Donald Trump’s transition to power as president kicked into higher gear on Thursday, as transition officials were expected to fan out across federal agencies and Trump prepared for an important meeting with Japan’s prime minister.
The 5 p.m. session with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s first with a foreign leader since the election, has raised questions among some in Washington’s foreign policy community because Trump has apparently not been briefed by the State Department. Officials said Wednesday that the transition team has not reached out to State.
A former State Department official said such a meeting would normally be preceded by numerous briefings from key diplomats, which is considered especially important here because the Japanese are concerned about comments Trump made on the campaign trail. The president-elect repeatedly said that Japan, along with South Korea, should pay more for their defense and that he would make them pay more for hosting U.S. military bases.
“The world does not stop for the transition,’’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely. Trump “would want an intelligence briefing. You’d probably want to get briefed on what’s what happening in the region…so you’d make use of the transition team at the State Department.’’
But Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said Thursday that the session at Trump Tower, which Vice President-elect Mike Pence will attend, will be “much less formal” than in the future because Trump has yet to assume office.
“We are very sensitive to the fact that President Obama is still in office for the next two months, and we won’t be making diplomatic agreements today,’’ said Conway, who also pushed back against media reports that the transition is in disarray.
“In 2000 the country went to Thanksgiving without knowing who the president was,’’ she said, referring to the legal fight following the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Trump is “just loving this role in transition, he’s a transactional guy…he’s at his desk every day, taking the counsel of many different people, taking many different phone calls, going through paperwork and discussing forming his cabinet… He’s really enjoying it,” she said.
The meeting with Abe arose from a phone conversation between the Japanese leader and Trump. When Abe called to congratulate Trump shortly after his victory, he mentioned that he would be passing through New York this week and suggested a meeting. “That would be awesome,” Trump immediately responded, according to people briefed on the conversation.
The two leaders have much to discuss. Trump has vowed to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Abe recently pushed through his parliament. And the president-elect caused jitters in both Japan and South Korea during the campaign by saying both nations were not paying enough for their defense and that he would make them pay more — perhaps even all — of the costs of hosting American military bases.
Since Trump’s victory, the Japanese government has been taking a wait-and-see approach. “Trump said various things during his campaign, but I will not presuppose what he will do as president,” Tomomi Inada, Japan’s defense minister, said late last week. She added, however, that Japan is already paying its fair share toward base costs.
As Trump remained ensconced with close aides in his Manhattan office tower, the pace of the transition appeared to quicken. Offices prepared for Trump’s teams in departments and agencies across the government had remained empty Wednesday. But the White House said that it received paperwork, signed Tuesday evening by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, necessary for the teams to move into the department offices and begin to receive briefings from current officials.
The “landing teams” for the State Department, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council will be announced and begin interacting with the Obama administration Thursday, Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer said late Wednesday. Economic policy landing teams will be announced next week, followed by teams devoted to domestic policy and independent federal agencies.
The transition released a list of 29 presidents and prime ministers with whom it said Trump and Pence have spoken since the election. And transition communications director Jason Miller said that reports of turmoil within the transition following the ouster of several senior team members in recent days came largely from “folks on the outside” and those who feared Trump was preparing to “drain the swamp, as he’s promised.”
Miller declined to speculate on the timing of appointment announcements, saying that “the president-elect is going to get this right” and that names would be put forward when Trump was ready. He also denied reports that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, had been instrumental in purging members of the transition seen as close to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom Pence replaced as the head of the team last week.
Miller said Trump met with several advisers and candidates for administration positions Wednesday, including Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), investor Steve Feinberg, Success Academy Charter Schools chief executive Eva Moskowitz and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). Miller did not elaborate on which people on the list are candidates to join the administration. Price is considered a candidate to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Trump will meet Thursday with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), Florida Gov. Rick Scott, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and retired Gen. Jack Keane, among others, Miller said.
Most attention continued to focus on potential national security picks. Trump campaign surrogates said former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani remained at the top of the rumored list for secretary of state, along with former State Department official John Bolton. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who visited Trump on Tuesday in Manhattan, emerged as a defense secretary candidate, with Trump adviser Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) still high on the list.
Sessions, who has also been mentioned as a possible attorney general, was an early supporter of Trump, and his influence in the transition has been growing.
Sessions’s former staff director of 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, the lawyers said. A white-collar defense attorney at Kirkland & Ellis, Benczkowski previously worked in a number of senior Justice Department jobs.
Farther down the defense list were George W. Bush national security adviser Stephen V. Hadley and former senator James M. Talent (R-Mo.). Frank Gaffney, a far-right conspiracy theorist who was described in some media reports as a Trump transition adviser and possible pick for a national security job, said Wednesday that he had “not been contacted by anyone from the team.” His statement followed one by Miller, the transition communication chief, that Gaffney is “a nice guy, but he’s not part of the transition team” and was not advising it.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was still being mentioned as national security adviser, although some with transition connections said his stock appeared to be falling as others questioned his potential effectiveness in the job. Retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, whose name was also mentioned, is close to Keith Kellogg and Michael Meese, transition team members and former military colleagues.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), mentioned as a possible CIA director after the leading candidate, former chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan, was among those purged early this week, is a transition adviser but is “not interested in a post,” a congressional aide said. Former congressman Pete Hoekstra, also a Michigan Republican and a former committee chairman, said in an interview that he’d told the transition “if they have a role for me, I’d be more than happy to discuss it with them.”
Hoekstra said the Trump team was “going to expand its outreach, absolutely. But they’re going to do it in a methodical way.”
Despite intense media scrutiny and swirling rumors in Washington, Trump’s timetable was still well within the bounds of his immediate predecessors. President Obama did not announce his first Cabinet pick until nearly a month after the 2008 election; he presented his national security team en masse Dec. 1 that year. Confirmation of George W. Bush’s 2000 victory did not come until a Supreme Court decision more than a month after the Nov. 7 election.
Anna Fifield in Tokyo and Phil Rucker, Greg Miller, Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Ellen Nakashima, Elise Viebeck and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.