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Trump considers hardliners for top positions, flirts with Republican moderates

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump points at retired general James Mattis, flanked by vice-president-elect Mike Pence, right, during a meeting in Bedminster, N.J., on Saturday.


The top jobs in Donald Trump's administration are continuing to go mainly to foreign-policy hawks and hardliners, even as the U.S. president-elect flirts with more moderate Republican voices, including rival Mitt Romney as a possible secretary of state.

Mr. Trump appeared poised on Sunday to pick James "Mad Dog" Mattis as his defence secretary – a hard-nosed and outspoken retired Marine Corps general who wanted U.S. President Barack Obama to take a much more aggressive stand against Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Mattis left the military in 2013 after heading the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East.

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The Trump transition team is now signalling that Mr. Mattis is its leading candidate to be the front man for a much more muscular U.S. defence posture – one that will include badgering Canada and other allies to share more of the financial load for keeping the world safe.

Read more: Trump wouldn't be the first U.S. president to balance a hawkish team with opposing viewpoints

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Mr. Trump gave Mr. Mattis the thumbs-up on Twitter, calling him "impressive" and a "true General's General."

Reince Priebus, pegged to be Mr. Trump's White House chief of staff, also echoed that endorsement, telling NBC's Meet the Press that it's a "very real possibility" that Mr. Mattis would be named to run the Pentagon.

Mr. Trump may have found a kindred spirit in the quintessential warrior general, on tone, and policy. Mr. Mattis earned his nickname with sharp barbs, urging U.S. Marines in Iraq in 2003, for example, to "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."

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Mr. Mattis, a bachelor and avid reader, has another quality Mr. Trump might appreciate. He rebuffed appeals from disgruntled Republicans to run against Mr. Trump in the presidential primaries.

One of the first jobs for the new defence secretary will be to prod members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to shoulder more of the financial burden of protecting the world from threats.

The apparent choice of Mr. Mattis, who would have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, follows a trio of hardline picks by Mr. Trump last week. On Friday, the president-elect said he will nominate long-time Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to be his attorney-general, Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo as director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and retired U.S. Army lieutenant-general Michael Flynn as White House national-security adviser. All are hardliners on issues such as terrorism, immigration and Iran.

And yet Mr. Trump continues to reach out to more moderate Republicans, most notably Mr. Romney, former frontman for the anybody-but-Trump movement and 2012 Republican presidential candidate. He has called Mr. Trump a "fraud" and a "phony."

But the two were all smiles for the cameras after a lengthy meeting on Saturday – in what was likely an interview for the job of secretary of state. Choosing Mr. Romney as the top U.S. diplomat would reassure opponents at home and abroad, who have fretted about Mr. Trump's angry rhetoric and impulsive behaviour.

"Gov. Romney is under active and serious consideration to serve as secretary of state of the United States," vice-president-elect Mike Pence told CBS's Face the Nation.

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The choice for secretary of state will say a lot about the image of the country Mr. Trump wants to show the world – conciliatory or antagonistic. Picking Mr. Romney, former CIA director David Petraeus or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley would be a relief to many U.S. allies.

But former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a staunch Trump loyalist throughout the campaign, is also making a pitch for the job and would be a more hawkish choice. He has met with Mr. Trump several times, including again Sunday.

Mr. Trump's team is also due to start picking his economic team soon, including treasury secretary, commerce secretary and trade representative.

In a reminder that Trump the President may be a lot like Trump the candidate, the president-elect was busily firing off angry tweets all weekend. He demanded an apology from the cast of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton for harassing Mr. Pence at a performance of the play Friday night. And he once again took aim at NBC's Saturday Night Live and actor Alex Baldwin, who impersonated him in a skit Googling, "What is ISIS?"

"I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?" Mr. Trump said in a Tweet.

After a performance Friday evening, one of Hamilton's stars, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays U.S. vice-president Aaron Burr, read a statement directed at Mr. Pence, who was at the show and the target of boos by some in the audience.

"We, sir – we – are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights," Mr. Dixon said.

Mr. Pence dismissed the incident and said he wasn't offended. Speaking on Fox New Sunday, he said of the boos: "That's what freedom sounds like," adding that Mr. Trump would be the president for all Americans.

Mr. Trump was similarly defiant about his decision last week to pay $25-million (U.S.) to settle a lawsuit over allegations he defrauded students of his Trump University real estate seminars.

"The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!" Mr. Trump said on Twitter. During the campaign, he had vowed to never settle and insisted he hadn't done anything wrong.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More


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