NEWS
01/03/2017 09:10 EST | Updated 01/04/2018 00:12 EST

Trump eyes Cabinet vacancies, policy questions

NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump pressed to fill senior posts in his administration on Tuesday even as new questions emerged about his priorities at home and abroad.

His inauguration less than three weeks away, Trump tapped as U.S. trade representative a former Reagan official who has condemned Republicans' commitment to free trade. The incoming president indicated that Robert Lighthizer, who is expected to take a hard line against China, would do "an amazing job helping turn around the failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity."

Lighthizer, Trump said, would represent "the United States as we fight for good trade deals that put the American worker first." The new administration's specific plans for crafting new trade deals, spokesman Sean Spicer said, "will come in time."

While several hundred high-level White House posts remain unfilled, just a handful of outstanding Cabinet-level vacancies remain, specifically in the departments of Agriculture and Veterans Affairs, as well as a director of national intelligence. Trump's private meetings Tuesday included one with Leo MacKay, a senior executive at a military contractor who previously served in the Department of Veterans Affairs under President George W. Bush.

While tending to his Cabinet, the president-elect and his senior advisers also worked to craft a domestic and international agenda while huddled behind closed doors in his Manhattan skyscraper. Trump offered few details on his specific plans for governing in the months leading up to his stunning victory.

He signalled Tuesday that he would not bless all of the GOP's priorities on Capitol Hill, openly questioned the timing of the House Republican push to gut an independent ethics board just as the new Congress gathered in Washington.

"Do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority"? Trump tweeted. The House GOP later dropped the push.

The clash underscored Trump's ability to influence the GOP's priorities on Capitol Hill. Once Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20, the Republican Party will control the House, Senate and White House for the first time in nearly a decade.

Vice president-elect Mike Pence issued a direct challenge to Washington Republicans earlier in the day as he outlined plans to spend Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

"The president-elect has a very clear message to Capitol Hill. And that is, it's time to get to work," Pence said. "And it's time to keep our word to the American people."

Pence said the administration's initial focus would be "repealing and replacing Obamacare" along with legislation to cut government regulation on businesses. Trump's team has yet to say whether millions of Americans covered under the health care law would lose health care insurance altogether once it is repealed.

At the same time, Trump faced questions about his foreign policy, having issued a sharp statement about North Korea and China on Twitter the night before.

The president-elect charged that China "won't help with North Korea," a country working to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. "It won't happen!" Trump tweeted, without expanding.

Senior aide Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday Trump was putting North Korea "on notice," but he was "not making policy at the moment." She declared that as president, Trump "will stand between (North Korea) and missile capabilities."

The aggressive stance prompted a warning from Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, who said China's efforts and commitment to the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program are "consistent and clear."

"We hope all sides can refrain from speaking or doing anything that can aggravate the situation and work in concert to pull the issue back to dialogue and negotiation," Geng said.