The secretary of state is historically one of the most high-profile positions in the president’s cabinet. It’s been occupied by names as impressive as Henry Stimson, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, George Shultz, and Colin Powell, to name just a few.
The job competition for secretary of state is always a rough-and-tumble affair, and with President-elect Donald Trump presiding over the interview process, it’s starting to look like another season of “The Apprentice.” The rivalry between former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former governor and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, both of whom seem to want the position, has spilled into the mainstream press, making it look like Trump and his team don’t have control over what’s going on in their own transition headquarters.
As the New York Times wrote last week, the contest between Giuliani and Romney for secretary of state is a microcosm of the 2016 GOP primary, where establishment figures either kept their distance from Trump’s unconventional campaign or openly lobbied Republican donors to oppose his candidacy. The Times’ observation that the fracas in Trump Tower “traces the outlines of the enduring split in the Republican Party between establishment figures…and the grass-roots insurgents” is a poignant one, if only because Mitt Romney is the cleanest of the cookie-cutter establishment figures that the GOP could offer.
But there is something far more important going on here, and it’s more consequential than another intra-party squabble. Without sounding overly dramatic, the leaks over the State position are indirectly putting America’s diplomatic credibility on the line and making what will be an already difficult hike for Trump’s top diplomat even more treacherous. The Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans never miss an opportunity to take advantage of a flat-footed or internally divided United States. And if the stories in the press are true, it’s more than likely that all of these countries are looking at an incoming administration that can’t even agree on what should be straightforward personnel decisions.
When Kellyanne Conway goes on CNN and takes it upon herself to mention how grassroots Trump supporters are strongly opposed to a Romney pick, she contributes to the problem by airing the President-elect’s dirty laundry for the entire world to see. I’m all for transparency in government, but not if that transparency is being exploited as a tool to press one’s personal agenda on key personnel decisions.
What’s the solution? Trump should seriously consider a third alternative to Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, because at this point, he’ll receive a lot of pushback and political heat regardless of which of these two men he nominates. He will also be doing himself a favor internationally by avoiding a pick whose power on behalf of the president world leaders will inevitably question. A secretary of state can’t do the job if his colleagues and counterparts doubt his ability to sell accords or arrangements to the president and his national security team back in Washington.
By opening their mouths and pursuing a childish vendetta against Romney as payback for his blasphemous disloyalty during the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Kellyanne Conway have simultaneously ruined whatever chance that both Romney and Giuliani had in taking over the State Department and hitting the ground running with their foreign colleagues. It’s time for President-elect Trump to nominate someone who can be a consensus pick within his own administration-in-waiting — someone who doesn’t have the baggage that Romney and Giuliani now carry thanks to their big-mouthed supporters.