By Niall Stanage
11/23/16 – 06:02 PM EST
Donald Trump won the presidency with an unpredictable approach, and he is sticking with it as he prepares to move into the White House.
Washington’s favorite guessing game since Trump shocked the world by winning the Nov. 8 election has focused on the direction his administration will take.
No one other than the incoming president really knows the answer — and he’s been sending contradictory signals.
Word leaked out in the early hours of Wednesday that Trump would nominate South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to be his ambassador to the United Nations. Haley endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during the GOP presidential primary earlier this year, and has been critical of Trump in the past.
The Haley announcement came less than 24 hours after Trump met with executives and editorial staff from the New York Times for an extensive interview.
In his remarks to the Times, he backed away from a campaign-trail pledge to pursue a prosecution of his election opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; expressed reservations about the waterboarding of suspected terrorists; and acknowledged that there was “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change.
Those hints of comparative moderation strike a stark contrast with a number of very conservative appointments Trump made right off the bat.
Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be his attorney general, controversial former Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist and retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who has made a number of contentious remarks about radical Islam, to be national security advisor.
Somewhere in the middle, ideologically-speaking, was his announcement later on Wednesday that Betsy DeVos would be his nominee as Education Secretary.
DeVos is a vigorous supporter of charter schools and a foe of teachers’ unions but also an erstwhile Trump critic. Jeb Bush, who famously feuded with Trump and whose support for the Common Core educational standards won him criticism from conservatives, hailed her nomination.
Trump aides have painted the overall approach as one in which the president-elect is willing to look outside his circle of loyalists when making key appointments — but where he himself will be setting the tone and direction.
In a conference call with reporters several days ago, transition spokesman Jason Miller insisted that Trump was “not putting together meetings based on political affiliation or whether they supported him in the past.” Instead, Miller suggested, “If you have good ideas about making this country great, the president-elect wants to hear about them.”
But many of the appointments have caused consternation on the left, with many Democrats expressing concern about the Sessions nomination and others — including 10 senators — calling on Trump to rescind the appointment of Bannon.
“His appointments have not been a little right; they are very far right,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “To have appointed Bannon as your senior advisor, to have nominated Sessions as attorney general — these are kinda radical moves.”
Zelizer, who was speaking before the Haley nomination became public, alluded to the prospect of more mainstream choices, including persistent speculation that Trump could nominate 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney as his secretary of State. But that would not alter the president-elect’s overall strategy, Zelizer suggested, which was to cater first to his base.
“Every time he targets his most ardent supporters, he runs the risk of further alienating everyone else,” he said. “But, at least from what we have seen so far, he is willing to take that risk.”
Conservatives see things very differently. Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist and Trump supporter, insisted that the president-elect was simply taking “a very traditional conservative, business approach” to making his appointments, adding that he thought this was “fantastic.”
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