WASHINGTON (AFP) – Donald Trump huddled with Vice president-elect Mike Pence on Tuesday (Nov 15) to nail down their next round of Cabinet appointments, amid reports of intense infighting over the key posts.
The Republican billionaire drew a barrage of criticism over his pick of chief strategist: the anti-establishment firebrand Steve Bannon, onetime head of the provocative Breitbart website seen by critics as a darling of white supremacists.
And his transition team has faced a string of setbacks as it tackles the daunting task of building an administration with the clout to support the 70-year-old political novice when he takes office in just nine weeks.
The first shake-up came last Friday, when the president-elect reshuffled the team, placing Pence in charge. Then on Tuesday, the transition team’s head of national security, Mike Rogers, resigned in what was interpreted as a new sign of disarray.
In a statement, the former congressman said he was “proud of the team that we assembled at Trump for America to produce meaningful policy, personnel and agency action guidance on the complex national security challenges facing our great country,” and was now “pleased to hand off our work” to a new team.
Further reinforcing the impression of tensions, The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump had removed from the transition team a second top defence and foreign policy official, consultant Matthew Freedman.
The high-stakes process of filling more than a dozen Cabinet posts has been tumultuous by many accounts. One source cited by CNN described the intense lobbying as a “knife fight.”
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, hawkish former UN ambassador John Bolton, retired general Michael Flynn and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions are all reported to be on the short-list for a top job.
Pence made no comment to the media as he arrived at Trump Tower – which has been a hive of activity since last Tuesday’s vote.
Jason Miller, a transition communications adviser, told reporters at the building in Manhattan that Trump and Pence would be “reviewing a number of names” for Cabinet positions.
He gave few details on the new candidates under consideration, saying: “You can’t believe everything you read.”
Miller added: “There will be non-traditional names, a number of people who have had wide-ranging success in a number of different fields... People will be excited when they see the type of leaders the president-elect brings into this administration.”
According to a top Trump aide, Giuliani has emerged as a “serious” contender to become the next secretary of state.
But CNN reported that Team Trump was looking into whether his business ties – including work as a lobbyist for a Venezuelan oil firm – could complicate his confirmation in the role.
Giuliani, a member of Trump’s inner circle, had been considered a leading candidate for attorney general, but at a public forum in Washington on Monday, he said he would not be heading the Justice Department.
“His name has been mentioned in a serious way in connection with secretary of state, a job that he’s qualified for and a job that he would do exceedingly well,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said Tuesday on Fox News.
The 72-year-old Giuliani was mayor of New York on 9/11, and his decisive leadership after the World Trade Center’s twin towers were toppled in the September 2001 attacks made him a national hero.
The crime-fighting former prosecutor made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 but withdrew after learning he had prostate cancer.
Bolton, a neo-conservative hawk and former undersecretary of state, also was reported to be in the running for the top diplomatic post.
“John would be a very good choice,” Giuliani said at the forum sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.
Asked if there were anybody better, Giuliani quipped: “Maybe me, I don’t know.”
Bolton made no mention of his chances in an interview on Tuesday with Fox News but seemed like he was auditioning for it, weighing in heavily on US relations with Moscow the day after Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think one of the reasons that Putin is very casual about expanding Russian influence, taking advantage of America in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is that he sees, quite correctly, Barack Obama as an exceedingly weak leader,” he said.
“I think Trump is going to be the opposite.”
Bolton was a controversial choice for UN envoy in 2005, having once said if the UN headquarters lost 10 floors, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” .
Also in the mix is Senator Sessions of Alabama, an early Trump supporter who is reported to be under consideration for attorney general, secretary of defense or head of the Department of Homeland Security.
Sessions has been a fierce advocate for restrictions on immigration, but was once rejected for a federal judgeship after officials testified he made racist remarks, The New York Times reported.
Also expected to find a spot on Trump’s governing team is retired general Flynn, a possible national security advisor pick.
On Sunday, Trump named Reince Priebus, a mainstream Republican operative who backed Trump while chairman of the Republican National Committee, as his White House chief of staff.
Trump’s choice of Priebus – announced at the same time as Bannon – suggested a leader torn between a promise to shake up Washington and the need to build a cabinet with political experience and connections with Congress.