President-elect Donald Trump is broadening the field of candidates for secretary of state as his transition team remains divided nearly a month after the election over how to fill the most prominent gap in his prospective Cabinet.
Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Trump, told reporters Sunday that the search had expanded beyond the four men thought to be under consideration and that Trump planned to interview additional candidates early this week.
Those new candidates appeared to include John R. Bolton, an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush; Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah governor and ambassador to China under President Barack Obama; and Rex W. Tillerson, president and chief executive of Exxon Mobil.
Asked about the search on the ABC program “This Week,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence mentioned Bolton as a potential candidate and said others could be added to the list. Bolton met with Trump for about an hour on Friday and Tillerson is set to meet with Trump on Tuesday, according to two people briefed on the meetings.
Despite their differences over the Iraq War, which Bolton ardently supported, Trump said during the campaign that he turned to Bolton for military advice and called him “a tough cookie.”
The transition team had previously signaled that the group under consideration had narrowed to four men: Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee; Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York and a close ally of Trump; Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; and David H. Petraeus, retired general and director of the CIA under Obama.
Some of those candidates may be brought back in for further interviews, the people briefed on the meetings said. An announcement of a selection for the post is not expected for at least several more days.
In an audition of sorts, Petraeus appeared on “This Week” to highlight his foreign policy experience in the military and his work abroad in the private sector. He also sought to put behind him a potentially significant hurdle to his candidacy: his mishandling of classified material while he was a top general. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in 2015 and was forced to resign as CIA director.
“Five years ago, I made a serious mistake,” Petraeus said. “I acknowledged it. I apologized for it. I paid a very heavy price for it, and I’ve learned from it.” But he added that it was up to others to “determine whether that is indeed disqualifying or not.”
The wrangling over who should be America’s top diplomat comes as Trump’s team continues to face questions about his protocol-shattering phone conversation with the president of Taiwan last week, which angered China and rattled other Asian nations. Bolton advocates closer ties with Taiwan as a means of putting pressure on China, arguing that Beijing’s growing power in the region should be checked.
Trump’s advisers are battling, at times publicly, over whether he should choose from among his campaign loyalists or go outside that circle, a move that could alienate base voters who were angry at the Republican establishment. Much of that wrangling has centered on Romney, who was among Trump’s fiercest critics during the campaign.
Trump has told aides that he believes Romney would “look the part” as the face of U.S. outreach to the world and would make a fine secretary of state.
But Conway, who has been openly critical of Romney, continued to attack him during a “Fox News Sunday” appearance, saying that the backlash to his candidacy among Trump’s core supporters had been “breathtaking.”
Asked if her criticism of him was appropriate, she said, “I would turn the question around and ask, was it appropriate for Governor Romney to stick his neck out so far in attacking Donald Trump, and never walking it back, never encouraging people to support the nominee once Mr. Trump had won the nomination squarely and fairly.”
Conway, answering questions from reporters about the expanded search as she entered Trump Tower in New York on Sunday, said the transition team had been happily surprised by the number of wealthy businesspeople who had come forward to express interest. Trump, who was lifted to victory in the election in large part by the support of white working-class voters, has faced criticism over his appointment of several ultrawealthy people to top posts.
“There are a number of people that we may not have thought wanted to leave their very lucrative private industry positions to go and serve the government,” Conway said. “It’s exciting, frankly, to at least get their counsel.”
Another person who will meet this week with Trump is James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral whose name was floated as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton. It was unclear if he was being considered for a specific position.
Despite the very public back-and-forth over the secretary of state appointment, Trump remains well ahead of the pace set by most of his predecessors in naming members of his Cabinet. In addition to meetings this week, he is scheduled to travel at least twice, to Fayetteville, North Carolina, and to Des Moines, on his “thank you” tour.
Petraeus spoke on the ABC program from the sideline of a conference in Germany, greeting the host, George Stephanopoulos, with a “guten tag” before beginning the interview.
The retired general praised Trump as “actually quite pragmatic.” He appeared careful not to contradict Trump on a range of his foreign policy priorities, including building a border wall between the United States and Mexico, potentially working with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, and discarding the Iran nuclear accord.
“In our conversation, what I enjoyed, most frankly, was the discussion of issues, or, say, campaign rhetoric, if you will, and then placing that in a strategic context,” Petraeus said.
Before he appeared on the show, Petraeus seemed to get a lift from Pence, who dismissed concerns about Petraeus’ mishandling of classified material, in which he gave secret materials to a biographer with whom he was having an affair. Pence called Petraeus an “American hero” and said Trump would consider him based on “the totality” of his career.
“Look, he made mistakes, and he paid the consequences for those mistakes,” Pence said.