Donald Trump’s struggle to find a secretary of state has erupted into an early battle for the soul of his nascent presidency – a critical showdown between the insurgents who thrust him into office and establishment Republicans pushing for a more conventional White House.
At the moment, the internal debate over who should serve as the steward of the country’s foreign policy pits advocates for bombastic ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani against those for caustic Trump critic Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 nominee. The behind-the-scenes battle exploded into public view on Thanksgiving Day, after Trump stalwarts began viewing Romney as a serious contender.
The fight is less about elevating the brash and self-promoting Giuliani, according to sources close to the transition, and more about stopping Romney either by selling Trump on the Sept. 11 hero or pushing a third candidate, possibly Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director and engineer of the Iraq surge, a half dozen people close to the process told POLITICO.
Trump, in many ways an accidental victor, is in a unique political vise: He is the least popular president-elect in modern history and badly needs his still-divided party to unite around him to consolidate power. Most presidents face this particular day of reckoning – the pivot from a narrow electoral beachhead of diehard supporters to a broader and more inclusive governing coalition — at some point in their early presidency. What’s extraordinary is how early it’s taking place in the budding Trump administration and that private disputes are going public just three weeks after the election.
Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller told reporters Friday that the president-elect is continuing to meet with several candidates for the position, some of whom share his foreign-policy views, others who don’t.“I think a lot of the palace intrigue gets overblown at this stage,” he said.
The pro-Giuliani contingent – or more accurately the anti-Mitt cadre – led by incoming White House senior strategist Steve Bannon and Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, have argued forcefully for rewarding a “loyal” campaign surrogate. Giuliani, they have argued, was one of the few supporters who went on TV to defend the candidate in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape, and the kind of anti-establishment figure Trump voters demand. The pro-Romney camp includes Vice President Elect Mike Pence and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus – who is less supportive of Romney than Pence — who have both pressed Trump to reach out to mainstream Republicans in order to help convert Trump’s shaggy insurgency into a functional and more traditional West Wing.
“Mitt represents the antithesis of what Kellyanne and Bannon stand for,” a Trump ally who supports Romney’s cause told POLITICO on Friday. “The problem is that Trump has a lot of other people in his ear and needs to branch out … Welcome to Washington, Mr. President.”
The former mayor hasn’t been shy about pressuring Trump directly. “Giuliani has been going around saying that he’s not going to be this or not going to be that — you don’t do that sort of thing when you’re talking to the president elect or within the president elect’s hearing,” says a former aide to Secretary of State George Shultz.
Moreover, Trump, whose private-sector management style – and persona as a TV boss – reflected a penchant for fostering conflict among subordinates, set the stage for the current fight when he appointed Priebus and Bannon to top West Wing posts, virtually ensuring months of wrangling. Both insiders and outsiders describe a transition process led by Trump and that, as a result, remains largely inscrutable. His own views remain a mystery to even those closest to him, and he has a reputation for changing his mind at a moment’s notice.
In an extraordinary development that underscored the unusual nature of Trump’s transition period, Conway took to Twitter to make the case for Giuliani and to air her grievances against Romney, writing that the ideal secretary of state should be “loyal” and warning that she had received a “deluge” of pushback against Romney’s candidacy.
A source close to the transition said that those who oppose Romney’s nomination are telling Trump that including him in the cabinet would “create a firestorm” among the base that elected him.
Tea party activists have launched a grassroots push against Romney over the Thanksgiving week – inundating Trump’s office with calls and expressing anger over a potential Romney pick after the contact information to reach Trump Tower was passed around online by people given the number by anti-Romney insiders.
The conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters during the campaign — on Thursday took to Twitter to warn that, without his base, Trump could “be killed with a paper cut.”
Romney, for his part, who remains interested in the role, “is taking all of this stuff in stride, and would like to serve the country,” according to a person in his orbit who has spoken to him since he met with Trump last week. The person denied published reports that Romney was drafting a formal apology for his comment during the GOP primaries that the developer-turned-reality-TV-star was a “phony, a fraud,” who was “playing members of the American public for suckers.”
The idea of forcing Romney to sign some kind of mea culpa is being mulled by transition officials hostile to his nomination, several senior Republicans said.
