Trump’s Latest Staff Choices Reflect Campaign’s Firebrand Theme

  • No sign of moderate shift in CIA, attorney general selections
  • Choice of Flynn suggests embrace of conflict with Islam

Trump Names Security Team, Sessions for Attorney General

Anyone who hoped Donald Trump the president would be more moderate than Trump the candidate will find little to like in his latest personnel choices -- each of whom has taken positions that make even fellow Republicans squirm.

The president-elect on Friday said he would nominate Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general and Representative Mike Pompeo for CIA director, and chose retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser. The three men, all campaign loyalists, lie well outside the conservative mainstream and raise the prospect of contentious confirmation hearings in the Senate.

Jeff Sessions

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“The opening message from the Trump transition is: What you heard in the campaign is what you’re going to get in his presidency,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “There’s no suggestion he’ll moderate his tone or policies.”

Trump’s personnel decisions are being scrutinized for evidence he will fulfill promises after the Nov. 8 election to ease partisan tensions and unify a nation bitterly divided by the campaign. The man he appointed as his senior White House strategist and adviser, Stephen Bannon, has been accused of overseeing the publication of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist articles while executive chairman of the website Breitbart News.

No Women, Minorities

Trump has so far named no women or minorities to his administration. His White House chief of staff will be Reince Priebus, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee. Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the president-elect, cautioned not to read too much into the appointees’ views because they will implement Trump’s vision for the government.

“Anyone’s personal view isn’t what matters; you are serving the president of the United States and implementing his views,” Spicer said. “Everybody who serves in the Trump administration will serve Donald Trump and Mike Pence, and they will implement that vision and their ideas and no one else’s.” 

The president-elect’s latest moves suggest an embrace of the view that the U.S. is engaged in a military and political clash with Islam, a faith held by 1.6 billion people globally. Flynn, who lost his job as defense intelligence chief under President Barack Obama after reports of infighting with White House officials, has said the U.S. faces an existential threat from Muslim extremism and likened Islam to cancer. Both Obama and his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, forcefully rejected the idea of Western conflict with Islam.

As national security adviser, Flynn won’t need Senate confirmation to join the Trump White House. He will succeed National Security Adviser Susan Rice, overseeing an office that has gradually claimed decision-making power on foreign affairs from the State Department and Pentagon.

‘Right-Wing Nutty’

The 57-year-old Flynn was one of Trump’s earliest backers, helping organize support from current and retired officers throughout his campaign. A career intelligence officer who led the Defense Intelligence Agency for two years through August 2014, he drew criticism from former colleagues and opponents for accepting Russian money for speaking engagements.

Colin Powell, the former Republican secretary of state and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, called Flynn a “right-wing nutty” in e-mails posted by the website DCleaks.com and reported by BuzzFeed News. Powell’s office confirmed the authenticity of the e-mails.

Sessions, a 69-year-old former federal prosecutor, was one of the few lawmakers to defend then-candidate Trump after he proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the U.S. He told Bannon on a radio show in 2015 that Trump was “treading on dangerous ground” but it is “appropriate to begin to discuss” the issue.

1986 Defeat

Sessions is an immigration hard-liner who has argued that prospective immigrants aren’t entitled to Constitutional protections against religious discrimination and who favors repeal of the 14th amendment provision that confers citizenship on anyone born in the U.S. His 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship was derailed by a Senate committee after former colleagues said he referred to the NAACP and other civil rights groups as “communist inspired” and “un-American organizations with anti-traditional American values."

Sessions denied being a racist, but two Republicans joined with the panel’s Democrats to vote against him. At the time, he was only the second nominee defeated by the committee in 50 years. The incoming Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Sessions will face “tough questions” when his nomination as attorney general is considered.

“Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say,” Schumer said in a statement.

Senate Democrats, with only 48 seats, can’t block confirmation of Trump’s nominations even if the party remains unified unless Republicans defect. No Republican senators immediately criticized of any of the appointments Trump announced on Friday. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, issued a statement backing Sessions, calling him "principled, forthright and hard-working."

Benghazi Reports

Pompeo, Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, was elected to Congress in 2010 and has advocated for keeping open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 60 terrorism suspects were held as of Oct. 25. Obama has sought to close the facility, arguing that it is too costly, has damaged the nation’s international reputation and aids terrorist groups’ recruiting efforts.

Pompeo has also defended National Security Agency surveillance programs that were exposed by Edward Snowden.

His selection was welcomed by General Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force General who previously served as head of the CIA and NSA. Pompeo is a “serious man," Hayden told reporters on Friday. “When I saw the choice, I was heartened,” he added.

The 52-year-old Kansas lawmaker may be best known for his harsh criticism of Hillary Clinton’s handling of Libya policy. He served on the Select Committee on Benghazi, formed to investigate the 2012 deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in an attack on a diplomatic outpost. After the Republican-led panel issued a report Pompeo didn’t consider tough enough on the former secretary of State, he wrote a dissenting report calling her leadership “morally reprehensible.” He said during a news conference that “you have every right to be disgusted” by the response to the attack from Clinton and others, who he said had misled the public.

Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican who chaired the committee, distanced himself from Pompeo in the same news conference, pointing out the committee’s official report made no such assertions.

Stephen Tankel, a former senior adviser to the Defense Department under Obama who is now a professor at American University, said the appointments will raise anxieties among the foreign policy establishment.

"National security professionals on both sides of the aisle were looking for reassurance in terms of Trump’s appointments," Tankel said. "Thus far, Trump has shown a preference for loyalists and firebrands who are unlikely to put peoples’ nerves at ease.”

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