NEW YORK >> President-elect Donald Trump signaled a sharp rightward shift in U.S. national security policy today with his announcement that he will nominate Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, turning to a pair of staunch conservatives as he begins to fill out his Cabinet.
Trump also named retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. A former military intelligence chief, Flynn has accused the Obama administration of being too soft on terrorism and has cast Islam as a “political ideology” and driver of extremism.
Sessions and Flynn were ardent Trump supporters during the campaign, and their promotions were seen in part as a reward for their loyalty.
The selections form the first outlines of Trump’s Cabinet and national security teams. Given his lack of governing experience and vague policy proposals during the campaign, his selection of advisers is being scrutinized both in the U.S. and abroad.
Trump’s initial decisions suggest a more aggressive military involvement in counterterror strategy and a greater emphasis on Islam’s role in stoking extremism. Sessions, who is best known for his hard-line immigration views, has questioned whether terror suspects should benefit from the rights available in U.S. courts. Pompeo has said Muslim leaders are “potentially complicit” in attacks if they do not denounce violence carried out in the name of Islam.
Pompeo’s nomination to lead the CIA also opens the prospect of the U.S. resuming torture of detainees. Trump has backed harsh interrogation techniques that President Barack Obama and Congress have banned, saying the U.S. “should go tougher than waterboarding,” which simulates drowning. In 2014, Pompeo criticized Obama for “ending our interrogation program” and said intelligence officials “are not torturers, they are patriots.”
Transition officials said the president-elect’s senior team would be carrying out Trump’s policies, not their own ideas.
“Anyone’s personal view isn’t what matters,” said Sean Spicer, a transition communications aide.
Trump did not appear, instead releasing a statement announcing his decisions. He has made no public appearances this week, holing up in his New York skyscraper for meetings. He is spending the weekend at his New Jersey golf club.
Sessions and Pompeo would both require Senate confirmation before assuming their designated roles; Flynn would not.
Most of Trump’s nominees are expected to be confirmed relatively easily given the GOP majority in the Senate. However, potential roadblocks exist, particularly for Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump and one of the chamber’s most conservative members.
His last Senate confirmation hearing, in 1986 for a federal judgeship, was derailed over allegations that he made racist comments, including calling a black assistant U.S. attorney “boy” in conversation. Sessions denied the accusation, but withdrew from consideration.
Some Democrats slammed Sessions’ nomination Friday, including Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, who said the senator was the right pick “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.”
Still, Republicans were supportive. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called his Senate colleague “principled, forthright, and hardworking” and said he looked forward to the chamber’s “fair and expeditious” handing of the nomination.
Sessions would bring to the Justice Department a consistently conservative voice. He has objected to the planned closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and has given prominence to the specter of voting fraud, a problem that current Justice Department leaders believe is negligible.
Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is a conservative Republican and a strong critic of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. He has said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden should enjoy due process and then be sentenced to death for taking and releasing secret documents about surveillance programs in which the U.S. government collected the phone records of millions of Americans.
Anthony Romero, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Pompeo’s views raise concerns about “privacy and due process.”
Of Trump’s new personnel picks, Flynn will have the most direct access to the president. The national security adviser works from the West Wing and is often one of the last people to meet with the president before major foreign policy decisions are made.
Flynn built a reputation in the military intelligence community as an astute professional and unconventional thinker. He asserted that he was forced out of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 because he disagreed with Obama’s approach to combating extremism, though his critics claimed he mismanaged the agency.
In advising Trump’s campaign, Flynn has emphasized that he believes the Islamic State poses an existential threat on a global scale. He shares Trump’s belief that Washington should work more closely with Moscow, and his warmth toward Russia worries some national security experts.
Flynn traveled last year to Moscow, where he joined Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials in a celebration of the RT network, a Russian government-controlled television channel. Flynn said he was paid for taking part in the event, but brushed aside concerns that he was aiding a Russian propaganda effort.
The president-elect is still weighing a range of candidates for other leading national security posts. Possibilities for secretary of state are said to include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who met with Trump Thursday.
On Saturday, Trump is to meet with retired Gen. James Mattis, a contender to lead the Pentagon. He was also meeting with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who lambasted Trump as a “con man” and a “fraud” in a stinging speech in March. Trump responded by repeatedly referring to Romney as a “loser.”