The secretary of state is the star of most every Cabinet, and when President-elect Donald Trump makes his selection he will signal the kind of posture he intends to present to the world.
Or an ideological crusader? A leading candidate is John Bolton, an architect and enabler of the Iraq War that Trump has so often condemned, whose hawkishness and combative nature made him a controversial U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
What about a clean slate, someone who would see the world with fresh eyes and promote Trump’s vision? That’s where Nikki Haley figures in, the governor of South Carolina who lacks traditional foreign policy chops but is regarded as a quick study.
How about a central-casting statesman? Enter Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who led the Republican resistance to Trump’s candidacy and became a well-worn punching bag for him, but who could be a consensus choice and offer reassurance to anxious U.S. allies.
There may also be other contenders for the job, which is fourth in line to the presidency ahead of any other cabinet official. One such prospect, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), has suggested in recent days that he does not have much of a footing.
“We have a president who, let’s face it, approaches things with an exclamation point,” Corker said Thursday on MSNBC. “I think what might be good is someone to complement that and be able to pragmatically go about making things happen.”
For other national security positions, Trump has tapped trusted but controversial loyalists. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has a history of racially charged statements, is his nominee for attorney general, while retired Army lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn, who has come under fire for incendiary remarks about Muslims and a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, will be Trump’s national security adviser.
Whether Trump follows this pattern or takes a different course in choosing his secretary of state, his aides are offering few clues, other than to say that the president-elect is keeping an open mind.
“He’s meeting with some of the best and the brightest and the most qualified people, not only to fill specific roles within the administration but also to give advice and counsel on the policies and structure of how to best put together a team and enact a successful agenda,” transition spokesman Jason Miller said Friday.
Earlier this week, Giuliani and Bolton were described by people close to the transition as the leading candidates.
Giuliani, 72, was Trump’s campaign-trail sidekick, delivering fiery speeches introducing him. Giuliani earned his longtime friend’s admiration by ripping into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with gusto, offering biting critiques of her physical health as well as what he described as her criminal record as secretary of state.
Early on, Giuliani was seen as a shoo-in for a top administration position, and he has openly campaigned for the state department. But news reports this week about Giuliani's extensive global business dealings in his decade-and-a-half out of public office raised red flags, all but ensuring a messy confirmation battle.
Giuliani has made tens of millions of dollars as a consultant and speaker to foreign governments and shadowy international groups — an ironic juxtaposition to Clinton, whom Trump castigated for giving paid speeches and accepting foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has spoken out against Giuliani, as well as Bolton, and signaled that he might filibuster either man’s nomination.
Bolton, 67, supported Trump’s candidacy, in his frequent appearances on Fox News, for which he is a commentator. He also ran an outside super PAC that helped GOP Senate and House candidates. In the last three Republican administrations, Bolton established himself as a hawkish voice on the far right — especially on the Iraq War — and espoused views out of step with Trump’s.
As undersecretary for arms control in George W. Bush’s State Department, Bolton was a close ally of Vice President Richard B. Cheney — so much so that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell came to regard him as Cheney’s mole. When Bush nominated Bolton to be U.N. ambassador, he drew heat in the Senate, forcing the president to install him through a recess appointment.
Romney, by contrast, could be seen by senators as a consensus alternative to the more polarizing Giuliani and Bolton. He plans to meet with Trump on Saturday at the president-elect’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., for what has been billed as a general discussion about the transition. People close to Trump cautioned that he may not necessarily extend a job offer to Romney — and even if he does, it is unclear whether Romney would accept.
Since his presidential campaign, Romney, 69, is said to have thought about serving as secretary of state, going so far as to consider how he might reorganize the notoriously inefficient Foggy Bottom headquarters and reimagine America’s role in the world.
One of the more intriguing prospects is Haley, 44, a Republican star who has left little mark in the foreign-affairs community.
Asked to describe her qualifications and worldview, some experts were at a loss for words. Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president who had been in line to serve as Romney’s secretary of state, joked in an email: “Am in the Canadian arctic viewing polar bears with my wife! Connectivity weak.”
Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, said: “Wow. Wish I could help. I really don’t know about her background in the field and hesitate to speculate.”
Trump allies argued that what Haley lacks in traditional experience she makes up for in other attributes. For one, Trump considers the well-prepared elites who have run the nation’s foreign affairs responsible for what he sees as decades of failure.
“There is a great value in fresh eyes,” said South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who chaired Trump’s primary campaign in the state and would ascend to the governorship should Haley join the Cabinet. “She’s a very quick study, and I think she has a good grip on the points and understands well Mr. Trump’s vision and his goals.”
But Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama, dismissed the notion that a secretary of state with little expertise could succeed.
“Just as you wouldn’t want someone with no training or previous experience to operate on your body, fix your car, or repair your computer, you should not want completely inexperienced people to protect our country and defend our national interests,” McFaul wrote in an email. “Treating these jobs as ones for amateurs is amateurish and dangerous.”
Haley would bring diversity to Trump’s Cabinet. She would make history as the first Indian American secretary of state — and it is not lost on Trump that his candidacy garnered a passionate following among some Indian Americans as well as in India.
Haley led a 10-day state economic development trip to India in 2014, and the governor has taken similar trips to England, France, Germany and Japan.
“There’s a lot of snooty talk about people being unqualified to be secretary of state, but being a governor or an elected politician is actually pretty good preparation for being a diplomat,” said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former Bush national security official who opposed Trump.
Schake added, “At a time in which many people in the United States and outside it are worried about tolerance of not just the Trump administration but the American voters who elected Trump, [Haley] would send a welcoming signal.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that John Bolton's super PAC supported Donald Trump's presidential campaign. It did not, according to Bolton's spokesman. The group focused on Republican Senate and House candidates.