Donald Trump and his team pushed back against accusations that his transition to the White House is descending into chaos amid growing signs of strain inside the operation and that the president-elect himself is chafing under the enormous burden placed upon his shoulders.
“It is going so smoothly,” Trump tweeted Wednesday via an Android device, the type he used during the campaign when he was penning his own missives.
Reality has been bumpier. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the person in Trump’s inner circle with the most governing experience, has quickly consolidated power in the transition, layering over and laying off allies of Gov. Chris Christie who for months had laid the groundwork for staffing the new administration. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has emerged as a power player, just as he was on the campaign, setting out in particular to sideline Christie, who, a decade ago as a prosecutor, put Kushner’s father in prison.
Trump himself, mostly holed up in his Manhattan skyscraper residence, has been making rounds of calls to friends and allies, including longtime confidant Roger Stone, to mull what to do next. On Tuesday night, Trump slipped past reporters to try to escape for a family dinner at a Manhattan steakhouse — perhaps in pursuit of a sense of normalcy — a breach of precedent and protocol for the incoming leader of the free world whose whereabouts are supposed to be closely tracked.
The leader of the White House Correspondents’ Association called ditching the group of reporters who gather daily to track Trump’s movements “unacceptable.”
On Wednesday, Trump arose to fire off a string of disgruntled tweets about coverage of his new administration being in disarray.
He disputed reports that he had sought security clearance for his adult children (Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric all served as top advisers during the campaign, and his son-in-law joined him at the White House last week, wandering the grounds with the president’s chief of staff). And he whacked at The New York Times, in particular, for its coverage of a transition operation that has already undergone one major shake-up.
Jason Miller, one of Trump’s senior communications advisers, went on CNN to defend the state of the transition.
“There’s a clear structure in place, and I think some of this palace intrigue, really, where I think this comes from, usually, is folks who aren’t up for jobs who might be maybe a little bit bitter,” Miller said.
Those close to Trump say his picks to head the State, Defense and Justice departments all could come as soon as this week. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the leading contender to be nominated for secretary of state. While Giuliani lacks a diplomatic background, he has distinguished himself as a Trump loyalist.
One senior Trump adviser said the president-elect’s message to Giuliani has been, “Whatever you want, you can have.”
Others mentioned as Cabinet possibilities include former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But Gingrich told POLITICO in an interview on Wednesday that he had ruled out serving in Trump’s cabinet, and instead wanted to help the new administration in an advisory role.
Gingrich and Pence met for 45 minutes on Wednesday, and the former speaker waved off concerns about the transition being in a state of chaos, saying it wasn’t far behind historical norms — and he said that Trump was firmly in control. “There’s no question that the person making the big decisions is Donald J. Trump,” Gingrich said.
Trump has a general sense of what he wants his administration to look like, say those involved in the transition. One option being discussed is having a less linear, broader structure than the one Barack Obama adopted when he became president. Under that option, multiple deputy chiefs of staff would be used. Among those being discussed for such a role, according to two sources, is Corey Lewandowski, who could become deputy chief of staff for planning. Last week, Lewandowski spent a lot of time in Trump Tower, where he was seen talking to a number of key players.
One of Trump’s possible picks for attorney general, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, stirred controversy when he told Reuters that Trump is considering a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries. Trump previously called for both a Muslim immigration ban and, later, “extreme vetting” of immigrants from regions beset with terrorism.
“Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions,” Trump wrote on Twitter late Tuesday night. “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
On Wednesday, Pence was seen entering the transition team’s official office space at the General Service Administration. According to a senior Pence aide, the vice president-elect has issued a new decree for the transition team: a purge of all lobbyists from an operation that has been filled with them.
The order came only days after Trump himself defended lobbyists’ presence.
“I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist,” Trump said in an interview that aired Sunday on “60 Minutes,” adding, “I’m saying that they know the system right now, but we’re going to phase that out. You have to phase it out.”
Pence’s ascent — and the removal of Christie — has slowed some necessary legal paperwork for the transition. On Tuesday evening, Pence signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the current administration to begin the process of information-sharing between the outgoing and incoming teams. But the Obama administration also needs a code of conduct prohibiting conflicts of interests to begin that process, and for so-called “landing teams” of the incoming Trump team to begin arriving at agencies across Washington.
Sources familiar with the operation said Wednesday that the original Christie-created landing teams are being sidelined, as well, which could further delay matters.
In Washington, D.C., the Trump transition team set a Wednesday afternoon meeting to determine its next steps. In New York, a steady stream of advisers have trickled in to visit with the president-elect, who has largely stepped back from the public spotlight since the election.
As for any imminent appointments, different views were expressed Wednesday.
“Likely,” said Eric Trump as he arrived at Trump Tower.
“I don’t think so,” Sessions said.
Matt Nussbaum and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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