White House

Trump’s Team of Rivals? President taps past critics, as loyalists get tough treatment

Alex Pappas

Nine months ago, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman called on Donald Trump to drop out of the presidential race over the bombshell “Access Hollywood” video.

Fast-forward to this week and Trump, now president, has nominated Huntsman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Back in 2015, one Anthony Scaramucci called Trump a “hack politician.” On Friday, he was hired to lead the White House communications team.

For a president often caricatured in the media as someone who surrounds himself with sycophants and yes-men, Trump has not shied away from tapping former critics.

Trump unquestionably values loyalty – and can be ruthless to those, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions with his Russia probe recusal, seen as undercutting his authority.

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But appointments like Huntsman's and Scaramucci's show a willingness to set aside past feuds. Even if done out of necessity – the pool of candidates who did not at one point criticize his candidacy or presidency is more like a puddle – the result is a team that includes former rivals as well as longtime loyalists, even in this turbulent time.

“President Trump's goals today are identical to the promises he made while on the campaign trail,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime attorney, told Fox News. “Priority one is to make America great again, even if that means choosing an individual who was critical of him early on. This is what leaders do.”

Scaramucci and Trump clearly have made amends since 2015, with the Wall Street financier acting as a forceful surrogate during the 2016 campaign and transition. Addressing the press from the briefing room podium on Friday, he made sure to say he's sorry -- again -- over his "hack" jab. 

"Mr. President, if you’re listening, I apologize for the 50th time for saying that,” Scaramucci said. 

“One of the biggest mistakes that I made, because I was an inexperienced person in the world of politics," he said. "I was supporting another candidate. I should have never said that about him.”

There’s also Rick Perry, who famously referred to Trump during the campaign as a “cancer on conservatism.” Perry is now Trump’s secretary of Energy.

There’s Nikki Haley, who endorsed Marco Rubio for president and warned Republicans during the campaign not to “follow the siren call of the angriest voices." She’s ambassador to the United Nations, and in that role has been an unflinching advocate for the administration's positions. 

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And there’s Huntsman, who called for then-vice presidential nominee Mike Pence to replace Trump on the ticket after lamenting how the contest had become a “race to the bottom.” Should the Senate confirm him, Huntsman will become the president’s representative in Russia, whose meddling in the 2016 election and contacts with Trump’s associates are at the root of the political and legal crisis facing the administration.

There was nearly another name added to this list: 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who delivered a major speech calling Trump a “phony, a fraud” and vowed not to vote for him in the general election. After the election, Trump publicly flirted with tapping Romney for secretary of state, trotting the former Massachusetts governor in front of journalists for interviews at his New Jersey golf course and over dinner at a fancy New York restaurant.

Romney later said he would have accepted the job if it had been offered. It went to ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson instead.

Trump has not always been complimentary of these people. During the 2012 presidential race, when Huntsman was a candidate, Trump tweeted about the former ambassador to China: “Jon Huntsman called to see me. I said no, he gave away our country to China!”

During the Republican primary in 2015, Trump tweeted that Perry “should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.”

After Haley’s “angriest voices” comment, Trump fired back at the South Carolina governor in January 2016, calling her “weak on illegal immigration.”

For all the talk after the election that Trump would reward his most loyal campaign surrogates with high-profile gigs, not everyone got big jobs. Neither former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani nor New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ended up with major administration posts.

And things haven’t gone swimmingly for some of the Trump campaign loyalists who ended up inside the administration.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired for misleading Pence and is now under federal investigation.

Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump during the campaign, was publicly rebuked by the president in a New York Times interview this week. The president said he regretted making Sessions attorney general because of his decision to recuse himself from the Russian investigation.

On Thursday, Sessions, facing questions about whether he should resign after the president's comments, said he had no plan to step down.

“We love this job, and we love this department and I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate,” he said. 

And on Friday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who played the loyal soldier before the cameras for months, resigned in apparent protest over the hiring of Scaramucci.