Trump's Search for America's Next Top Diplomat

Trump's Search for America's Next Top Diplomat
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Dining with a former enemy. Public, orchestrated infighting. The testing of loyalties. The potential for traps. 

Donald Trump’s search for his secretary of state offers the drama, intrigue, and rigmarole of a reality television program. Call it “America’s Next Top Diplomat.” It’s a show the rest of the world is watching closely, as the winner will have the extraordinary task of representing a president who suggests he'll deviate from conventional American foreign policy and shuffle global alliances.

The theatrics emphasize the challenge facing the next chief foreign affairs officer in what figures to be an unconventional and, at times, chaotic administration. This week, Trump auditioned Mitt Romney over dinner after the president-elect's own top advisers and allies excoriated the 2012 GOP nominee on air. Trump stirred additional controversy by taking to Twitter to vent about flag burning, all while questions loom over potential conflicts of interest regarding his business empire and the presidency. 

While the secretary of state post is often viewed as the most coveted Cabinet position, Trump’s pick must accept the incoming president's worldview while also hoping, perhaps desperately, to wield some influence over it. Secretaries’ legacies are often defined by the presidents they serve.

“How a secretary can bridge that gap between foreign service that is cautious and deliberate and incremental -- and a president who is disruptive and often unpredictable -- is going to be quite a challenge,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The president-elect has narrowed his selection to four candidates, his transition team has said. Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump devotee, are confirmed to be in the running. Other prospects may include retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly. All have visited Trump Tower this week. 

In a secretary of state, Trump is looking for “someone who both shares his worldview, someone who he has a good chemistry with, and someone who he thinks can do a very good job representing the country on the world stage,” said Stephen Miller, spokesman for the presidential transition team. Trump and Romney are “in the process of getting to know each other,” he added.

Adding to the suspense, Trump does not intend to announce his selection before the weekend.

Romney has been the most public figure in this process, but it is unclear whether Trump genuinely favors him for the post or simply relishes the opportunity to watch the man who once called him a phony kneel at his feet.

The president-elect believes Romney looks the part of a diplomat, according to reports. And Romney’s resume suggests he's qualified to handle a massive institution like the State Department: He was the GOP presidential nominee, served as governor of Massachusetts, turned around the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics as its CEO, ran Bain Capital, and served as a Mormon missionary. Romney is often described as a patriot, capable of burying hatchets for the good of the country. An appointment to the top Cabinet position would also serve as a bit of redemption after losing the White House race four years ago and watching Trump win it in November.

But the two men have differing views of the world, particularly on a top foreign policy challenge. For example, Romney described Russia as the No. 1 geopolitical threat when he ran for president in 2012. Trump sees Russia as a potential ally, particularly when it comes to fighting the Islamic State.

“I’m afraid that when it comes to foreign policy he is very, very not smart,” Romney said in March during a speech criticizing Trump. “His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.” 

With Trump, “the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished,” he added.  

Unlike other Republicans who lambasted their party’s nominee, Romney never came around to Trump through the course of the election. The fact that he and Trump agreed to meet at the president-elect’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J., last month was startling. Their second meeting, at the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in Manhattan Tuesday night, was even more intriguing. But perhaps most jarring was Romney’s assessment of his time spent with Trump. 

“It's not easy winning. I know that myself. He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in,” Romney told reporters Tuesday evening, after his dinner with Trump. “He won the general election and he continues with a message of inclusion and bringing people together, and his vision is something which obviously connected with the American people in a very powerful way.” 

Romney has not publicly apologized to Trump for opposing him so vehemently. But his admission of his own failures and Trump’s success likely pleased the president-elect more. Trump could pass Romney over in favor of a more loyal ally and still argue that he cast a wide net in his search and forgave old rivalries.

Such an outcome, of course, would serve as a significant embarrassment for Romney. But some of Trump’s key allies are gunning for it. “You have never, ever, in your career seen a wealthy adult who is independent, has been a presidential candidate, suck up at the rate that Mitt Romney is sucking up,” Newt Gingrich told radio host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday. “Every day they let this thing hang out there it becomes harder and more expensive to pick Romney.”

Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway spoke openly of opposition to Romney during television interviews over the past several days -- behavior that is unprecedented but condoned by Trump.  

The concerns, though, are considerable.

"You can’t have a secretary of state who would wink at our partners and say, ‘Don't worry about that -- he's just saying that,’’’ said Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush. “The secretary of state has to whole-heartedly and intellectually support the policies of the boss. ... It gives me pause to think [Romney] would be comfortable doing that."

Meanwhile, the other contenders are continuing to make their respective cases, emphasizing the importance of unity when it comes to policy.

“This is a decision that he needs to make. The secretary of state's role is so important to a president,” Sen. Corker told reporters after meeting with Trump on Tuesday. “He needs to choose someone that he's very comfortable with and he knows that there's going to be no daylight between him and them. He needs to know that the secretary of state is someone who speaks fully for the president."

Corker was considered as a possible vice presidential choice earlier this year and had campaigned for Trump. “His instincts on foreign policy are obviously very, very good,” the Tennessee Republican said of the president-elect. The eventual nominee will have to pass through the foreign relations committee, which Corker heads.

Other contenders might have trouble getting confirmed. Giuliani wants the position, and he and others close to Trump figure his loyalty and counsel should be rewarded. While he led his city through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ran for president, Giuliani’s experience is largely limited to local government. His temperament has come under scrutiny, as have his business ties abroad and paid speeches, including one to a group once considered by the State Department to be a foreign terrorist organization, according to the New York Times.   

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has already expressed opposition to Giuliani and to former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence in Washington on Wednesday, for advocating for the Iraq War.

Petraeus would likely face a similar uphill battle. The former CIA director was fined and sentenced to two years’ probation after sharing classified information with a woman with whom he was having an affair and then lying to the FBI about it. While Petraeus has vast foreign policy and military experience, his nomination could appear hypocritical coming from Trump, who as a presidential candidate pledged to jail Hillary Clinton for having classified information on a private server while secretary of state.

There is also a concern that if Petraeus wins the nod, there would be too many former generals in the Cabinet, particularly if Trump picks James Mattis for defense secretary. “I think that is probably too much military influence in the decision-making process,” former defense secretary Bob Gates told CBS.

As with many of Trump’s meetings, it is unclear which guests he is considering for Cabinet posts and which he simply wants to ask for advice. He does not have foreign policy experience and lacks the traditional relationships with the intelligence and security communities others in his position would typically have. Dozens of Republican national security experts and former secretaries of state opposed his campaign, deeming him unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.

In a hacked email, former Secretary of State Colin Powell called Trump “a national disgrace and an international pariah.” Condoleezza Rice, who also served under George W. Bush in that role, urged Trump to step down as a candidate in October after the “Access Hollywood” recording captured him making crude and sexually aggressive remarks. “I hope to support someone who has the dignity and stature to run for the highest office in the greatest democracy on earth,” she wrote at the time. 

Rice met with Pence at the transition office in Washington on Wednesday. Trump also met with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after winning the election.

Experts acknowledge that administrations have internal differences, particularly when it comes to foreign and defense policy. Ballooning rivalries, however, become a problem. Additional challenges loom in the unknown. 

“The key thing to learn is that the new secretary of state is not only going to have to deal with what we know about, but also what we don't know about, and in a bureaucracy he or she hasn't worked with in the past,” said Alterman. “[It is] a set of challenges that are new and unique in some way -- and how that all plays out is not predictable.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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