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Donald Trump

Battle erupts in Trump camp over secretary of state pick, as loyalists try to block Romney

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 9:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 10:27pm

As families across a bitterly divided America gathered for Thanksgiving, a battle erupted Thursday within Donald Trump’s camp over his pick for secretary of state, with loyalists seeking to block the path of Mitt Romney, a fierce former critic of the billionaire.

With the president-elect hunkered down at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for the holiday weekend - from where he urged the country to unite after a “painful” campaign - his team appears split over the prospect of making Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, America’s top diplomat.

Some of Trump’s staunchest supporters have united to oppose naming a man who called the real estate magnate a “fraud” and a “conman” during the campaign, when he helped lead the party establishment’s drive to sideline him.

But the other leading choice for top diplomat, outspoken former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani - one of Trump’s loudest supporters from early in his campaign - has drawn scrutiny for business dealings that could pose conflicts of interest.

“I am working hard, even on Thanksgiving,” Trump tweeted on Thursday, saying he was seeking to persuade an Indiana air-conditioning company, Carrier Corp, to remain in the United States.

But his transition team said there will be no new cabinet announcements until at least Friday.

Despite his lack of experience in foreign policy, Giuliani, 72, has openly lobbied for secretary of state, telling Trump’s advisers he is interested in no other position, The New York Times reported.

However, Giuliani’s candidacy has drawn attention to business dealings with foreign governments that may rule him out.

Picking Romney - who lost the White House race to Barack Obama four years ago - would reassure the Republican establishment and US allies worried about Trump’s foreign policy.

But the businessman and former Massachusetts governor who savaged Trump’s candidacy during the campaign also publicly differs from him on Russia, a leading foreign policy challenge.

While the president-elect has praised President Vladimir Putin, promising to improve strained relations with Moscow, Romney has called Russia America’s “number-one geopolitical foe.”

Trump’s close aide Kellyanne Conway cast further doubt on his suitability Thursday in what appeared to be a bad sign for Romney.

“Receiving deluge of social media & private comms re: Romney,” she tweeted. “Some Trump loyalists warn against Romney as sec of state.”

Among them, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, another staunch Trump supporter, expressed skepticism that Romney would represent “the kind of tough-minded, America-first policies that Trump has campaigned on.”

“I can think of 20 other people who would be more naturally compatible with the Trump vision of foreign policy,” he told Fox News.

Gingrich was joined by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who told Fox News he was “still very unhappy that Mitt did everything he could to derail Donald Trump.”

Trump has so far nominated mainly older white men to his future cabinet, representing tough, right-wing lines on immigration, Islamic extremism and other issues. They include Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Michael Flynn as defence secretary and Stephen Bannon as chief of staff.

But he moved to broaden his cabinet’s base on Wednesday, nominating two women, including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley - whose parents are Sikh immigrants from India - as US ambassador to the United Nations.

Haley is a Tea Party conservative with no foreign policy experience, while Trump’s choice of billionaire Betsy DeVos - a fierce advocate of alternatives to local public schooling - for education represents another victory for social conservatives.

Trump is widely expected to name the tough-talking retired Marine Corps general James “Mad Dog” Mattis as defence secretary on Friday.

Trump is also expected to pick his former primary rival Ben Carson - an African American former neurosurgeon and religious conservative - as secretary of housing and urban development.

Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is tipped for Treasury secretary, and according to the Financial Times the billionaire Wilbur Ross could be in line for the strategic post of commerce secretary.