Suspense builds over Trump secretary of state search

Donald Trump on Monday spent another day sequestered in cabinet-building talks as international suspense grew over who he will pick for secretary of state having already defied diplomatic protocol and provoked China.

The president-elect has so far named 12 members of his team — chiefly defense, health, treasury and commerce secretaries, attorney general, CIA director and ambassador to the United Nations — rolling out appointments well ahead of schedule compared to previous incoming US administrations.

He spends most of his time shut away in Trump Tower, his Manhattan skyscraper, requiring an unprecedented police presence in the heart of the city for which New York on Monday sent the US government a bill for $35 million.

Vice president-elect Mike Pence told reporters that Monday’s meetings had resulted in decisions that would be made public in the days ahead.

“Another productive day on the transition,” he said. “Looking forward to more announcements later this week and historic momentum of this transition will continue. We had decisions today that will be made public in the days ahead.”

The world is keenly awaiting what will be Trump’s most prestigious appointment — America’s next top diplomat — scrutinizing the process for clues as to the direction US policy will take after the Republican is sworn in on January 20.

Names bandied about for weeks include former Trump critic Mitt Romney, onetime CIA director David Petraeus, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker or even former UN ambassador John Bolton.

Now added to a growing list of reported names are some with less experience, some with top drawer credentials and others thought to more closely represent Trump’s vision of an “America first” policy.

Among them are Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Trump meets Tuesday, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who agrees with Trump’s call for closer ties with Russia.

Retired admiral James Stavridis, former NATO commander and current dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, is also scheduled to meet the 70-year-old billionaire Thursday at the request of the transition team.

– Provocative tweets –

Emphasizing the uncertainty, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry warned in Germany that “anxieties” are sweeping Western democracies given Trump’s campaign vows to rip up pacts such as the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump’s latest appointment was that of former rival and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development on Monday. The transition said additional cabinet selections are likely this week.

Trump has sent mixed signals to China, America’s largest trading partner. Beijing has already protested to Washington after Trump took a phone call with the president of Taiwan — the first such call in around four decades.

The defiant president-elect followed up with a series of provocative tweets directed at Beijing on Sunday, accusing China of expansionism and of fiddling the exchange rate.

But China’s response to the tweet storm was muted, suggesting that Beijing may still be scrambling to work out what the outburst could mean for US relations.

On Tuesday, Trump is scheduled to meet Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has close ties to China’s president and is reportedly a candidate to become ambassador to Beijing.

China regards self-ruling Taiwan as part of its own territory awaiting reunification under Beijing’s rule, and any US move implying support for the island’s independence is gravely offensive to Beijing.

– Taiwan ‘leverage’ –

The Washington Post reported that the protocol-breaking telephone call was months in the planning and showed that the Trump team is urging a tough opening line with China, quoting people involved in or briefed on the talks.

Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, told The New York Times that Trump was likely to see Taiwan as a “useful leverage point” with China.

Asked about the call, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it had been “hard to determine” what Trump’s purpose had been.

In New York on Monday, the incoming Republican president met his most high-profile Democrat to date since the election: former Bill Clinton vice president turned environmental campaigner Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

“It was a sincere search for areas of common ground,” Gore told reporters in the latest sign that the president-elect might rethink his hardline campaign promises on the environment.

“I found it an extremely interesting conversation and to be continued,” Gore added, calling the meeting “lengthy and very productive.”

Trump first suggested he might be willing to support global accords on climate change last month, telling The New York Times he had “an open mind” after repeatedly promising to tear up international climate agreements.

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