Donald Trump’s transition team remains vexed about how to structure key foreign policy positions with just months to go before inauguration. Causing the logjam is a mix of bureaucratic friction, internal staff disputes and a lack of direction from the top of the ticket.
Occasionally, the disorder has spilled out publicly, with the floating of a variety of names with no apparent ideological consistency for top posts. On Wednesday, news broke that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) was under consideration for secretary of state, while several transition sources told The Huffington Post that the previous front-runner, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was losing favor among transition staff.
The Trump transition team attempted to alleviate concerns over the state of operations during a conference call on Wednesday night, announcing that “landing teams” would begin meeting with officials at four separate federal agencies and revealing that Trump would meet with an “unbelievable” group of people on Thursday. The list included Haley in addition to several Republican foreign policy officials, from Henry Kissinger to Gen. Jack Keane.
That Trump is still feeling out who to trust for this critical portfolio is, in part, a function of the way that he operated as a candidate. During the campaign, he skewered neoconservatives who have long dominated Republican foreign policy, charging that President George W. Bush lied to get the country into the Iraq War. And Trump cozied up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is regarded by many in the GOP establishment as an arch enemy of the United States. Having run against the Republican foreign policy platform, Trump has found it hard to find Republicans to carry out his foreign policy agenda.
“It’s the creepy Russia stuff that really has foreign policy people creeped out,” said one GOP official who was contacted by the transition office about his interest in working in the administration. He declined. “A lot of the foreign policy people saw the intel on what Putin was doing and none of it looked good.”
Inside the Trump transition team, there is disagreement over how much they should try to repair bridges to the rest of the GOP foreign policy community. Eliot Cohen, a prominent neoconservative who criticized Trump during the campaign, said he was berated during his meeting with transition staff. He subsequently advised Republican foreign policy officials to stay away.
Elsewhere, ideologically dissimilar figures and onetime outsiders appear to be gaining status within Trump world. Several sources told HuffPost that Gen. James Mattis, who was once floated by Republicans as a last-minute alternative to Trump’s candidacy, is under consideration for the job of Defense Secretary ― though one of those sources described it as more of a “wish” among certain staffers than a likelihood. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), whose hawkishness stands in stark contrast to Trump’s calls for limited interventions, has been floated for the Pentagon post too, as has former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent.
Meanwhile, insiders say hard-edged former UN Ambassador John Bolton, a prominent Iraq War supporter, continues to remain the leading candidate to end up at Foggy Bottom, creating an incongruous image if there ever was one. Bolton, a relentless Putin foe, is on track to take over the top diplomatic post for a president-elect who spoke to Putin by phone on Monday and pledged warmer relations between the U.S. and Russia.
But this is the current state of the Trump transition team: odd fits, mixed messages and undeniable drama that would be more enjoyable to watch if the stakes weren’t so particularly high. As the week has progressed, the leaking of names for key posts had moved from a trickle to a constant stream, giving the impression that Trump is beginning to treat the process as if it were reality TV. He even referred to potential nominees as “finalists” on Twitter.
“What’s remarkable about today is the random names suddenly flying around,” said one person who’s been consulting with the transition team.
The chaotic nature of the effort has left Obama administration officials worried that talented Republicans will simply decline job offers, wary that there will be no coherence or stability in the next White House. But many Republicans are also turned off by some of the leadership already in place. According to multiple sources, the strong likelihood that Retired Lt. General Michael Flynn will be named National Security Adviser has rankled traditional GOP foreign policy types who view him as difficult to work with and too close to Russia.
“He is a hard-headed guy,” said the aforementioned GOP official. “He’s not dumb. But he is very single-track-minded.”
Further complicating matters for Trump is that his transition process has so far moved painfully slowly. It took until Tuesday evening for incoming Vice President Mike Pence to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Obama administration to legally allow transition conversations to move forward. It took another day for the transition team to apparently sign the code of conduct forms (which list potential conflicts of interest) and provide a list of all transition team members in order to get direct meetings started. As of Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times reported that both the State Department and the Pentagon had not yet heard from anyone on Trump’s team, though that presumably will change soon.
“Surprisingly, it does sound like they’re seriously asking for good people. I think the last week has been a wake-up call and they’re slightly humbled, believe it or not.”
Despite the slow pace, the Trump team insists that, internally, everything is moving along fine. “It depends where you are and where you sit,” said one top Republican involved in transition talks. “It is not chaotic. I just think people who are on the outs are pissed off.”
As during the campaign, there is some general indifference within Trump’s ranks to how the press is covering their operations. There is also a sense that the president-elect doesn’t mind the dysfunction and even thrives on it.
“Just like in college where everybody’s competing for the three seats that are gonna get them into grad school, that’s the mood. There’s all this jockeying: Who does [Trump’s son-in-law] Jared [Kushner] like? Who does Donald like? Who does Pence like?” said one source in regular contact with the transition. “They don’t think it’s a shambles. He’s been president-elect by surprise for a week now.”
Amid all the leaks, though, one omission is becoming increasingly apparent. Trump spent much of his campaign talking about how he will get tough with China, but appears to be paying no attention to it as he puts together his foreign policy structure. “The absence of any China [economic] experience borders on malpractice,” said one GOP source asked for advice by the transition team.
He had assumed the consultations were pro forma but, he cautioned, it’s too soon to count Trump out. “Surprisingly, it does sound like they’re seriously asking for good people. I think the last week has been a wake-up call and they’re slightly humbled, believe it or not. They’re growing up,” he said. “Those meetings yesterday were apparently true consultations.”