him on climate, but it was certainly more positive than I expected," said Cardin, who represents a state vulnerable to rising sea levels. "I just think Mr. Trump's statements were so off the wall that quality people cannot say anything other than what they believe."
Lawmakers have been holding a marathon series of hearings to ready Trump's Cabinet for confirmation after the inauguration Friday, when the Republican businessman will become the nation's 45th president. The new president will enter the White House after a bitter campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton that divided the nation, and exposed deep policy challenges for the new administration.
Perhaps the most pressing pending federal question for Baltimore is how the next attorney general will handle the consent decree aimed at correcting what the Obama Justice Department says is a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in the city.
The historic agreement, which now goes before a federal judge, requires additional training of police and changes the way officers interact with residents. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department increased the use of court-enforced decrees to compel change.
But Trump's choice for attorney general, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that such agreements also undermine police morale and can be used to punish an entire department over the actions of a few officers.
Still, Sessions indicated little appetite for altering deals already in place.
"Those decrees remain in force until and if they're changed, and they would be enforced," he said.
Several experts who study the issue predicted that Baltimore's decree would remain in place.
"I read Sessions as saying he'd leave existing decrees alone, would not look to extend them, and would look to end them as soon as the period of the decree is over," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris.
"He will be very unlikely to initiate new ones," he added.
Dr. Ben Carson, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon nominated by Trump to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has been critical of safety-net programs in their current form. But he drew applause from some supporters of those programs after his hearing Thursday before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
Carson indicated support for government's role in low-income housing and the mortgage industry, while also suggesting that role could be reduced.
About 27,000 families in Baltimore live in HUD-subsidized public housing or receive federal help to pay the rent.
Ruth Ann Norton, a longtime advocate on lead-poisoning issues, said she was pleased with what she read as Carson's commitment to ensure those units are free of lead.
In an exchange with Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Carson said he "absolutely" supports regulations designed to stop lead paint poisoning.
"While we may have many differences in our politics, I saw a strong opening," Norton said. "He talked about a holistic approach. He talked about vigorously pursuing lead poisoning. I felt what he said was authentic."
Different listeners read varying meanings into Carson's remarks on a controversial federal regulation to reduce racial segregation in cities such as Baltimore.
Known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, the regulation requires local housing agencies to develop plans to address segregation and ensure that poor black families are not forced to live in blighted neighborhoods.
Carson said he did not support Washington bureaucrats dictating how local housing authorities make plans to address those issues, but rather wanted that work accomplished at the local level.
Robert Romano with the Americans for Limited Government said that position showed Carson was "sticking to his guns in opposition" to what the conservative group calls "vast federal overreach."
But the rule, although initiated by the federal government, already tasks local housing authorities with developing the plans. Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said advocates were "hopeful" that Carson would support the rule, and not unwind it.
Rice's Washington-based group works to prevent housing discrimination.
In addition to filling gaps on policy, the confirmation hearings have exposed divisions between Trump and his incoming Cabinet members on a number of issues that were central to his campaign.
Throughout the campaign, Trump called the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the U.S. and five other countries a "disaster" and said dismantling it would be a top priority. On Thursday, his pick to lead the Department of Defense said of the deal: "When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies."
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, meanwhile, Trump's choice to head the Department of Homeland Security, said the president-elect's promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico "in and of itself will not do the job."
The inconsistencies between Trump and some members of his expected Cabinet have prompted questions about which set of ideas will prevail.
"In most cases, the Cabinet and the Hill win," predicted James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "But we are in uncharted territory with Trump and his tweets."
Trump officials played down the differences, saying nominees are offering only their personal views in the hearings, which will continue this week.
"He's not asking for clones," incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters last week. "Each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda and a Trump vision."
Lawmakers are expected to hear this week from nominees for the education, commerce and energy departments, as well as Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Advocates for farmers have praised Trump's EPA nominee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, because they believe he will roll back federal regulations they say are squeezing agriculture.
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Pruitt was one of 21 attorneys general who joined a lawsuit to halt the EPA's Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan in 2014, partly out of fear that it will inspire similar efforts elsewhere.
"We see his commitment to really putting the brakes on regulatory creep," said Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We have a high degree of confidence that he's going to bring a relatively pragmatic approach to that process."
William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his group will be closely watching Pruitt's hearing on Wednesday.
"What we're hoping is that 30-plus years of bipartisan support ... in Washington for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay will continue," he said. "We're going to give him the benefit of the doubt."