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On TV and Twitter, Trump aides publicly pick sides in battle for top jobs

Retired General David Petraeus speaks to members of the media while leaving Trump Tower on November 28, 2016 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A crop of candidates, with different views and backgrounds, wage an intense public fight to win a job with Donald Trump.

It's the familiar plot line from NBC's long-running reality TV show The Apprentice, in which Mr. Trump starred for 14 seasons. It has also become the storyline as the president-elect staffs up his administration, including an intense race for the coveted secretary of state job.

Mr. Trump's tolerance, and perhaps incitement, of internal dissent offers a glimpse into how the real estate mogul may run his presidency. With the world watching, the president-elect may be fomenting rivalries as he goes about the messy business of bridging warring Republican Party factions and disparate congressional voices.

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Infighting and some disarray are par for the course during presidential transitions, where incoming presidents start making the first of thousands of political appointments. What's unusual is that he's letting his own aides publicly pick sides in the battle for top jobs – on national television and Twitter.

"The Trump campaign and the transition are clearly different from normal," said John Burke, University of Vermont political science professor and author of Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice. "It's a much looser operation."

In a curious outburst, Trump adviser and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway blasted former Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney during two Sunday talk-show appearances. Mr. Romney, the face of the never-Trump movement during the campaign, has been considered a leading candidate for the job of secretary of state, alongside staunch loyalist and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"I don't think the cost of party unity has to be the secretary of state position," Ms. Conway bluntly told ABC.

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An hour later, she was on NBC's Meet the Press, explaining how she felt "betrayed" by the prospect of Mr. Romney getting the job, while insisting she was merely speaking as "a concerned citizen."

Days earlier, she had sent a tweet suggesting Mr. Romney's candidacy was sparking outrage among loyal Trump supporters and voters.

Mr. Trump's chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, meanwhile, has been pushing the idea of a "team of rivals" within the administration as a way to deal with some of the post-election divisions within the party.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller would not comment Monday on the public spat, insisting Mr. Trump has a "good game plan" and is on schedule staffing up his administration.

But Mr. Romney's status as a candidate continued to enrage some Trump loyalists. Speaking on CNN, Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York called Mr. Romney a "self-serving egomaniac."

Mr. Trump is interviewing other potential candidates for the secretary of state job at Trump Tower in New York this week, including retired general David Petraeus (Monday) and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker (Tuesday). Both are compromise candidates, without the baggage of either Mr. Romney, the choice of the party establishment, or Mr. Giuliani, a tough-talking lawyer who has openly lobbied for the job, but could encounter conflicts of interest because of paid work he's done for foreign governments.

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Mr. Corker, a senator since 2007, is chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee. Mr. Petraeus is a decorated four-star general and former CIA director who was forced to resign from government after sharing classified documents with his mistress. He's now chairman of KKR Global Institute, an arm of New York-based investment firm KKR & Co.

The public feud is part of Mr. Trump's unusual modus operandi. Outrage is broadcast to the faithful, 140 characters at a time, by Mr. Trump, Ms. Conway and others. When pressed, Mr. Trump and his aides subsequently dial it back. On Sunday, for example, Mr. Trump was angrily tweeting about the recount campaign in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, spreading unfounded allegations of massive voter fraud in states that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried. But on Monday, Trump aides offered no evidence that fraud occurred in the recent election.

Previous transitions have also seen pitched battles over key posts. In 2008, for example, the competition was intense between economist Lawrence Summers and central banker Tim Geithner to be Barack Obama's treasury secretary – a struggle eventually won by Mr. Geithner.

Internal feuds are often inevitable as a president-elect reaches out to opponents in Congress. The challenge is particularly tough for Mr. Trump who, like Ronald Reagan, arrived in Washington as a political outsider, with few natural allies on Capitol Hill.

"They're trying to recast Mr. Trump," Dr. Burke said. "He has to move from being perceived as the candidate to being seen as the president of the United States."

Mr. Trump has embraced at least one former critic, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, whom he nominated last week as United Nations ambassador. Ms. Haley backed Florida Senator Marco Rubio during the primaries.

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