President-elect Donald Trump lavished praise on President Obama on Wednesday and said he is taking his predecessor’s guidance on political appointments, but it seems unlikely that he followed the president’s advice in his most recent Cabinet picks.
People familiar with the transition confirmed Wednesday that Trump has chosen Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is an unconventional pick in that Pruitt is among a group of attorneys general that sued to block the EPA’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector.
He’s also joined other states in suing the EPA over regulations to curtail the emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from the oil and gas sector. Oklahoma’s economy is highly dependent on the petroleum industry.
Trump, according to people familiar with the transition, has also decided to nominate retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly as his homeland security secretary.
Kelly, a blunt-spoken border security hawk who clashed with the Obama administration over women in combat and plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would inherit a massive and often troubled department responsible for overseeing perhaps the most controversial part of Trump’s agenda: his proposed crackdown on illegal immigration.
The news about Kelly, who retired in February as chief of U.S. Southern Command, followed the revelation that Trump had selected Terry Branstad, the long-serving Republican governor of Iowa, as ambassador to China.
Earlier in the day, during an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, Trump said he liked Obama, and they had “good chemistry,” a sharp turnaround from Trump’s strategy of stoking political division with anti-Obama rhetoric on the campaign trail.
“I have now gotten to know President Obama. I really like him. . . . We have a really good chemistry together,” Trump said, adding that he has solicited Obama’s input on personnel during his transition to the presidency. “I take his recommendations very seriously,” Trump said. “And there are some people that I will be appointing — and in one case have appointed — where he thought very highly of that person, yes.”
The “Today” show interview focused on Trump’s selection as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” But he took aim at Time for also labeling him “President of the Divided States of America.” He told “Today” host Matt Lauer that the term was “snarky” and that his campaign, often criticized for its heated and highly partisan tone, was not responsible.
“When you say divided states of America, I didn’t divide them. They’re divided now,’’ Trump said. “. . . I’m not president yet. So I didn’t do anything to divide.’’
In a comment sure to raise eyebrows among the many people he has battled on Twitter, Trump said he is “very restrained” on the social media site — and then took aim at the news media, a frequent target of his tweets. “Frankly, it’s a modern-day form of communication,” Trump said. “I get it out much faster than a news release. I get it out much more honestly than dealing with these dishonest reporters.”
Trump also tried to clarify Tuesday’s surprising news that he sold all of his shares in companies in June, a move that could have created a cash windfall as he ramped up to begin a costly general-election presidential campaign. Experts said the sell-off could help address conflict-of-interest worries about his stock portfolio, a sizable part of Trump’s financial life, and Trump said that, indeed, was his primary consideration.
“I was never a big stockholder, but I bought a lot of different stocks,” Trump told NBC. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be owning stocks when I’m making deals for this country that maybe will affect one company positively and one company negatively. So I just felt it was a conflict.”
As he is prone to do, Trump also teased the possibility of other major transition developments in the coming days. “I have some other big announcements coming up today and actually tomorrow,” he told NBC, adding that he is closing in on perhaps his biggest selection of all: Who will represent the United States overseas as secretary of state?
The prestigious post has been the subject of an extraordinary battle, with some Trump advisers publicly bashing one of the leading candidates, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and urging Trump to instead select former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Other candidates include retired Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and an unorthodox possibility cited by Trump in the NBC interview: ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson.
“We have a great, great gentleman, the head, the boss over at Exxon, and, you know, he’s built a tremendous company over 30 years with great style,” said Trump, who said he is likely to announce his nominee for secretary of state next week.
Asked whether he is publicly dangling Romney as revenge for his stark criticism of Trump during the campaign, Trump said Romney remains under consideration.
“I’ve spoken to him a lot, and we’ve come a long way together. We had some tremendous difficulty together, and now I think we’ve come a long way,” Trump said. “. . . It’s not about revenge. It’s about what’s good for the country. And I’m able to put this stuff behind us.”
The day began with news of Branstad being chosen to represent the president in Beijing. The Iowa governor has extensive ties to China and a decades-long personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The move, confirmed Wednesday by a transition official, could help assuage concerns raised by Trump’s phone call Friday with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, which China considers a rogue province. Yet in the NBC interview, Trump also raised his recent Twitter outburst, in which he continued a long-standing habit of attacking China, this time over its trade and currency policies and its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“I talk about important things” on Twitter, he told NBC. “I talked about, you know, as you know, recently with China.”
The selections of Kelly and Pruitt, however, are unlikely to soothe any concerns about Trump’s stance on border security or the environment.
During the “Today” show interview, Trump called his selection by Time as its “Person of the Year” “a very, very great honor.” In an interview with the magazine for its cover story, he reprised his controversial remarks from his campaign announcement speech from June 2015 in which he said some Mexican immigrants are criminals and “rapists.”
Speaking about crimes committed by foreign-born assailants, Trump told the magazine: “They come from Central America. They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met. They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal.” He also seemed to preview the proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants that was a central part of his campaign, saying that those who commit crimes are “finished.”
Trump did not back off on his promise to revoke Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, a 2012 initiative that has given temporary protection from deportation to hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in the United States as children.
Yet he expressed sympathy for the “dreamers,” as children of illegal immigrants are sometimes called. “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” he said, without providing details. “They got brought here at a very young age. They’ve worked here. They’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Chris Mooney, Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.