Suspense builds over Trump secretary of state search

NEW YORK CITY, USA – Donald Trump on Monday, December 5, spent another day locked 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.

But the world is keenly awaiting what will be his 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 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 the new names are Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Trump meets Tuesday, December 6, Barack Obama's former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, and California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who on Monday emphasized his agreement 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, December 8, at the request of the transition.

Emphasizing the uncertainty, outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry warned in Germany on Monday that "anxieties" are sweeping Western democracies and stressed the need for strong transatlantic ties.

The populist tycoon has vowed to rip up key diplomatic achievements reached under Kerry – from the Iran nuclear deal to a Pacific rim trade pact.

Provocative tweets

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 several additional cabinet selections are likely this week.

Also on Trump's schedule Tuesday is Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has close ties to China's president and is reportedly a candidate to become ambassador to Beijing.

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, December 4, 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.

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.

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.

Taiwan 'leverage'

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, 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.

Trump also told the Times that he thought there was "some connectivity" between human activity and climate change.

"Some, something. It depends on how much," he said, adding that he remained concerned about how much green measures would "cost our companies." –