President-elect Donald Trump lavished praise on his predecessor Wednesday, saying he is taking President Obama’s advice on appointments, a stark contrast to the rancor and political divisions of the campaign – divisions that live on after the election, but which Trump denies having any responsibility for.
“I have now gotten to know President Obama. I really like him … we have a really good chemistry together,” Trump said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show that focused on his selection as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” He said he has solicited Obama’s input on personnel during his transition to power and that “I take his recommendations very seriously. 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.”
Yet while Trump struck a note of reconciliation with the president who he repeatedly blasted during the campaign, he took aim at Time for also labeling him “President of the Divided States of America.” He told 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 with on Twitter, Trump said he is “very restrained” on the microblogging site – and then took aim at the 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 press release. I get it out much more honestly than dealing with these dishonest reporters.”
The president-elect’s comments came as the transition to his administration picked up speed. A transition official confirmed Wednesday that Trump had selected Terry Branstad, the long-serving Republican governor of Iowa, as ambassador to China. Branstad has extensive ties to China and a personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping that dates back decades.
The move could help assuage concerns raised by Trump’s phone call on Friday with Tsai Inq-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.”
Trump also tried to clarify Tuesday’s surprising news that he had sold all 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 had 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 next week.
Asked if he is publicly dangling Romney as revenge for the former Massachusetts governor’s 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.”
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 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 so-called Dreamers. “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.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Jerry Markon, Jenna Johnson, Elise Viebeck