WASHINGTON – As President-elect Donald Trump continued the work of forming his new administration Sunday, aides continued to struggle with some of the baggage he carries with him – especially how to separate his business interests from government and the inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims that marked his campaign.
Trump met with a series of men – and one woman, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers – who may be under consideration for high-level appointments. Among them were campaign loyalists including Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, but also some outsiders, such as Jonathan Gray, a Wall Street executive and prominent Democratic donor, and Robert Johnson, the founder of the Black Entertainment Television cable network.
“We’ve made a couple of deals,” the president-elect said late in the day to reporters waiting at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, indicating that further Cabinet announcements could come soon.
McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House GOP leadership, was the only woman on Sunday’s list, which also included Ari Emanuel, the prominent Hollywood agent and brother of President Barack Obama’s former White House chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“Great guy. Great friend of mine,” Trump said.
While busy with his transition, the president-elect has found time recently for other meetings, including one with three investors from India who are partners with him in a luxury complex outside Mumbai.
A spokesperson for Trump insisted that the meeting, first reported by the New York Times, was just a courtesy call, but it renewed questions about how Trump could avoid conflicts of interest while retaining an ownership stake in his far-flung network of businesses.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence insisted in a television interview Sunday that Trump would “create the proper separation.”
In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Pence said lawyers and experts were working on how to successfully untangle Trump’s holdings from the presidency.
“I’m very confident working with the best legal minds in the country that the president-elect and his family will create the proper separation from his business going forward,” Pence said.
Trump has said he will allow his adult children to run his business ventures; government watchdogs have said he should divest his holdings or set up a blind trust.
Among the potential problems: Trump’s company has operations in other countries, often in connection with foreign governments that could steer money toward his family in an effort to influence his decisions.
In addition to the meeting with the Indian business executives, Trump and his family came under criticism when his daughter, Ivanka Trump, attended the president-elect’s first face-to-face meeting with a foreign head of government, the prime minister of Japan.
Her jewelry company also caused a stir by sending an email to reporters featuring a photograph of the $10,000 bracelet she wore during a post-election television interview with her father.
At a news conference in Lima, Peru, where he was winding up a summit of leaders from Asia and the Pacific, Obama pointedly noted that his administration had managed to go eight years without a major ethics scandal because White House lawyers had insisted that he and his aides “not just meet the letter of the law.”
Obama said he had advised Trump to appoint a strong White House counsel who would insist on similar care.
While Trump aides continued to deal with questions about potential conflicts, they also faced controversy over some of their remarks about Islam.
Reince Priebus, Trump’s designee to be the White House chief of staff, defended remarks made by retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, that criticized Islam.
“Clearly there are some aspects of that faith that are problematic,” Priebus said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
Asked about Flynn’s statement that Islam was a political ideology masked behind a religion, Priebus said that “phrasing can always be done differently.”
But he praised Flynn as “an unbelievably gifted, smart person” who has Trump’s confidence.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Priebus said Trump believes that “no faith in and of itself should be judged as a whole. But there are some people in countries abroad that … need to be prevented from coming into this country.”
Asked about Trump’s suggestion earlier in the campaign year that Muslims might be required to register with government officials, Priebus avoided a clear answer.
“I’m not going to rule out anything. But, but I wouldn’t – we’re not going to have a registry based on a religion,” he said. “But what I think what we’re trying to do is say that there are some people, certainly not all people … there are some people that are radicalized, and there are some people that have to be prevented from coming into this country.”
The country’s largest Muslim advocacy group condemned the remarks as examples of Islamophobia.
“Our nation is not served by the denigration of Islam or by the introduction of ineffective and discriminatory policies targeting Muslims,” said Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Trump’s weekend in New Jersey has seen a steady parade of visitors, including some past critics. On Saturday, Trump and Pence spoke with Mitt Romney, whom Pence described as a potential secretary of State pick. During the campaign, the 2012 GOP presidential candidate had been highly critical of Trump’s character and policies.
Pence said Romney was under “active consideration” to head the State Department. “The president-elect was very grateful that Mitt Romney came in,” he added, describing the hourlong meeting as a “warm and substantive exchange” of ideas.
He and Trump also met with Gen. James Mattis, a former war commander in Iraq and Afghanistan who has been critical of some Obama administration policies and has the nickname of “Mad Dog Mattis.” He is being considered to lead the Pentagon.
Trump tweeted Sunday morning that Mattis was “was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!”
In his interview with Fox News, Pence also addressed the controversy surrounding his attendance at the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.” He was cheered and jeered as he entered the theater Friday, and after the performance, the actor playing Aaron Burr gave a brief speech about American values directed at Pence.
Trump took to Twitter the next day – and again Sunday – to chastise the show’s cast and demand an apology. The dispute flew across social media over the weekend, sparking the hashtag #boycotthamilton.
Trump’s tweets appeared to continue a pattern he established in the campaign in which he would use Twitter to change the subject away from news headlines that were potentially damaging.
His tweets about Hamilton diverted at least some attention from the criticism of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, selected Friday as attorney general; Trump’s naming of Stephen Bannon to be a senior White House official and the $25 million he agreed to pay to settle claims that his Trump University real estate seminars had defrauded students.
Pence, also following a pattern from the campaign, took a more conciliatory line. He said he had heard the remarks by actor Brandon Victor Dixon and was not offended by them.
A self-described history buff, Pence said he enjoyed the musical.
“It is a great, great show,” he said, calling it an “incredible production” by “incredibly talented people.”
“It was a real joy to be there,” he added.
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