President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday morning to push back against news coverage describing a chaotic transition to power, saying the process of selecting Cabinet secretaries and working with the Obama administration “is going so smoothly.’’
The Washington Post, however, reported about turbulence in Trump’s transition. But Peter Hoekstra, a Republican former congressman from Michigan, defended Trump in an interview Wednesday, saying the president-elect’s team has “a monumental job to do and a short time to do it.”
“I’m just watching all the sniping coming in. They’re not doing this right. They’re not doing that right,’’ said Hoekstra, a former House Intelligence Committee chairman who is reportedly under consideration for CIA director. “This is what any transition team would do. You start with the people who brought you. I think the Trump team is going to expand its outreach, absolutely. But they’re going to do it in a methodical way.’’
Yet there were further signs Wednesday that power in Trump’s transition effort was consolidating within an ever-smaller group of top Trump loyalists generally not aligned with Republican members of the Washington establishment.
Among them is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a top Trump adviser known for his hard-line views on immigration. His former staff director at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brian Benczkowski, is now helping to manage the Justice Department transition for Trump’s team, according to two prominent Republican lawyers with knowledge of the matter.
Benczkowski replaced Kevin O’Connor, a former U.S. attorney and associate attorney general who had been managing the Justice transition, the lawyers said. A white-collar defense attorney at Kirkland & Ellis, Benczkowski previously worked in a number of senior Justice Department jobs and is a respected lawyer.
His elevation is likely another indication that power has shifted away from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who was recently replaced as transition team head by Vice President-elect Mike Pence and who had been considered an emissary to more mainstream Republicans.
Benczkowski declined to comment.
The new developments came as Sessions himself emerged as a top candidate for defense secretary, along with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Both would bring hawkish views and military experience, but neither has executive experience running a massive bureaucracy such as the Pentagon.
Trump was also visited Wednesday by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, emerged from a meeting with the president-elect, saying he told Trump that “so many New Yorkers are fearful” of what he plans to do as president.
De Blasio, a liberal Democrat, has clashed with Trump in the past. And like mayors in many of the nation’s major cities with diverse cultures, he has said New York City authorities would not assist federal immigration officials, providing sanctuary to immigrants fearing deportation.
Despite such differences, De Blasio said the hour-long session was “respectful” and added that Trump “loves this city.’’
On his Twitter account, Trump took particular aim at a favorite target, the New York Times, which reported Wednesday that the transition has been marked by firings and infighting, and that U.S. allies were having trouble reaching Trump at New York’s Trump Tower as he plans his government.
“The failing @nytimes story is so totally wrong on transition. . . . I have received and taken calls from many foreign leaders,’’ Trump wrote in a series of posts on the microblogging site. He also denied reports that his transition team has sought security clearances for his children.
In his tweets, Trump falsely implies the Times reported that he had not spoken with foreign leaders and never points out exactly what the Times had in error. The Times did report that American allies were “blindly dialing in to Trump Tower” in an attempt to reach the president-elect and that key members of the transition team had been fired. The paper reported that even key U.S. allies such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Theresa May had been patched through to Trump “with little warning,” citing a Western diplomat.
Later in the day, the transition team released a list of foreign leaders that Trump and Pence have spoked with.
The reported bloodletting in Trump’s transition team that began with last week’s ouster of Christie had escalated Tuesday with new departures, particularly in the area of national security.
Former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) announced that he had left his position as the transition’s senior national security adviser. Rogers, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the leading candidate for CIA director, was among at least four transition officials purged this week, apparently because of perceived connections to Christie.
As turbulence within the team grew, some key members of Trump’s party began to question his views and the remaining candidates for top positions. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Trump’s efforts to work more closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin amounted to “complicity in [the] butchery of the Syrian people” and “an unacceptable price for a great nation.”
Trump met Tuesday with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who replaced Christie at the head of the transition Friday, to discuss Cabinet and White House personnel choices. Little to no information was released by the transition office, leaving a clutch of reporters gathered in the lobby of Trump Tower to hustle after team members passing between the front doors and the elevators.
Trump posted a message Tuesday night on Twitter saying that a “very organized process [is] taking place” as he decides on Cabinet and other positions. “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
As he had during the campaign, Trump appeared to be increasingly uncomfortable with outsiders and suspicious of those considered part of what one insider called the “bicoastal elite,” who are perceived as trying to “insinuate” themselves into positions of power.
Those in the inner circle reportedly were winnowed to loyalists who had stuck with Trump throughout the campaign and helped devise his winning strategy. They include Sessions, former Breitbart News head Stephen K. Bannon, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and members of Trump’s family, including son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“This is a very insular, pretty closely held circle of people,” said Philip D. Zelikow, a former director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and a senior figure in the George W. Bush transition. “Confusion is the norm” for transitions, he said, “but there are some unusual features here, because they’re trying to make some statements.”
“They feel like their election was a lot of the American people wanting to throw a brick through a window,” Zelikow said. “They want to make appointments that make it sound like glass is being broken.”
