Donald Trump embraced new Cabinet officers Wednesday whose backgrounds suggest he's primed to put tough actions behind his campaign rhetoric on immigration and the environment, even as he seemed to soften his yearlong stance on immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
It's clearer by the day, underscored by Trump's at-times contradictory words, that his actual policies as president won't be settled until after he takes his seat in the Oval Office.
Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly has been selected to head the Department of Homeland Security, and Trump announced Thursday Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier whose policies have helped fossil fuel companies, as his pick for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
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“I am deeply grateful and honored to serve as President-elect Trump’s EPA Administrator,” Pruitt said in a statement. “The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.”
Separately, Trump named the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, Linda McMahon, to head the Small Business Administration — and may have breathed new life into the candidacy of a secretary of state contender.
Trump said he planned to name his choice for the key Cabinet post next week and insisted that former rival Mitt Romney still had a chance. Trump, who has met twice with the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, denied he was stringing Romney along to make him pay for earlier remarks that Trump was unfit to be president.
"No, it's not about revenge. It's about what's good for the country, and I'm able to put this stuff behind us — and I hit him very hard also," Trump said in a telephone interview on NBC.
Three sources close to the selection process said late Wednesday that Romney's stock is on the rise again within Trump's circle after a period in which the celebrity businessman had cooled on the candidacy of the former Massachusetts governor. But Trump has changed his mind repeatedly throughout the process and has expanded the pool of contenders beyond the previously identified final four of Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Trump's long presidential campaign was in large part defined by searing rhetoric and his steadfast promises to build an impenetrable wall on the border with Mexico and crack down on immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. But he struck a softer tone in an interview published Wednesday after he was named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year."
"We're going to work something out that's going to make people happy and proud," Trump said. "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."
He offered no details about a policy that would make that clear.
During the campaign, Trump's tough comments — including a vow to overturn President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration — have led to fears among immigrant advocates that he will end Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Hundreds of thousands of young immigrants have gained work permits and temporary protection from deportation under the 2012 program, which aides to Trump have said would be revisited.
Others continue to press the immigrants' case. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented Trump a letter Wednesday from 14 big city mayors urging him to keep the program intact.
"They were working hard toward the American dream," Emanuel told reporters in lobby of Trump's skyscraper. "It's no fault of their own their parents came here. They are something we should hold up and embrace."
Though some immigrant advocates hope Trump's words were an olive branch, others were skeptical.
"We've seen this movie before," Frank Sharry of the immigrant-rights group America's Voice said in a statement. "Unfortunately we expect no pivot and no softening."
Meanwhile, Trump moved toward making another addition to the collection of generals in his Cabinet, settling on Kelly to head Homeland Security, according to people close to transition. Gen. Kelly, who joined the Marine Corps in 1970, retired this year after a final command that included oversight of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
He has a reputation as a border hawk after a time in the Southern Command, which is based in South Florida and regularly works with Homeland Security on missions to identify and dismantle immigrant smuggling networks.
Trump also picked Pruitt, a longtime critic of the EPA, to head that same agency, according to person close to Pruitt who was not authorized to speak publicly about the choice before it was announced. The move comes just after Trump met with former Vice President Al Gore, who is an environmental activist, and said he had "an open mind" about honoring the Paris climate accords.
That gave hope to some environmentalists, but on Wednesday Trump's apparent decision was denounced by Democrats.
"Mr. Pruitt's record is not only that of being a climate change denier, but also someone who has worked closely with the fossil fuel industry to make this country more dependent, not less, on fossil fuels," said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican, said Pruitt "has proven that being a good steward of the environment does not mean burdening taxpayers and businesses with red tape."
The president-elect also announced his selection of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the new U.S. ambassador to China. Trump and Branstad are expected to appear together in Iowa on Thursday.
Before that, Trump will meet with some of the victims of last week's car-and-knife attack at Ohio State University. He has denounced immigration policies that allowed the apparent attacker into the country.