Donald Trump was due to meet former critic Mitt Romney for a second time on Wednesday as aides to the president-elect stepped up a public rearguard action against the possible appointment of the one-time Republican nominee as secretary of state.
Mr Trump has narrowed the list of candidates to several frontrunners, including Mr Romney and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a faithful ally of the New York businessman during the election. Others include Bob Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee, and General David Petraeus, the former CIA director.
After a meeting with Mr Petraeus on Monday, Mr Trump tweeted that he was “very impressed” with the architect of George W Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge. Mr Corker is scheduled to meet the president-elect on Tuesday.
However, Kellyanne Conway, Mr Trump’s campaign manager, has openly criticised Mr Romney’s potential appointment, suggesting that divisions may be opening up between some of the more moderate members of Mr Trump’s transition team, who have been advocating Mr Romney, and other aides who would prefer that the post go to a loyalist and maverick like Mr Giuliani.
In recent days, Ms Conway has spoken out against Mr Romney’s appointment on Twitter and in televised interviews. She claimed on Meet the Press on Sunday to be “astonished at the breathtaking volume and intensity of blowback” from Mr Trump’s supporters regarding a Romney appointment.
“I’m all for party unity. But I’m not sure we have to pay for that with the secretary of state position,” Ms Conway said in a separate interview with CNN.
I have never, EVER, seen any aide to [the president of the United States or president-elect of the United States] publicly try and box the boss in like this
While Ms Conway’s comments were echoed by Trump allies such as Roger Stone, others seized on her remarks to point to divisions within the Trump camp.
Both CNN and MSNBC reported on Monday that Mr Trump had been “irritated” by Ms Conway’s public campaign against Mr Romney. Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host who has reportedly been advising Mr Trump on his secretary of state choice, according to the New York Times, claimed that Ms Conway and Mr Giuliani were trying to box Mr Trump into a corner.
“Giuliani and Conway are trying to intimidate the President-elect. How weak do they think he is? Their lack of discretion is embarrassing,” Mr Scarborough wrote on Twitter.
David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist, suggested that Ms Conway was trying to pull off an “extraordinary” manoeuvre.
“I have never, EVER, seen any aide to [the president of the United States or president-elect of the United States] publicly try and box the boss in like this,” he wrote on Twitter.
Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, noted that many people had likened Mr Trump’s recent appointment interviews to kabuki theatre, but that in many ways the current drama around Mr Trump’s secretary of state pick was more straightforward than it seemed.
“Trump of course reserves the decisions to himself. He enjoys being the centre of attention and not letting other people know what his decision is going to be.”
John Burke, a University of Vermont expert on presidential transitions, cautioned against reading too much into every one of Mr Trump’s meetings, including his meeting with Mr Romney. Many cabinet interviews are done mostly for show, he noted, a tendency that has only increased in the age of social media.
“The president-elect will meet with a number of candidates probably some of whom are not as serious as others in terms of appointments, but it’s done for political reasons,” he reasoned.
Mr Trump’s transition team announced shortly after his election victory that he would be considering Mr Romney for secretary of state, a surprise given the 2012 Republican presidential candidate’s scathing critique of the billionaire during the Republican primary. In March, Mr Romney tore into Mr Trump as a “a phoney, a fraud” and claimed that the he was “playing the members of the American public for suckers”. During the general election, Mr Romney refused to endorse Mr Trump.
Meanwhile, separate concerns have been raised about Mr Trump’s possible appointment of Mr Petraeus, who resigned from the CIA in 2012 after it emerged that he had shared classified information during an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
While Mr Trump repeatedly praised Mr Petraeus on the campaign trail, some have raised concerns about the president-elect appointing someone who was forced to serve two years’ probation and pay a $100,000 fine for mishandling classified information, particularly since Mr Trump was so vocal in his attacks over Mrs Clinton’s private email server.
Others have said that Mr Petraeus’s appointment as secretary of state would fuel concerns about the number of former military officials that Mr Trump is appointing to his cabinet. Earlier this month, Mr Trump announced that Lieut Gen Michael Flynn, a former Pentagon intelligence officer, would serve as national security adviser, while Mr Trump has publicly said that he is considering Gen James Mattis, former head of US Central Command, for secretary of defence.
Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters in Washington last week that he was concerned about the “militarisation of the government”.
“There are very few senior military officers that understand politics. I do worry about that aspect — can former senior military officers handle the politics of the environment that they are going into,” Mr Mullen said.