Trump's Early Administration Picks Reward Loyalists

Trump's Early Administration Picks Reward Loyalists
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File
Story Stream
recent articles

Donald Trump tapped three men known as conservative hard-liners with experience in the Senate, House and U.S. military Friday to join his administration, signaling a sharp turn to the right and a focus on national security and “law and order” planks in the Trump agenda.

The president-elect, in a written statement, made his first Cabinet appointment, selecting Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former state attorney general and former U.S. attorney from Alabama, to lead the Justice Department as attorney general. Sessions, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an early supporter during Trump’s long-shot campaign, has said he wants to enforce the new president’s tough immigration and anti-crime pledges. Sessions, 69, is considered such a close adviser that he was described by one GOP observer as like an American Express “black card” during deliberations for Cabinet posts: highly valued and useful for almost anything.

Trump also made his third White House staff pick, naming as his national security adviser retired three-star Army Gen. Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was pushed out of the Obama administration in 2014. Flynn, 57, also endorsed the GOP nominee early and has had an outsized influence on Trump’s policy perspectives, including the rhetorical emphasis on “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Flynn’s appointment, which is not subject to Senate confirmation, drew immediate criticism from Democrats and some GOP moderates who believe his fire-breathing temperament, past international business dealings, and sway over U.S. foreign policy could spell trouble.

To lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump named Rep. Mike Pompeo, 52, of Kansas, a member of the Tea Party Caucus elected to the House in 2010. Pompeo, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, initially supported Sen. Marco Rubio for president and opposed Trump, but later joined other House members in backing the New York businessman. He has been an outspoken critic of the Iran nuclear pact and what he calls “failures” of the Obama administration to treat the Iranian government as “the terrorists that they are.”

Trump’s selections showcase his appreciation for loyalists -- or at least those whose views mirror his campaign critiques of President Obama’s policies. Sessions, for example, who was once dogged by accusations of racism, is perceived as the opposite of Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her predecessor, Eric Holder, in the context of their embrace of Obama’s desire to expand rights and promote equal justice.

That contrast encouraged New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to question Sessions’ potential influence over the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, based on what he called the senator’s “past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform.” He said Sessions would face “tough questions” during confirmation hearings.

Liberal group Democracy for America urged Senate Democrats to oppose Sessions as the nation’s top cop. "The idea that Jeff Sessions might become attorney general is a genuine threat to our country and the lives and safety of people of color, Muslim Americans, women, and working families,” Executive Director Charles Chamberlain said in a statement. "The handful of people who might be even less equipped than Jeff Sessions to dispense justice on behalf of the American people typically spend their weekends wearing pointy hats and burning crosses,” he added.

Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump’s White House campaign. The four-term Alabama lawmaker has been one of the president-elect’s most loyal and trusted allies and advisers, particularly on immigration policy.

“He is a world-class legal mind,” Trump said in a statement. “Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”

While Sessions will likely glide to confirmation in the Senate, the process is expected to resurrect controversies that have prevented him from high posts before. In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee on which he now serves rejected his nomination by President Ronald Reagan to a federal judgeship in light of racially charged remarks. He has also been critical of the Voting Rights Act.

“No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Sen. Sessions,” said Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a leading proponent of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

However, Sessions has received wide praise from his Republican colleagues.

Flynn is similarly viewed by Democrats as a stark contrast to outgoing National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who served in the Clinton administration before advising Obama during his 2008 campaign and briefly being considered for secretary of state after serving as ambassador to the United Nations.

Flynn has been a devoted supporter of Trump, standing out from the crowd of national security and intelligence professionals who deemed the now-president-elect unfit to be commander-in-chief.  He will orchestrate the new administration’s national security policies.

Flynn has been advising Trump on military policy throughout the campaign and joining him on intelligence briefings, and was vetted as a potential running mate. His position does not require congressional confirmation, which might have been a key consideration in Trump’s orbit given the general’s controversies. Like Trump, Flynn has been a critic of the Washington establishment, particularly when it comes to defense policy, and has advocated for better relations between the United States and Russia. He was given a prime-time speaking slot at the party convention, and has rallied supporters around the prospect of imprisoning Hillary Clinton and the defeat of radical Islam and terrorism. But the general has come under fire for beliefs and rhetoric that border on anti-Islam. In February, for example, he tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” Critics fear Flynn’s positions could alienate Muslim U.S. allies.

The Trump transition team dismissed concerns about Flynn’s tone, calling him one of the most “respected generals and intelligence officers of his generation” who  “will share the president-elect’s viewpoints in exactly how we should keep America safe.”

Pompeo will become the nation’s top intelligence official in the new administration, pending confirmation. The Kansas congressman is a former Army officer and West Point graduate who earned a law degree from Harvard, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review.

While not as close to Trump personally as the other high-level picks announced Friday, Pompeo has emerged as a key ally. A member of the Select Committee on Benghazi, Pompeo and fellow Rep. Jim Jordan took a harder line, releasing their own report -- apart from the panel’s -- with a more critical view of Clinton’s role in handling the 2012 attack that claimed four American lives. Pompeo has also been a leading critic of Obama when it comes to terrorism, accusing him of focusing more on climate change than the fight against ISIS.

The congressman and Trump share additional views. In 2013, Pompeo delivered a speech on the House floor accusing the American Muslim community of being “complicit” in the Boston Marathon bombings. The statements garnered backlash from Muslim leaders.

Trump described Pompeo as a “brilliant and unrelenting leader” who will “ensure the safety of Americans and our allies.”

Democrat Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, praised his Republican colleague’s “willingness to listen and engage, both key qualities in a CIA director.”

Trump has not yet named his selections for the State Department, defense secretary, and the head of the Department of Homeland Security -- key decisions that will round out the new administration’s national security team.

To date, Trump appears to be leaning heavily on Washington insiders, despite his frequent suggestions that the nation’s capital needs mavericks and innovators to restore the country to greatness. He has emphasized expansive resumes and Washington experience while announcing his initial appointees.

Trump is also partial to white men, judging from the five appointments he’s made and additional names floated in the news media for Cabinet and White House positions yet to be filled.

The president-elect will meet privately with former GOP nominee Mitt Romney this weekend, although his spokesmen cautioned Friday that the meeting could be advisory, or about fence-mending, rather than an actual job interview for secretary of state or other posts.

Trump’s transition spokesmen said the next commander-in-chief, who will be at the Trump Organization’s golf club in New Jersey this weekend, would also meet to gather ideas from educator Michelle Rhee; Michigan school choice advocate Betsy Devos; retired Gen. James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command; Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts; Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, a rumored candidate for the Labor Department; and financier Lew Eisenberg, a potential pick for the Commerce Department.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

Show commentsHide Comments