Long-simmering tensions between Donald Trump and the Washington foreign policy establishment burst into the open on Tuesday after a respected former congressman quit the transition team and a leading neoconservative publicly warned colleagues not to join the incoming administration.
Mike Rogers, former chair of the House intelligence committee who had been one of the senior figures advising the transition on national security, stepped down as head of that team, saying he would “hand off our work” to a new team being assembled by Mike Pence, the incoming vice-president.
One person advising the Trump transition team said many of the people connected with Chris Christie had been pushed out in the wake of his replacement as head of the team by Mr Pence. The New Jersey governor was caught up in a scandal over using his office to punish political opponents.
The departure came just hours after Eliot Cohen, a neoconservative thinker and leader of the anti-Trump Republicans — who last week encouraged sceptics to join the administration out of a sense of duty — reversed himself after an “exchange” with the transition team. “Stay away,” he wrote on Twitter.
The high-profile defections raise new questions about whether Mr Trump can consolidate his hold on the Republican party despite a high-profile effort to reach out to official Washington in the days since his upset election victory.
Mr Trump himself tweeted: “Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
Despite the ructions, there were still signs some within the Republican foreign policy establishment were warming to the idea of working with a Trump administration even after many former officials publicly denounced the party’s nominee during the campaign.
A mixture of a patriotic desire to serve and personal ambition is convincing many who worked for then-President George W Bush that they should take part in the new administration despite the intense reservations many still have about Mr Trump’s judgment and temperament.
With the Trump transition team struggling to find its footing, some potential recruits said they are waiting to see who the president-elect appoints as his secretary of state, defence secretary and national security adviser before they decide to sign up.
The choices for such central roles are split between Trump loyalists — such as former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former speaker Newt Gingrich and John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN — and establishment figures such as Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser.
“For a lot of people, it might come down to who they put into the top jobs. Having a Gingrich or a Bolton at State is very different from a Corker or a Hadley,” says one former official who says he is still considering whether to pitch for a job in the administration.
Among the many unusual aspects of the campaign was the open rebellion against Mr Trump by many former Republican national security officials. In January, during the primaries, more than 100 Republicans signed a letter organised by Mr Cohen, who worked at the state department under Mr Bush, which said that Mr Trump’s “vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle”.
In a second letter in August, 50 former Republican officials wrote that Mr Trump would be “the most reckless president in American history”.
But since the election, there have been some signs of rapprochement between the party elite and the president-elect’s transition team. Republican officials received an important word of encouragement on Monday from the dean of the party’s foreign policy establishment, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
“If you’re asked to serve, please do,” said Gen Scowcroft, who worked for presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush. “This man needs help.”
“I have been surprised how many people — including many Democrats — have sent me messages saying that you need to go into the administration,” says one former Pentagon official whose name has been mentioned as a candidate for a top national security position.
The prospect still divides Republican officialdom. Like Mr Cohen, many who questioned Mr Trump’s suitability are vowing to remain on the sidelines.
“There are two different categories,” says one prominent Republican who is not looking to apply for a position in the next administration. “There are the diehard Never-Trumpers who still wear their opposition to Trump as a badge of pride. And then there are people who maybe signed a letter during the primaries opposing Trump but who have kept quiet since then. Some of them are now putting out feelers to the Trump team.”
Republican veterans say the transition team is well behind schedule in mapping out both the personnel and policy work it needs to do on national security before the inauguration. Two former officials whose names have appeared on lists of people being considered for senior positions said they had had no contact at all with the transition team. “I only know what I read in the media,” said one.
In one sign of the shaky start, the Japanese government is struggling to determine who is advising Mr Trump on Japan and Asia policy, as he prepares to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York on Thursday.
Four former US officials said the Japanese embassy had been calling Republican and Democrat Asia experts to find out who might be advising Mr Trump ahead of the meeting. Most embassies in Washington have faced severe difficulty building contacts in the Trump team.
One person advising the Trump transition team said most of the Republican experts, including a large number of Asia experts, had been told that they would not be considered for jobs. He said the transition team had not unveiled its list of country experts for Asia and other regions, which was leaving foreign embassies in the dark.
“The Chinese ambassador is driving everyone crazy saying ‘Who is in charge of China?’,” said the person.