President-elect Donald Trump’s first week after pulling off an upset victory has had plenty of missteps. The rocky start to his transition planning that one source described to CNN as a “knife fight” has done little to assure his critics and skeptical Republicans that he’ll have a smooth ascension to the Oval Office surrounded by qualified advisers. Trump denies that the transition is rocky.
From the outset, his transition chief throughout the campaign, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, had to be replaced with Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Just days before the election, Christie’s top aides were convicted of conspiracy and fraud in the “Bridgegate” scandal, and a pall of scandal hung over one of Trump’s most loyal backers, who likely would have had a top job in the new administration.
But with Pence at the helm, the Indiana governor has apparently done little to steady the ship or stop leaks to the media. Trump’s closing refrain of his campaign was that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, but his initial transition team was flush with lobbyists. In one of his first moves, Pence ordered the removal of all lobbyists, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Several very experienced members of the transition team — whose presence gave wary lawmakers comfort — have departed too. Former Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who was a chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, stepped down; several reports say he was let go. He had been seen as a possible candidate to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, but NBC News reported he was ousted in what two sources close to the former congressman described as a “Stalinesque purge” of Christie loyalists.
“I think there is some confusion going on about a chain of command coming out of New York. Hopefully they’ll get that settled pretty soon. I think they’re going to need to do it, because as this clock ticks, all of these decisions become more important,” Rogers told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
CNN also reported that the overhaul of Christie’s picks was spearheaded by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. There’s no love lost between Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, and Christie, who prosecuted Kushner’s father for tax evasion and witness tampering in 2004 as a U.S. attorney. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump spokesman Jason Miller denied that Kushner was responsible for pushing Christie and his allies off the team.
Still, his reported instigation of removing experienced hands like Rogers was described to CNN by sources as a “knife fight” that was “mainly divided along the lines of establishment Republican operatives against more nontraditional influences on national security issues.”
Former State Department official Eliot Cohen, who served under President George W. Bush, had been a Trump critic but said he was open to advising him after Trump won. But on Tuesday, Cohen had done a complete turnaround, painting the transition as chaotic and motivated by revenge.
Cohen later told the New York Times in an interview that “Trump transition officials had excoriated him after he offered some names of people who might serve in the new administration, but only if they felt departments were led by credible people.”
“They think of these jobs as lollipops,” Cohen told the Times.
President-elect Trump’s outreach to and from foreign leaders has been confusing and disorderly too, per the Times:
“Prominent American allies were in the meantime scrambling to figure out how and when to contact Mr. Trump. At times, they have been patched through to him in his luxury office tower with little warning, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations.
“President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt was the first to reach Mr. Trump for such a call last Wednesday, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel not long afterward. But that was about 24 hours before Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain got through — a striking break from diplomatic practice given the close alliance between the United States and Britain.”
On Monday Trump touted his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom he repeatedly praised throughout the campaign even as U.S. intelligence found the Russian government had hacked into the Democratic National Committee to try to influence the American elections.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who said that Putin’s promises of improved U.S.-Russia relations should be taken with “as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
Trump’s rumored choices for America’s top diplomat have also been met with controversy. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s most passionate surrogates during the campaign, is said to be atop the list. But Politico reported Tuesday that consulting work he did for foreign governments and companies, and money he accepted from places like Qatar and Venezuela and from Iranian exiles, could prove problematic — not to say that Trump repeatedly criticized the Clinton Foundation for taking similar gifts from foreign governments.
Another name that has surfaced to lead the State Department has been former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was among the challengers to Trump during the GOP primaries, said on CNN Tuesday that the former Bush appointee was “totally unfit” for the job, and also dismissed Giuliani as a choice. In a closely divided Senate, where the GOP is expected to have a 52-48 advantage, Republican defections will matter.
All of the skirmishes over Trump’s transition team and possible Cabinet picks may pale in comparison to furor over his controversial appointment of former Breitbart News head and Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon to be his senior counselor in the White House. Bannon has ties to the alt-right movement that’s associated with white nationalism.
Trump has also denied reports that he has sought security clearances for his children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric. NBC News reported Tuesday night that Trump had requested a security clearance for Kushner, his son-in-law, so that he could join him for his daily security briefings.
Trump tweeted Tuesday denying that the transition was in turmoil. But he added a bit of bombast and suspense typical of his background as a reality TV host:
And, in typical Trump fashion, he also took shots at the press, in particular the New York Times, calling its reporting “inaccurate”: