Battle among Republicans over Mitt Romney as possible secretary of state

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks to members of the media after their meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks to members of the media after their meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.PHOTO: REUTERS

PALM BEACH, United States (AFP) - As families across a bitterly divided America gathered for Thanksgiving Day, a battle erupted in President-elect Donald Trump's camp over his pick for secretary of state, with loyalists seeking to block the path of Mr Mitt Romney, a fierce former critic of the billionaire.

With the president-elect hunkered down at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for the long holiday weekend - from where he urged the country to unite after a "painful" campaign - his team appears split over the leading prospect of making Mr Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, America's top diplomat.

Some of Mr Trump's staunchest supporters have united to oppose the nomination of a man who called the real estate magnate a "fraud" and a "conman" during the campaign, when he helped lead the Republican Party establishment's drive to sideline him.

But the other leading choice for top diplomat, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani - one of Mr Trump's loudest supporters from early in his campaign - has drawn scrutiny for his business dealings that could pose conflicts of interest.

"I am working hard, even on Thanksgiving," Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday (Nov 24), saying he was seeking to persuade an Indiana air-conditioning company, Carrier Corp, to remain in the United States.

But his transition team said there will be no new cabinet announcements until at least Friday, when he will continue meeting candidates and is expected to announce more positions for top loyalists.

Despite his lack of experience in foreign policy, Mr Giuliani, 72, has openly lobbied for secretary of state, telling Mr Trump's advisers he is interested in no other position, The New York Times reported, citing people briefed on the discussions.

However, the outspoken former mayor's candidacy has drawn attention to his business dealings with foreign governments that may rule him out.

Picking Mr Romney - beaten in the 2012 White House race by Mr Barack Obama - would reassure the Republican Party establishment and US allies worried about Mr Trump's foreign policy.

But the businessman and former Massachusetts governor who savaged Mr Trump's candidacy during the campaign also publicly differs from him on Russia, a leading foreign policy challenge.

While the president-elect has praised President Vladimir Putin, promising to improve strained relations with Moscow, Mr Romney has called Russia America's "number-one geopolitical foe."

Trump aide Kellyanne Conway - seen as especially close to the president-elect - cast further doubt on his suitability on Thursday in what appeared to be a bad sign for Mr Romney.

"Receiving deluge of social media & private comms re: Romney," she tweeted. "Some Trump loyalists warn against Romney as sec of state."

Among them, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, another staunch Trump supporter, expressed skepticism that Mr Romney would represent "the kind of tough-minded, America-first policies that Trump has campaigned on."

"I can think of 20 other people who would be more naturally compatible with the Trump vision of foreign policy," he told Fox News on Wednesday.

Mr Gingrich was joined by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who told Fox News he is "still very unhappy that Mitt did everything he could to derail Donald Trump." .

Mr Trump has so far nominated mainly older white men to his future cabinet, representing tough, right-wing lines on immigration, Islamic extremism and other issues. They include Mr Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Lt-Gen Michael Flynn as defence secretary and Mr Stephen Bannon as chief of staff.

Mr Trump moved to broaden his cabinet's base on Wednesday, nominating two women, including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley - whose parents are Sikh immigrants from India - as US ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms Haley is a Tea Party conservative with no foreign policy experience, while Mr Trump's choice of billionaire Betsy DeVos - a fierce advocate of alternatives to local public schooling - for education represents another victory for social conservatives.

Mr Trump is widely expected to name the tough-talking retired Marine Corps general James "Mad Dog" Mattis as defence secretary on Friday.

Mr Trump is also expected to pick his former primary rival Ben Carson - an African American former neurosurgeon and religious conservative - as secretary of housing and urban development.

Mr Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is tipped for Treasury secretary.

With Americans still coming to terms with Mr Trump's shock win on Nov 8, the former Green Party candidate Jill Stein announced on Thursday that her party has raised the necessary US$1.1 million (S$1.6 million) to request a vote recount in the key battleground of Wisconsin, and plans to seek one in two other Rust Belt states.

The request comes amid mounting pressure from liberals to challenge the results of the election, which was marked by fears of foreign hacking and - from the Trump camp - of vote rigging.

Although it is not expected to change the outcome, the recount demands could reignite debate over the legitimacy of Mr Trump's election, already fuelled by Mrs Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote which now stands at two million.