President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday selected two prominent Republican women for Cabinet-level positions, adding diversity to an inner circle that was already coming under fire for being composed mostly of white men.
In a potentially controversial choice, Trump intends to nominate billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos for education secretary, turning to a conservative activist who has forcefully pushed for private school voucher programs. Her nomination is expected to face strong opposition from public school advocates, who oppose her efforts to funnel taxpayer dollars from public to private and religious schools.
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“Betsy DeVos is a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” Trump said in a statement. “Under her leadership we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.”
Hours earlier, Trump had announced that he will fill the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations slot with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising Republican star and daughter of Indian immigrants who has virtually no foreign policy experience.
Haley’s nomination marked Trump’s first female appointment to a Cabinet-level post after his initial selections, such as attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions and incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, had been older white men.
Though Trump was elected with strong support from white working-class voters, people familiar with the president-elect’s thinking said he wanted to announce both women’s appointments before Thanksgiving to show that his Cabinet will be diverse. The decision to nominate DeVos, who met with Trump last weekend, was made in the past 48 hours, the people said. They added that DeVos benefited from strong support in the conservative movement and among conservative political donors.
But DeVos immediately drew scathing opposition from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. “By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities,’’ NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement. “She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.’’
DeVos tweeted that she is “honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again. The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”
DeVos — whose husband, Dick DeVos Jr., is an heir to the Amway direct-sale fortune — is a Michigan power broker and major donor to conservative causes and candidates around the country. Her brother is Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, one of the most profitable private security contractors during the Iraq War.
DeVos and her family supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the GOP presidential primaries, and she was never an enthusiastic supporter of Trump. “I still have reservations about him as a person,” she told The Washington Post in July at the Republican National Convention, which she attended as a Michigan delegate.
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She has been closer to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana pushed to expand that state’s voucher program into the nation’s largest. She also has close ties to many Republicans in Washington, and her nomination was greeted with enthusiasm by GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee and frequent critic of what he viewed as the Obama administration’s federal overreach on education, called her “an excellent choice.”
But others said her nomination heralded an intent by the Trump administration to dismantle the nation’s public schools by draining them of students and resources.
“Betsy DeVos is everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America: an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system and push a special-interest agenda that is opposed by the majority of voters,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn — executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that has long raised concerns about funneling tax dollars to religious schools — called her nomination “an insult to public education.”
Haley, also a former Trump critic, is generally considered a mainstream Republican, with views on military and national security matters that fall within the GOP’s hawkish mainstream.
“Governor Haley has a proven track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation to move critical policies forward for the betterment of her state and our country,” Trump said in a statement. “She will be a great leader representing us on the world stage.”
Haley, who has accepted the offer, said she is “honored that the president-elect has asked me to join his team and serve the country we love.’’
Her words represented a sharp departure from the campaign, during which she also initially backed Rubio for the GOP nomination and lambasted Trump as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.”
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Trump is considering another prominent former rival and mainstream Republican, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, for secretary of state, though some Trump advisers are reportedly pushing back against that and backing other candidates, such as former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Haley’s selection, also seen as an effort to reach out to establishment Republicans unsettled by Trump’s surprise victory, came amid indications that he was slowing down transition planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family. The president-elect flew Tuesday night to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, where he will spend the holiday and weekend.
Trump aides declined to provide details of his schedule over the next few days, saying in a conference call that Trump’s family prefers keeping the holiday private. The aides said Trump planned to announce another Cabinet-level nominee later Wednesday but would not elaborate.
One possibility is another former Trump rival, Ben Carson, who could be named secretary of housing and urban development. Carson tweeted Wednesday that “an announcement is forthcoming about my role in helping to make America great again,’’ though he declined to be more specific. Trump had tweeted Tuesday that he is “seriously considering” Carson for the HUD post.
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Carson, who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination before backing him, told Fox News: “It certainly is something that has been a long-term interest of mine, and I’ll be thinking and praying about it seriously over the holiday.”
Haley, 44, who is serving her second term as governor, has worked on trade and labor issues and traveled abroad as governor, including to Europe. She is considered a novice in international affairs, but her home state senator, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), appeared to be trying to buck up her foreign policy bona fides in a statement praising Haley on Wednesday.
“As Governor of South Carolina she has recruited and dealt with some of the largest international business firms in the world. Her husband was a member of the South Carolina National Guard who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan,” Graham said. “Governor Haley and her family fully understand what is at stake in the war against radical Islam. I know she will be a valuable ally to President-elect Trump.”
Haley, who met with Trump Thursday at Manhattan’s Trump Tower, grew up in a small South Carolina town and was elected governor in 2010 as a tea party reformer. But she has since been viewed as part of the GOP establishment.
Haley is championed by party officials as a bright young leader — and she has called herself one of the those fit for a “Benetton commercial.” Yet she rarely if ever challenges the deeply conservative policy doctrines that have dominated the GOP for decades.
Business-friendly and establishment-friendly in recent years, she is a former state lawmaker who railed against cozy business relationships within government and did not always click with her party’s leadership.
Her breakout moment on the national stage came with her widely praised handling of last year’s slaying of a prominent minister and eight parishioners at a historic African American church in Charleston. Haley choked back tears at a news conference, saying the “heart and soul of South Carolina was broken.’’
She was at the forefront of the subsequent debate over whether the Confederate flag should still fly on statehouse grounds, insisting that the legislature remove it. After the flag came down, she told The Washington Post that she has two teenage children and that “I just couldn’t look them in the face and keep that flag up.”
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For Trump, Haley’s ability to build relationships with prominent wealthy donors and figures such as Romney while maintaining her credibility as a populist-sounding, Sarah Palin-endorsed executive of a southern state may be a revealing window into how she is up to the task of navigating the swirling spheres of influence in Turtle Bay
If confirmed by the Senate, Haley would be replaced by South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a top Trump ally. His ascension is seen inside of Trump’s inner circle as a welcome consequence of her departure, the person said — a way to promote them both.
During the campaign, Haley was critical of some of Trump’s proposals, such as his temporary ban on Muslims’ entry into the United States.
When she gave the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address this year, Haley criticized the “angriest voices” within national politics and their “siren call” to voters, a line widely seen as a not-so-subtle shot at Trump’s campaign.
But when she visited Trump last week, Haley told reporters that she never disliked Trump despite her past comments.
“He was a friend and supporter before he ran for president, and was kind to me then. But when I see something I am uncomfortable with, I say it,” she said. “When we met, it was friends who had known each other before.”