Increasingly, among the shards are more mainline Republicans in the national security field. In an angry Twitter post Tuesday, Eliot A. Cohen, a leading voice of opposition to Trump during the campaign who had advised those interested in administration jobs to take them, abruptly changed his mind, saying the transition “will be ugly.”
After responding to a transition insider seeking names of possible appointees, Cohen said, he received what he described as an “unhinged” email from the same person saying “YOU LOST” and accusing Trump critics of trying to infiltrate the administration’s ranks.
“It became clear to me that they view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls, instead of the sense that actually what you’re trying to do is recruit the best possible talent to fill the most important, demanding, lowest-paying executive jobs in the world,” Cohen said.
Rogers’s departure coincided with word from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose possible selection as secretary of state comforted more mainline Republicans, that he was unlikely to be chosen. “Has my name been in the mix? I’m pretty sure, yeah. Have I been having intimate conversations? No,” Corker said in an interview. “Do I understand that it’s likely that people who’ve been involved in the center of this for some time, and have been surrogating on television, are likely front-runners? I would say that’s likely, yes.”
The two people whose names are mentioned most often for the diplomatic job — former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and John R. Bolton, an undersecretary of state and one-year ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration — are Trump loyalists. But both could be problematic, even among Republicans who would have to confirm them.
Giuliani, thought to be an early choice for attorney general, was said by a person close to the transition team to have personally appealed to Trump for the diplomatic job. He has virtually no diplomatic experience or knowledge of the State Department bureaucracy.
Bolton, a national security hawk who got his U.N. job through a recess appointment after the Senate refused to confirm him, was a leading advocate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, contradicting Trump’s campaign position opposing it.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that Bolton would be a “disaster” and that he would actively oppose his nomination.
Others were more supportive. “If he picks John Bolton, then I’ll support John Bolton. If he picks Rudy, I’ll support Rudy,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
The shortlist for defense secretary is said to include Sessions, Flynn and Cotton. Although Sessions serves on the Armed Services Committee, his main issue there has been immigration. Cotton is a Harvard Law School graduate who just seven years ago was a first lieutenant in the Army.
Senate confirmation of Flynn, who also has voiced interest in serving as director of national intelligence, could be difficult, said the person close to the transition team. He was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency after two years over concerns about his leadership, and he has potentially problematic connections to foreign governments.
Flynn has admitted that he accepted money for appearing at a lavish gala with Putin in Moscow last year. He recently criticized the Obama administration’s treatment of Turkey in an opinion column, without disclosing to the Trump campaign that his consulting firm has financial ties to that country, said the person close to the transition, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Another possible barrier for Flynn, who retired as a three-star general after leaving the DIA in 2014, is the statutory requirement that the defense secretary be at least seven years removed from active duty.
Flynn has told members of the transition team that getting a waiver to this requirement would be “no big deal,” said the person involved with the team. But that assertion has been met with at least some internal skepticism, including from Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who asked at meetings whether such a waiver “has ever been done before.” The Senate waived the provision, part of the 1947 National Security Act, when President Harry S. Truman appointed retired Gen. George C. Marshall to the post in 1950.
The person with ties to the transition said support for Flynn has waned as it has become evident that “he has some confirmation-type problems.”
But Flynn’s influence in the transition remains high, and several sources on the transition team or with ties to Christie said Flynn and Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, had seized control of the national security posts in the new administration and engineered the purges in what they described as a troubling episode of political score-settling.
Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean Sr. (R), a longtime mentor to Christie, said in an interview that Kushner was widely considered unhappy with Christie’s handling of the transition. There was “some shock” within Christie’s circle at their abrupt dismissal from the transition ranks, Kean said.
Tensions between Christie and Kushner date back more than a decade. In 2005, Christie, then the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, led the successful prosecution of Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, a prominent real estate developer and philanthropist, who was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and witness tampering.
Christie also has been beset by scandal of his own making. After a month-long trial that put his gubernatorial administration in a negative light, two of his former top aides were found guilty Nov. 4 for their roles in disruptive 2013 lane closures on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.
In addition, Christie is believed by some Trump intimates to have been insufficiently loyal in the final weeks of the campaign.
Those who have been ousted along with or following Christie include Richard H. Bagger, a former Christie chief of staff who had been executive director of the transition, and William J. Palatucci, a New Jersey Republican who served as the transition team’s general counsel. Most recent departures, a transition official said, include Kevin O’Connor, a former Justice Department official who was in charge of that agency in the transition.
The New York Times also reported the exit of Matthew Freedman, a protege of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who headed the National Security Council transition team. Earlier, Freedman privately told associates that the Trump team would be “very punitive” toward Republicans who signed letters opposing him during the campaign and was looking to put “true loyalists” in top jobs.
None responded to repeated efforts to contact them.
The person close to the transition team said it was made clear to Rogers when he received a call from Trump adviser Rick Dearborn that he was being moved aside because of connections to Christie.
In an interview after announcing his departure from the team, Rogers said: “I still want them to be successful. I want them to be able to get a handle on the national security infrastructure of the United States and get it in the right direction. I still think it can happen.”
Ellen Nakashima, Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, Missy Ryan, Adam Entous and Julie Tate contributed to this report.