Even less clear is where Trump’s increasingly influential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a fierce supporter of Israel, stands on the candidates. Transition sources told POLITICO Kushner has said broadly positive things about both men.
As that battle plays out, there are indications advocates for both candidates may be losing – and that the Trump team is looking to Petraeus, the four-star general who served as President Obama’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency until 2012 when he was removed for sharing classified documents with a biographer who was also his mistress.
A source close to the transition said that Trump – a military history buff who idolizes World War II firebrand George Patton — has always liked the general, who was discussed as a potential vice presidential running mate. There are concerns, however, particularly in the wake of Trump’s announcement last week that he would not pursue an investigation of Hillary Clinton, that bringing Petraeus on board would undercut Trump’s crusade against Clinton’s misuse of a private email server, given that Petraeus was forced from his position in part because he mishandled classified information.
Others have also raised concerns about what is shaping up to be a cabinet with a heavy military presence: Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn will serve as Trump’s national security adviser, and retired General James Mattis is said to be a shoo-in for Secretary of Defense. Nominating a general to the secretary of state post would exacerbate those worries.
“It’s not unusual for the advocates of various candidates to engage both in private as well as public advocacy for their candidate,” says a former Republican cabinet secretary, who notes that in 2000, a competitive fight between between Indiana senator Dan Coats and then Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge to be secretary of defense resulted in the selection of a third candidate, Donald Rumsfeld. “Generally when this happens the result is that it tends to undercut the candidates whose supporters are jousting and produce a nominee who is from a completely different direction,” says the former cabinet secretary. At other times, cabinet secretaries whose nominations are plagued by infighting emerge weakened and are pushed out at the first evidence of trouble. That’s what happened with Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, who was replaced by George Shultz a year-and-a-half into his tenure.
Giuliani hasn’t exactly followed Romney in acting the tight-lipped elder statesman. Responding to criticism that he lacks experience in the realm of foreign policy, Giuliani told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he has “traveled in the last 13 years as much as Hillary did in the years she was secretary of state.” He said that he has visited England eight times, Japan six times, France five times, and China three times – even once with former president Bill Clinton – and his knowledge of foreign policy, he said, “is as good, or better, than anybody they’re talking to.”
A former Giuliani aide said he was initially concerned about the scrutiny he would face and eager to get back to his legal and moneymaking enterprises, but has been encouraged by the support he’s received inside the Trump camp, especially from Conway and Bannon.
Even though many senior Republicans still express doubts that Trump – who prizes loyalty and public praise – will ultimately tap the former Massachusetts governor, he reportedly said that the silver-templed Romney “looks the part” of a secretary of state and would do a good job, according to a Friday report in The New York Times.
Reports about Giuliani’s international business entanglements and top-dollar speechmaking career, which crudely parallels Hillary Clinton’s, sparked concerns both among Republicans who would have to shepherd his confirmation through the Senate and among some in the Trump camp.
Of particular concern is confirmation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is divided between Democrats and Republicans by a narrow ten-to-nine split.
Republican Senator Rand Paul has already said he would vote against Giuliani, whom he called an “unrepentant advocate” for the Iraq war. That means his nomination would require a Democratic vote to just to reach the Senate floor, something that could prove a serious obstacle. A senior Paul aide said it is “doubtful” Giuliani would get that key Democratic vote.
But the biggest question of all is whether Trump, who has had difficulty putting aside far smaller personal grudges even when it as in his own political self-interest, will ultimately be able to turn the other cheek with Romney – whom he reluctantly endorsed four years ago.
And while his personal history with Trump is the biggest hurdle to a Romney pick, people close to the president elect have stressed Romney’s relatively hawkish foreign policy positions don’t reflect Trump’s more dovish worldview, specifically on Russia. Romney, they have argued, wants to confront the Russians over their recent aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine and, as a candidate in 2012, named Russia as the country’s biggest geopolitical threat.
Another possible roadblock: Romney, Bannon and Conway have argued, tried to prop up third-party candidate, Evan McMullin, in Utah to take Trump down.
Just when Trump makes his secretary of state decision remains an open question. People who have spoken to the President Elect say he remains “reflective and celebratory” about his win, and less interested in litigating internal fights than in telling visitors and potential cabinet nominees how he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in presidential history.
“He’s still savoring it,” a person close to Trump said.