National security adviser Mike Rogers leaves as talks at Trump Tower continue amid uncertainty over role of president-elect’s children.
Donald Trump’s transition to the White House appeared to be in disarray on Tuesday after the abrupt departure of a top national security adviser and amid continuing questions over the role of his three children and son-in-law.
Former Republican congressman Mike Rogers stepped down from the president-elect’s transition team without explanation, but one report attributed it to a “Stalinesque purge”.
A week after his election, Trump and Vice-President-elect Mike Pence were huddled at Trump Tower in New York to work on key appointments as the US Senate was due to resume business in a still shellshocked Washington.
Rogers chaired the House intelligence committee and is a former army officer and FBI special agent. He said he was proud of the work his team had done to produce policy and personnel guidance “on the complex national security challenges facing our great country”.
The departure offered the latest clue that the transition is going to be every bit as bumpy as feared. Last week the president-elect ditched the head of the team, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who is mired in political scandal, and replaced him with Pence.
NBC News quoted a source as saying Rogers was the victim of a “Stalinesque purge” of people close to Christie. “Two sources close to the situation described an atmosphere of sniping and backbiting as Trump loyalists position themselves for key jobs,” the network reported.
Some Republicans who previously ostracised Trump are returning to the fold but not always with success. Eliot Cohen, a senior state department official under George W Bush, launched a stinging attack on the transition effort. He tweeted:
“After exchange [with] Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.”
A few days ago, Cohen had encouraged the suspicious Republican foreign policy establishment to rally around the president-elect.
Adding to the sense of chaos, both the state department and Pentagon said they were yet to hear from the incoming administration, while rumours swirled over whether Trump’s children – Donald Jr, Eric, and Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner – would seek top security clearances. Kushner was said to have been instrumental in the departures of Christie and Rogers.
Barack Obama told reporters at the White House on Monday that he believed Trump was a pragmatist, not an ideologue, and reiterated his commitment to a smooth handover. But the Associated Press reported that coordination between Trump’s transition team and White House staff is on hold until Trump’s team signs a memorandum of understanding.
Speculation over cabinet appointments intensified on Tuesday. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and former Republican candidate for president tipped to be health secretary, has dropped out of the running. “I want to have the freedom to work on many issues and not be pigeonholed into one particular area,” Carson, who is Trump’s most prominent African American supporter, told the Washington Post.
The New York Times reported that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, an old friend of Trump, is the frontrunner for the prize job of secretary of state. He has no foreign policy experience beyond strong advocacy for the war on terror following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, which gave him global prominence.
But the political action committee Correct the Record argued that Giuliani, 72, had a “long history of business ties to enemies of America”. He was reportedly paid to advocate on behalf of an Iranian dissident group while it was listed by the state department as a foreign terrorist organisation and worked for a law firm whose clients included Saddam Hussein, terrorist Abu Nidal and an oil company controlled by the then Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. All these are potential red flags if he goes before the Senate for confirmation.
Trump’s children will take over the running of his business while he is in the White House, raising the prospect of a conflict of interest. Responding to claims that they are already exploiting his new status for commercial ends, the former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted: “Free advice: Stop it. Don’t do this. The presidency is bigger than the family business. Just stop it.”
Trump, a tycoon, reality TV star and political novice, has a long history of pitting rivals against one another, both in business and during his election campaign. He has appointed Steve Bannon as chief strategist and Reince Priebus as chief of staff, an unprecedented arrangement that threatens to create competing centers of power.
The inclusion of Bannon, executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News, provoked a furious backlash from progressives. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, said: “There must be no sugarcoating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration.”
Departing US Senate minority leader Harry Reid on Tuesday called on the president to rescind Bannon’s appointment, which he said has only “deepened” the country’s divisions since the election.
“By placing a champion of white supremacists a step away from the Oval Office, what message does Trump send to the young girl who woke up Wednesday morning in Rhode Island afraid to be a woman of color in America?” Reid said, speaking on the Senate floor.
Reid had previously lashed out at the businessman in a powerful statement last week that referred to the president-elect as “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate”.
In response to his criticism, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager and current transition team adviser, appeared to threaten legal action against Reid and warned that the Democrat should be “very careful” in his criticism of the president-elect.
But on Tuesday Paul Ryan, the House speaker who is attempting to overcome past disagreements with Trump, refused to condemn the appointment. “The president is going to be judged on his results,” he told reporters. “[Bannon] is a person who helped him win an incredible victory and an incredible campaign.
Ryan promised that Trump and a unified Republican Congress would mean that “a better way, better days lie ahead for our country”. He pledged to work “hand in glove” with the incoming administration.
The House speaker was on course to be re-elected by Republicans on Tuesday afternoon but House Democrats postponed leadership elections that had been scheduled for Thursday until 30 November amid signs of discontent with Pelosi.
Ongoing vote counts show Democrat Hillary Clinton pulling away from Trump in the popular vote, although he won the electoral college vote. Trump tweeted on Tuesday: “If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y., Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily.”
Despite previously labelling the electoral college a “disaster”, he tweeted that it was “actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!”