Donald Trump

Trump's loyal son-in-law seen as power behind ‘Stalinesque purge’ of transition team

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 7:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 7:15am

Power struggles inside Donald Trump’s transition team are hobbling efforts to form a new United States government - including what some say is an effort by the president-elect’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to clear out the ranks of loyalists to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The turmoil burst to the surface Tuesday with the abrupt departure of former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who had been tapped by Christie to lead national security planning for the transition. Two people close to the transition described Rogers’ departure as a firing, a move that came about because of friction between Christie and Kushner, husband of Ivanka Trump and one of the most influential voices in the campaign.

One report attributed it to a “Stalinesque purge” as Trump himself attempted to paint a less chaotic picture, tweeting that the transition process was “very organised”.

Kushner appears to be so influential that Trump took the unprecedented step of requesting his son-in-law receive top-secret clearance to join him for his Presidential Daily Briefings, which began Tuesday.

Kushner does not have the necessary security clearance, and it could take weeks — or even longer — for him to receive it.

Watch: Trump says Americans have nothing to fear

As US Attorney for New Jersey, Christie in 2004 prosecuted Kushner’s father, Charles, for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. A plea agreement led to a two-year prison sentence. Kushner is believed to have been one of the leading voices who kept Christie off Trump’s presidential ticket.

Some transition aides said that a Kushner grudge wasn’t to blame for the purge of Christie allies. Instead, they said, the transition hadn’t progressed as far or gotten the results that Trump wanted.

Trump wants his stamp on the make-up of all aspects of his administration and has expressed a desire to weed out lobbyists from the leadership teams, the aides said. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is the best person to shape the transition effort, with the president-elect’s input, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said.

“Of course the president-elect is going to want his vice-president elect helping to build what the administration is going to look like and the only person on the planet other than president-elect who knows what that is is the vice president-elect,” Miller said.

Rogers’ ouster follows Christie’s November 11 demotion from leading the transition effort to being one of several vice-chairs, with Pence taking over the top spot. Two Christie loyalists on the transition team also were demoted: Rich Bagger, who had served as chief of staff in Christie’s gubernatorial office and was the transition’s top staff manager; and Bill Palatucci, a former Christie law partner who had been serving as the transition’s general counsel.

The staff shakeup coincides with infighting over who’ll get the most important jobs in a Trump administration - particularly secretary of state. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has expressed strong interest in being the nation’s top diplomat. But other transition officials have backed John Bolton, a favourite of the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party and a former United Nations ambassador under President George W. Bush.

Bolton would likely face a tough confirmation fight in the Senate, particularly after Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that he would strongly oppose Bolton. Two other contenders have emerged in addition to Giuliani: former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who served under Colin Powell, and Henry Paulson, who was Treasury secretary under Bush, according to one person familiar with the transition.

The switch has slowed Trump’s ability to coordinate with the White House. That is partly because Pence has yet to sign a memorandum of understanding facilitating interactions between his team and Obama administration officials. Christie had signed the document, but Pence’s promotion makes it invalid.

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”.

Not to worry, Trump suggested in a Tuesday night tweet: “Very organised process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”

Indeed, Trump effectively created two power centres in his White House even before taking office. He named Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his chief of staff and flame-throwing media mogul Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, but called them “equal partners”. And then there is Kushner, who is creating another layer of uncertainty about who is making decisions.

“That organisation right now is not designed to work,” according to the person close to the efforts, who like others involved in the transition, insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the internal process.

Former GOP national security official Eliot Cohen blasted Trump’s team on Twitter, calling them “angry, arrogant.” Cohen had opposed Trump during the campaign, but in recent days, he said those who feel duty-bound to work in a Trump administration should do so. But he changed his mind again on Tuesday.

“After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly,” he tweeted.

Democrats, reeling from sweeping defeats in the election, focused their ire on Bannon, a man celebrated by the white nationalist movement.

“If Trump is serious about seeking unity, the first thing he should do is rescind his appointment of Steve Bannon,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said.

“As long as a champion of racial division is a step away from the Oval Office, it would be impossible to take Trump’s efforts to heal the nation seriously.”

Trump’s team has defended Bannon and tried to put its focus on filling the top national security jobs. Trump’s selections will be the first signals to anxious international allies about the direction he plans to take US foreign policy.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a loyal Trump ally and immigration hard-liner, is said to be a contender for defence secretary.

Trump also is considering Richard Grenell as US ambassador to the United Nations, which would bring some experience and diversity to his nascent administration. Grenell, who served as US spokesman at the UN under President George W. Bush, would be the first openly gay person to fill a Cabinet-level foreign policy post.

Bloomberg, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse