WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump began filling his Cabinet on Friday with stalwarts of the right, signaling with a trio of top national security and law enforcement selections that he will aggressively pursue promises he made during the campaign that have caused deep anxiety among immigrant and Muslim communities.
Trump’s choices dimmed speculation that he would move to the center as he begins to govern a nation still deeply fractured and on edge as voters try to predict what the president-elect’s frequently changing policy agenda means for them.
On Friday, Trump provided some clarity.
Trump’s attorney general pick, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is an anti-immigration crusader deeply disliked by civil rights activists.
The president-elect’s choice for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is an experienced warrior who has suggested Americans should fear all Muslims.
Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, who got the nod for CIA director, broke with colleagues on the House Benghazi Committee to co-author a minority report accusing Hillary Clinton of a cover-up.
The picks renewed the rancor Trump set off earlier in the week when he named as his top White House strategist Stephen Bannon, the media executive who has aligned himself with white nationalists.
They presaged a contentious start to the Trump administration, with Democrats and civil rights activists already vowing to use Senate hearings to put the spotlight on the controversial pasts of the selections who must be confirmed, which include Sessions and Pompeo.
Trump advisers and GOP lawmakers moved quickly to highlight moments in the careers of the men when they worked with colleagues across the aisle, and reiterated that Trump’s Cabinet members are not there to implement their own agenda, but that of Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
They suggested that Friday’s announcements don’t necessarily indicate Trump is heading in a sharply ideological direction, as many more top spots have yet to be filled.
GOP establishment favorite and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, for example, is slated to meet with Trump this weekend, months after giving a speech arguing that Trump would be an unqualified and dangerous president. Trump is also talking with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, another favorite of moderates.
“The president-elect wants the best and brightest,” said Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer. “He is going to meet with people who supported him, and didn’t support him.”
But the positioning did little to quiet an outcry, with the angriest and fiercest response directed at Sessions.
“If you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said in a statement. “No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants and people of color than Sen. Sessions.”
Sessions, 69, was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic backers of Trump’s presidential bid. While he is generally liked by colleagues in both political parties, he is among the hardest liners on immigration in Congress, and his selection ensures that the limits on immigration and expanded deportations that Trump called for during the campaign are likely to be at the forefront of his administration’s policies.
Sessions made racially insensitive remarks that cost him a federal judgeship in 1986, when the Senate Judiciary Committee drilled down on the comments. During his hearings, four Justice Department lawyers testified that Sessions expressed racist views or endorsed them. He acknowledged in testimony that he called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union “un-American,” though he denied believing such statements.
He testified that he believed such organizations may have taken positions “adverse to the security of the United States” but has since consistently praised the work of the NAACP.
A colleague also testified that Sessions had agreed with a statement that a white lawyer was a “disgrace” to his race for handling civil rights cases. A black lawyer testified that Sessions once called him “boy.” Sessions denied making those statements.
If confirmed to be attorney general, Sessions would lead an agency that under President Obama has waded aggressively into civil rights issues, particularly after the unrest sparked by the killings of black men by police officers in recent years.
Sessions also has opposed strengthening federal enforcement powers under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and is one of a handful of GOP senators blocking a bipartisan bill to loosen sentencing rules for low-level offenders.
Sessions’ Republican colleagues quickly closed ranks around him Friday, suggesting a confirmation is likely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised him, pointing to how Sessions has collaborated with some of the Senate’s most liberal lawmakers on legislation and noting that Obama’s first attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., was approved by the Senate without delay.
Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York warned that his cordial relationship with Sessions, with whom he exercises at the gym, does not give the attorney general nominee a pass on tough questioning. “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.
The appointment of Flynn, which does not require Senate confirmation, raised similar concerns of racial and ethnic animosity. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put Flynn in the same category as Bannon, saying the two embody Trump’s “most divisive rhetoric.”
Flynn has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s approach to Islamic militancy. He has argued that acts of terrorism committed by Muslims are rooted in mainstream Islamic faith. In February, Flynn tweeted a YouTube video that says all Muslims should be feared and lists bombings perpetrated by Muslims. “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions,” Flynn wrote.
Flynn has also been criticized for aligning with Trump in calling for a thaw in relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, he was paid to attend a dinner in Moscow hosted by Russia Today, Russia’s government-sponsored English-language news channel, and sat at the same table as Putin. But he also wrote critically of Putin and the dangers Russia presents to the United States in his book published this year.
Flynn spent 33 years in the Army as an intelligence officer, rising to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a job that he was forced to leave in 2014 after clashing with Obama administration officials, who he has said lacked a strategy for taking on a global militant enemy with its roots in a radical interpretation of Islam.
From 2004 to 2007, Flynn was head of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive organization that conducted the most sensitive capture and kill operations against al-Qaida operatives in Iraq and elsewhere. He was the senior military intelligence officer in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010 and a top adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
“He is familiar with the complex set of security challenges we face,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “And President-elect Trump does not have a lot of experience in this arena.” But Reed also expressed concern with comments Flynn made “in the heat of the campaign.” And Schumer told MSNBC that Flynn’s comments about Muslims are “very, very troubling.”
Pompeo, an Orange County native and former Army officer and aerospace executive, was elected as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave election. He would take over an agency that was revamped to focus on fighting terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. He has defended as legal the CIA’s waterboarding and other torture, which Trump has said he wants to bring back over the objections of military and intelligence leaders.
Pompeo’s nomination to run the CIA “is profoundly disturbing,” Glenn Carle, a former senior officer who was involved in the CIA’s interrogation and detention program, said in a telephone interview from Dubai.
Democrats took a less hostile posture toward Pompeo than Trump’s other selections. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, called Pompeo “very bright and hardworking” even though the two clashed on the Obama administration’s handling of the 2012 attacks against a U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA safehouse in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Pompeo has harshly criticized Obama’s deal with Iran to freeze its nuclear program and has helped block Obama’s plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He fought pitched partisan battles over national security while serving on the House Intelligence Committee, but nonetheless earned a reputation for seriousness and a quick grasp for the complex details of spycraft.
“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, both key qualities in a CIA director,” Schiff said in a statement.
Democrats may not be alone in sparring with the Trump Cabinet. Bannon predicts “the conservatives are going to go crazy” when they see the plan he is pushing for public works spending on the scale of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s.”