Donald Trump picks first woman, a critic, for his Cabinet

Trump has nominated South Carolina’s 44-year-old governor, Nikki Haley (above), as US ambassador to the United Nations.
Trump has nominated South Carolina’s 44-year-old governor, Nikki Haley (above), as US ambassador to the United Nations.PHOTO: EPA

PALM BEACH, United States (AFP) - Donald Trump chose a Republican critic to join his Cabinet on Wednesday, the first woman on his top team after his early picks rewarded campaign loyalists.

Trump's nomination of South Carolina's 44-year-old governor, Nikki Haley, as US ambassador to the United Nations will be seen as a sign he is ready to broaden his political base.

It came amid reports that he is also considering former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, another harsh campaign critic, this time for the key post of secretary of state.

And it followed a cordial chat between Trump and the New York Times, a newspaper he considers hostile, in which he softened his stance on climate change, torture and prosecuting his defeated rival Hillary Clinton.

The 70-year-old property tycoon told the Times that he is "seriously, seriously considering" appointing widely-respected retired Marine general James Mattis as his defence secretary.

Trump's transition team spokesmen told reporters that another "Cabinet level" appointment may be made later on Wednesday, but offered no details as to who it might be.

The UN ambassador post is of Cabinet rank and if Haley - a staunch conservative with no foreign policy experience - is confirmed by the Senate she will become a powerful figure in world diplomacy, despite previously clashing with Trump.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, and the first woman tapped for Trump's Cabinet, Haley will also inject a measure of diversity in a group that until now has consisted solely of white men.

Last year, after a white supremacist murdered nine black churchgoers in South Carolina, Haley supported a decision by legislators to remove the Confederate flag from the state house.

The decision drew protests from racist groups and this year, while campaigning for Trump's rival in the primaries Marco Rubio, Haley called Trump out for his failure to repudiate the Ku Klux Klan.

"I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not a part of our party. That is not who we are," she declared.

Trump, true to form, responded with one of his trademark Twitter insults, declaring: "The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!"

Trump's choice last week of the self-described "economic nationalist" Steve Bannon, head of the right-wing news platform Breitbart, as his chief strategist delighted white supremacists.

But on Tuesday, after video emerged of fans of the so-called alt-right making straight-armed salutes and chanting "Hail Trump," the president-elect disavowed the movement.

As he works with his advisers in his luxury Mar-a-Lago golf resort outside Palm Beach, all eyes will be on the appointments he makes for a sign of the direction his administration will take.

When Trump's Nov 8 election victory still seemed an unlikely prospect, many Republican and conservative policy experts condemned his anti-Muslim rhetoric, his affinity for Russia or his isolationist and protectionist positions.

Many of these figures are now moderating their tone and looking for work, whether they are lured by the prospect of a powerful job or are keen to serve US interests as a moderating influence inside a Trump administration.

The former Iraq and Afghan war commander, retired general David Petraeus - who resigned as head of the CIA after he was caught sharing classified data with his mistress - made his pitch on Wednesday.

"If you're asked, you've got to serve, put aside any reservations based on campaign rhetoric, and figure out what's best for the country," he told BBC Radio.

In May, Petraeus described hardline rhetoric like Trump's threat to ban all Muslims from travelling to the United States as "toxic" and "corrosive to our vital national security interests."

This week, a Trump aide was photographed carrying notes on a border security plan into Trump Tower. The first three points were legible in the picture, and pointed to stringent vetting for Muslim visa applicants.

The president-elect and his family will stay at Mar-a-Lago through Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday and the weekend. More meetings will be held on Monday with transition officials, his spokesmen said.