Trump eyes loyal backers for Cabinet while transition hits a snag

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK: President-elect Donald Trump closed in on naming two loyal Wall Street backers to key economic positions but jettisoned a national security expert from his inner circle as his transition cleared an initial paperwork snag on Tuesday.

Trump, a Republican outsider who won a surprise election victory last week, is considering campaign finance chair and Wall Street veteran Steve Mnuchin as his treasury secretary, and longtime backer and billionaire investor Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, according to Trump ally and activist investor Carl Icahn.

But a well-known Republican moderate was pushed out of transition planning. Mike Rogers, a former US representative from Michigan who had been mentioned as a possible pick for CIA director, suddenly left the transition team.

Rogers had worked with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who on Friday was abruptly replaced as head of the team by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

That overhaul temporarily put the brakes on transition talks with the White House. Pence needed to sign a memorandum of understanding, which the White House received on Tuesday evening.

The Trump team still needs to provide more paperwork before detailed agency-by-agency briefings can take place, a White House spokeswoman said. The team will need to provide a code of conduct and certify that its transition team members do not have conflicts of interest.

Additional changes may be in store. The Wall Street Journal, citing an unnamed transition team member, reported that Pence had ordered all lobbyists off the transition team.

Officials for Pence and the transition could not immediately be reached for comment.

Pence was slated to head to Washington on Wednesday, where he and his wife, Karen, will be hosted for lunch by Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at their official residence, the Naval Observatory.

Trump has fewer than 70 days until his January 20 inauguration to settle on Cabinet members and other senior appointees. He will eventually need to fill roughly 4,000 open positions.

Following a long day of meetings, Trump's motorcade slipped away from reporters gathered at his New York City apartment building. Trump and his family had dinner at 21 Club, a Manhattan restaurant, a spokeswoman said.

A parade of advisers had been seen going in and out of Trump Tower through the day, including US Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, touted as a possible secretary of defense or attorney general, retired Army Lieutenant General Joseph "Keith" Kellogg and tech billionaire Peter Theil.

Wall Street is closely watching who Trump picks for treasury chief because Republicans have majorities in both chambers of Congress, giving Trump a clearer shot at tax and financial regulatory reforms.

Mnuchin declined to comment on Cabinet picks to reporters at Trump Tower, but said the team was "making sure we get the biggest tax bill passed, the biggest tax changes since Reagan."

National security hardliners?

Rogers told CNN there was a little confusion in Trump's New York surrounding the transition team, which he attributed to "growing pains."

Rogers was pushed out in part because Trump's advisers believed he did not pursue Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton aggressively enough when he headed the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, a source familiar with the decision said.

Rogers led an investigation into the September 11, 2012, attacks by militants on US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans. The probe dismissed many of the conspiracy theories that had been circulated by critics of Clinton, who was then secretary of state.

Trump's team viewed the investigation as a whitewash, according to one source familiar with the operation.

Some current US intelligence officials expressed worry that Rogers' departure would mean Trump was leaning toward more confrontational hardliners to lead his foreign policy team.

Two national security officials said Trump's operation had been slow to get up to speed and had not yet deeply engaged with security and intelligence agency personnel who were ready to start helping them out.

Loyalists such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former UN Ambassador John Bolton were being considered for secretary of state, according to sources close to Trump.

Giuliani, New York's mayor at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Islamist al Qaeda militants, is known as a hardliner on national security matters. Bolton is also a foreign policy hawk who said last year the United States should bomb Iran to halt its nuclear program.

Retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, a leading candidate for Trump's national security adviser, has called for the United States to pull back from protecting longtime allies such as South Korea and Japan.

Two posts filled

Trump has filled two positions so far. His choice of Republican Party insider Reince Priebus to be White House chief of staff was heralded by Republican leaders as an indication he wanted to work with Congress. Republicans maintained their majority in both the Senate and House in the election, but a number of Republicans in Congress opposed Trump's candidacy.

But Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist was criticised by Democrats, civil rights organisations and some Republicans. They denounced the former Breitbart News chief, whose website is a forum for the "alt-right," a loose grouping of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.

Neither Priebus nor Bannon need Senate confirmation for their posts, but Cabinet posts do, and some of Trump's possible picks could face a difficult time winning approval.

Republican US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said on CNN he could not vote to confirm Bolton unless he repudiated his support for the Iraq war and bombing of Iran. Paul, who also ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, added he was concerned by Giuliani's work on behalf of foreign governments.

One loyalist who will not be playing a role in Trump's Cabinet is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who advised Trump after dropping his own presidential bid earlier this year.

"His life has not prepared him to be a Cabinet secretary," said Armstrong Williams, Carson's business manager.