As news organizations around the country proclaimed Cathy McMorris Rodgers a sure bet to be the next interior secretary and politicians in her Eastern Washington district quickly announced campaigns for her congressional seat, the person most in the dark was McMorris Rodgers herself.
In her first extended remarks on the events of the last few weeks, the congresswoman said she never got a call from President-elect Donald Trump or his transition team saying she was going to be offered the Cabinet position before or after reports from unnamed sources said she was the likely pick. She also never got a call several days later that Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana was nominated for the job.
“My colleagues were coming up and congratulating me on the floor” of the House when the first reports surfaced, McMorris Rodgers said Friday. “I said, ‘There has not been an offer.’ ”
The Eastern Washington Republican met with Trump, first in New Jersey before Thanksgiving after receiving a call from Mike Pence, the vice president-elect and chairman of the Trump transition team. She was named a vice-chairwoman of the team, and met with him again in Trump Tower in New York City this month.
That spot on the transition team didn’t give her any special insight into who would be nominated for interior secretary.
In neither conversation did Trump offer her the job of interior secretary and the discussions were much broader, she said. They talked about issues the department handles, including better management, expanding access for uses like recreation and hunting, and opening up more partnerships with states and the tribes.
“He wanted to know what steps we could be taking,” she said. “He’s very interested in more access on federal lands.”
But they also talked about other subjects, like jobs and the economy. “When you spend time with the president-elect, it is rapid fire,” McMorris Rodgers said.
So when national news organizations started quoting unnamed sources with the transition team late last week that she was the leading candidate for the Cabinet post, McMorris Rodgers said it was completely unexpected. She and her staff refused to comment when reporters from around the country called because “we didn’t have any news.”
That continued into this week when the name of Zinke, a one-term congressman from Montana, surfaced – again based on unnamed sources – and later was officially confirmed as Trump’s pick.
Asked if she thought that was an odd way to handle the transition, McMorris Rodgers replied: “It’s up to the president-elect as to how he will do this.”
A Wall Street Journal report on Friday quoted unnamed “people familiar with the pick” as saying Donald Trump Jr. influenced his father’s choice of interior secretary because Zinke and the younger Trump are avid hunters, and sportsmen’s groups preferred the Montana congressman over McMorris Rodgers. There were also concerns, the newspaper’s sources said, of her support for a 2011 bill that called for selling off surplus federal lands in 10 Western states.
Zinke and McMorris Rodgers both met with Trump on Monday, and Journal sources also said the president-elect asked the congresswoman to address some of her past criticisms of him.
In her meeting with Trump and his son, “Mr. Trump cited a ‘long list’ of things the congresswoman had criticized him for and asked her to address them, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting,” the Journal reported. “Ms. McMorris Rodgers didn’t walk back her comments.”
McMorris Rodgers was not an early supporter of Trump; she did vote for him in the state’s presidential primary, after he was all but assured of the nomination, but said she wasn’t enthusiastic about it. After a tape of Trump making lewd comments about women surfaced in the fall, she condemned the remarks but said she still supported his candidacy.
“I made it clear that I supported him throughout the campaign and that I continue to support him,” she said Friday. “When candidate Donald Trump said things that I didn’t necessarily agree with, I would call him on it.”
That will continue, she said. Asked if Trump agreed with that, she replied: “I’m not sure I can speculate on that.”
The selection of a new Cabinet is proceeding “under budget and ahead of schedule,” but it is taking place in a much more public fashion than previous changes in administrations, she said.
“It’s playing out in real time,” she said, and reflects Trump’s fondness for digital media. But that also provides extra transparency when decisions are made, she added. “I think it says he is shaking things up. He’s doing things in a new way and I think that’s why he was elected.”
It also means that rumors of an appointment get quickly reported. Some House colleagues began angling for her GOP leadership position and three Republicans and one Democrat in Spokane announced plans to run for her not-yet vacant congressional seat. Asked about the rush to replace her, McMorris Rodgers laughed and said: “It’s great that there’s such a strong bench.”
She added she’s concentrating on working with Trump on issues as a member of Congress.
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