US President-elect Donald Trump picked three conservative loyalists to lead his national security and law-enforcement teams on Friday, underscoring his campaign promise to take a hard line in confronting Islamic terrorism and curbing illegal immigration.
Trump picked Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama for attorney- general, rewarding a staunch supporter whose tough and sometimes inflammatory statements on immigration have reflected his own. The choice was applauded by the top Republican in the Senate but drew sharp criticism from civil rights activists.
Retired Army Lt.-Gen. Mike Flynn, who has championed Trump’s promises to take a more aggressive approach to terrorism, was chosen as his national security adviser, and Trump named Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s security policy, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The three choices, announced by Trump’s transition team, come as the Republican president- elect works to fill key positions in his administration, which will take over from Democratic President Barack Obama on January 20.
The picks could heighten concerns abroad that the Trump administration might carry out campaign promises of banning Muslims from entering the United States or imposing more severe restrictions on migrants from countries or regions with high levels of Islamist terrorism, such as Iraq and Syria.
Sessions and Pompeo seem likely to be confirmed by the Senate despite heavy resistance from Democrats.
Republicans will control a majority, with at least 51 seats in the 100-seat chamber, when Congress reconvenes in January. Flynn’s post does not need Senate confirmation.
One of the earliest Republican lawmakers to support Trump’s White House candidacy, Sessions opposes any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and was an enthusiastic backer of Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border.
He also has argued for curbs on legal immigration on the grounds that it drives down wages for US workers.
A former Alabama attorney-general and US attorney, Sessions, 69, has been in the Senate for 19 years. Allegations he made racist remarks led the Senate to deny his confirmation as a federal judge in 1986. The chamber’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said he would want Sessions to answer “tough questions” about his civil rights positions. The attorney-general acts as the US’s chief law enforcement officer and heads the Justice Department.
Civil rights groups slammed Sessions as a poor choice to head a department charged with protecting voting rights and running immigration courts.
“How can we trust someone in that role who has demonstrated he thinks all forms of immigration are bad for America?” asked Beth Werlin, head of the American Immigration Council.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he strongly supported Sessions for attorney-general, calling him “principled, forthright and hardworking.”
Sessions has been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill and the president-elect has hired several of Sessions’ staffers, including policy chief Stephen Miller and Rick Dearborn, who has a top job managing the transition.
Civil rights organizations are debating whether to gear up for a battle over Sessions’ appointment, as are Jewish groups, some of which have opposed him in the past. Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Trump for president.
The American Jewish Committee, for one, fought aggressively against Sessions’ 1980s nomination, citing his “negative bias on civil rights and civil liberties issues,” according to a press release from the time.
“The American Jewish Committee’s policy has generally been to abstain from commenting on judicial appointments, but we feel compelled to make one of our rare exceptions in this case,” one of its representatives said then. Sessions’s bias, the statement continued, “cannot inspire confidence on the part of black American citizens who have occasion to appear before him in a federal courtroom that they would be treated no differently from white American citizens.”
At his confirmation hearings in 1986, Department of Justice lawyers testified that Sessions had characterized the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” organizations; called a prominent white civil-rights attorney in his state “a disgrace to his race;” referred to a black staffer as “boy;” joked about his tolerance for the Ku Klux Klan; and lectured at least one black employee to be “careful” how he speaks to “white folks.”
“Suffice it to say,” the AJC representative, Hyman Bookbinder, continued, “the sum total of his remarks raises serious questions as to whether Mr. Sessions possesses the requisite qualities to serve.”
In his confirmation hearings, Sessions pushed back against allegations of racism, saying: “I am not a racist.
I am not insensitive to blacks. I have done my job with integrity.”
While current AJC leadership has said it will decline to comment on individual presidential appointments, it released a statement on Thursday strongly suggesting concern with the way in which Trump is building his cabinet.
Trump also has tapped Stephen Bannon, head of the alt-right website Breitbart, for the role of chief White House strategist.
“We cherish our great nation and the unprecedented freedom and opportunity it affords, including the precious right to vote, free and fair elections, and smooth transfers of power from one administration to another,” said David Harris, current CEO of AJC, in a Thanksgiving statement.
“We take special pride in the American motto ‘E pluribus unum.’ Indeed, at AJC, we are, and have always been, passionate pluralists.”
“The strength of our nation derives in such large measure from its rich tapestry of racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds, Harris added.
“We aspire to live in a society which doesn’t simply ‘tolerate’ diversity, but welcomes it, seeing it as a vital component of who we are as a nation.”
Flynn, a registered Democrat and one of Trump’s closest advisers, was fired from the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, a move he has attributed to his outspoken views about fighting Islamist terrorism.
Other officials who worked with Flynn cited his lack of management skills and leadership style as reasons for his firing.
An army intelligence veteran of three decades, Flynn was assistant director of national intelligence under Obama. He views the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a strategic blunder and has refused to condemn Trump’s support for the renewed use of waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, which is widely considered torture and was banned by the president.
Flynn last February said in a tweet that “fear of Muslims is rational.”
Pompeo, 52, a third-term Republican congressman and former US Army officer who founded an aerospace company, was a surprise pick to lead the CIA.
A member of the House Intelligence Committee, Pompeo on Thursday tweeted about the Iran nuclear deal: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Pompeo has called for a revival and expansion of a now-defunct domestic spying program to include “financial and lifestyle information,” as well as phone records. He has said that Edward Snowden, a former government contractor who uncovered the spying program and now lives in Russia, should get the death penalty if he is ever tried and convicted.
Pompeo has been one of the most aggressive critics of the Obama administration’s handling of a 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Nevertheless, Democrats who have worked with him joined Republicans in describing Pompeo as knowledgeable and hard-working.
“While we have had our share of strong differences – principally on the politicization of the tragedy in Benghazi – I know that he is someone who is willing to listen and engage,” Rep.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Friday.
Trump met Friday with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a possible pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, and US Sen.
Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a possible candidate for defense secretary.
Trump is considering retired general, David Petraeus, who resigned as CIA chief in 2012 after an extra-marital affair, for the post of defense secretary, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Also on Friday, the first set of transition “landing teams” started work at the departments of State, Justice, Defense and the National Security Council to begin hashing out the details of shifting to a new administration.
Trump was expected to spend the weekend at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
He met on Saturday with Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, who was one of the fiercest Republican critics of Trump during his unorthodox election campaign but is now under possible consideration for secretary of state.
Trump and Romney emerged from their meeting after an hour and 20 minutes. Trump told reporters their talks “went great” and Romney said he and Trump “had a far-reaching conversation with regards to the various theaters in the world.”
Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, is the leading candidate to serve as Trump’s director of national intelligence, the Wall Street Journal reported.