Trump Turns Staid Process Into Spectacle as Aspirants Parade to His Door



BEDMINSTER, N.J. — President-elect Donald J. Trump has turned the vital, but normally inscrutable, process of forming a government into a Trump-branded, made-for-television spectacle, parading his finalists for top administration positions this weekend before reporters and the world.

The two days unfolded like a pageant, with the many would-be officials striding up the circular driveway at Trump National Golf Club here, meeting Mr. Trump below three glass chandeliers at the entrance and shaking hands while facing the cameras. To build suspense, Mr. Trump offered teasing hints about coming announcements.

“I think so,” he said about whether he would make any appointments on Sunday. “I think so. It could very well happen.”

Among the contenders he met with was James N. Mattis, a hard-charging retired Marine Corps general. He appears — according to Mr. Trump’s own words on Twitter — to be the leading candidate for defense secretary.

Outside the club’s three-story farmhouse on Saturday, the president-elect poked a finger in General Mattis’s direction and called him “a great man.” The next morning, at 8:39, Mr. Trump gushed again, this time on Twitter, calling him “very impressive” and saying he was “a true general’s general!”

Perhaps by design, the roster of figures arriving at the club was difficult to pigeonhole: There were loyalists (Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor), former adversaries (Mitt Romney, who once called Mr. Trump a “phony”), Democrats (Michelle A. Rhee, the former schools chief in Washington) and scientists (Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire cancer doctor).

But despite that appearance of diversity, Mr. Trump’s choices so far for national security posts seem to show a preference for older white men with similar hard-line views on immigration, the military and terrorism. Most of the leading candidates for other jobs appear to be white men, as well, including Mr. Giuliani, whose own business activities have faced scrutiny.

If he is nominated as secretary of state, Mr. Giuliani would face questions over his security firm’s ties to the government of Qatar and the speeches he gave to an Iranian exile opposition group that until 2012 was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Asked whether he was concerned about Mr. Giuliani’s business dealings, Mr. Trump said, “No, not at all.”

Mr. Trump, as he used his golf resort as the backdrop for his official activities, gave no indication that he was concerned about news reports over the weekend that he had held meetings last week with three Indian business partners even as he was starting to assemble his administration.

The very public process — CNN trained a camera on the golf club’s wooden front door throughout the day on Sunday — has borne few similarities to attempts by Mr. Trump’s predecessors to project an image of careful, private vetting of cabinet-level hopefuls.

Officials running President Obama’s transition in late 2008 took pains to keep under wraps his plans to select Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, and they orchestrated a secret meeting at the firehouse at Reagan National Airport to discuss keeping Robert M. Gates as defense secretary.

But for Mr. Trump and his aides, many of whom have long rejected the capital’s customs, such traditions are best discarded.

“This has been a year and election cycle where the normal conventions and past history has been challenged,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist whose longtime boss, Mr. Romney, discussed the secretary of state post with Mr. Trump.

Why would the transition and the first few months of the administration be any different?” Mr. Madden said. “Trump does things Trump’s way.”

After each interview, Mr. Trump, dressed in a suit and tie, emerged from the club next to an American flag to see the candidates off to their sport-utility vehicles and once again speak with reporters.

“Tremendous talent — we’re seeing tremendous talent,” Mr. Trump said on Saturday. “People that, as I say, we will ‘make America great again.’ These are really great people. These are really, really talented people.”

By the evening, however, Mr. Trump had announced no appointments, leaving reporters waiting on the cold, gusty day to speculate about Mr. Trump’s brief comments.

“We made a couple of deals,” he said as his weekend of interviews drew to a close.

Mr. Giuliani is apparently in competition with several others for the secretary of state position, including David H. Petraeus, the retired four-star general who served as Mr. Obama’s C.I.A. director before leaving amid revelations that he had provided classified information to a woman with whom he was having an affair.

Mr. Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and one of Mr. Trump’s fiercest critics during the 2016 campaign, met with the president-elect on Saturday. If he becomes secretary of state, he could be a moderating influence on the hard-liners Mr. Trump has chosen for attorney general, national security adviser and C.I.A. director.

“I can say that Governor Romney is under active and serious consideration to serve as secretary of state of the United States,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program.

Mr. Trump’s consideration of General Mattis, who is widely respected throughout the military, could also signal an effort to ease concerns among members of the Washington establishment about the shape of his cabinet.

General Mattis, who led the First Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, later commanded American troops during the hard-fought battle to retake Falluja from Sunni insurgents in 2004. But his argument for a tougher military posture against Iran at times clashed with the views of Mr. Obama and his national security team. General Mattis, who would be the first former ranking general to become defense secretary since George Marshall in the early 1950s, would need a congressional waiver to take office because federal law stipulates that the Pentagon chief be out of uniform for seven years. General Mattis retired from the Marines in 2013.

As Mr. Trump moves to complete his national security team, he may soon turn his attention to domestic affairs. Aides have said members of the transition effort’s economic and domestic policy teams will fan out to meet with agency officials starting on Monday.

Mr. Obama, asked Sunday at a summit meeting in Lima, Peru, about stances Mr. Trump has taken that align with the views of his nascent national security team, said: “I can’t guarantee that the president-elect won’t pursue some of the positions that he’s taken. But what I can guarantee is that reality will force him to adjust how he approaches many of these issues. That’s just the way this office works.”

Mr. Trump also continued his practice of early-morning bursts on Twitter this weekend. Before attending church with Mr. Pence, Mr. Trump condemned the cast of “Hamilton” for its onstage appeal on Friday night to the vice president-elect — who was in the audience — to uphold the rights of a “diverse America.”

“The cast and producers of ‘Hamilton,’ which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior,” Mr. Trump wrote.

In another Twitter post, the president-elect expressed his disapproval of “Saturday Night Live,” calling it a “totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all.” Mr. Trump was portrayed on the show as being overwhelmed by the prospect of being president.

Even as Mr. Trump bemoaned the actions of the cast of “Hamilton,” a smash hit on Broadway, Mr. Pence said on Sunday morning that he was not offended or bothered. In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Pence said he would “leave it to others” to decide whether the theater was an appropriate place for a political message.

“‘Hamilton’ is just an incredible production and just incredibly talented people,” Mr. Pence said. “It was a real joy to be there.”

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