Friday 9 December 2016

The Trump team of hardliners and nationalists slowly takes shape

The team are confrontational hardballers, bound out of loyalty to the boss and the desire to please him, writes Tim Walker

Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30

POWER BASE: From left, prospective US attorney general Jeff Sessions, national security adviser Lt Gen Mike Flynn, next director of the CIA Mike Pompeo and chief strategist Steve Bannon
POWER BASE: From left, prospective US attorney general Jeff Sessions, national security adviser Lt Gen Mike Flynn, next director of the CIA Mike Pompeo and chief strategist Steve Bannon

Donald Trump ran as Donald Trump and is going to govern as Donald Trump. The tweeting will continue. "Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions," he wrote.

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"I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!" The winners of this season's Presidential Apprentice are likely, on balance, to be very conservative and very loyal.

Trump will today meet with Wilbur Ross, a billionaire "king of bankruptcy", as he considers whom to appoint as his trade secretary.

The 78-year-old Wilbur Ross is best known in Ireland for leading a group of five corporate investors who in 2011 took a 35pc stake in Bank of Ireland for €1.1bn - saving the bank from nationalisation. Ross sold his shares between 2013 and 2014, making a €500m profit. Ross has also invested in restructuring debt-riven coal, steel and textile companies, and is a vociferous critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement - the bedrock economic alliance that Trump has threatened to renegotiate.

An economic adviser to Trump during his campaign, Ross has echoed the views of the president-elect on trade and said politicians "don't know a good deal from a bad one".

Trump and Mike Pence, the vice president-elect arrived yesterday at the clubhouse of the Trump International Golf Club in New Jersey, the venue Trump has chosen to host a series of meetings with candidates to fill his remaining cabinet positions.

Mitt Romney, his former Republican nemesis, was among those visiting Trump to discuss filling the position of secretary of state.

Romney, a centre-Right conservative who ran against President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, had called Trump a "con man" and a "fake".

Trump has already this weekend announced three new picks for his White House - Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Retired US Army Lieutenant-General Mike Flynn and Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, all staunch Trump loyalists - leading at least one commentator to refer to the administration now taking shape as a "team of racists".

Under Obama, the role of US Attorney-General - the nation's top law enforcement official - was filled by Eric Holder and later Loretta Lynch, respectively the first black man and woman to hold the post. If Trump has his way, Lynch will be succeeded by Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship in the mid-1980s for having allegedly made racist comments.

The first Senator to endorse Trump for president, Sessions was accused in 1986 of having called a black assistant US district attorney "boy" and of suggesting a white lawyer representing black clients was a "race traitor".

He was also said to have quipped that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "OK, until I learned they smoked pot" - a comment that ought to be no more comforting for African-Americans than for advocates of legalising cannabis.

Sessions, a former Alabama attorney-general, has denied those accusations, but he is on record as an opponent of marriage equality and hate crime protections, and as a supporter of mass deportation and Trump's proposed Muslim ban. He has described the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law, as a "piece of intrusive legislation."

Trump spokesman Jason Miller yesterday dismissed claims of racism directed at Sessions, noting that as a US attorney, "he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama, and he also voted in favour of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act."

However, one leading Democrat expressed his misgivings. New Democratic Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said: "Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what Sessions would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say."

Sessions will have to be confirmed by the Senate before taking over at the US Justice Department. Lt Gen Flynn was reportedly in the frame for the job of Defence Secretary, for which he too would have needed congressional approval. But he has instead been appointed Trump's National Security Adviser, a White House role that requires no such confirmation.

A registered Democrat, Lt Gen Flynn ran the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) until 2014, when he was reportedly fired for his abrasive management style. As an eager Trump surrogate, he has called for Hillary Clinton's imprisonment and said Obama was a "liar" who had no plan to defeat Isil.

Indeed, Lt Gen Flynn appears fixated on the threat from the militant Middle Eastern group, despite a widespread belief among other top military brass that Russia, China and North Korea all pose a greater threat to the US. In August, Lt Gen Flynn described Islam itself as "a cancer" and "a political ideology" that "hides behind this notion of it being a religion".

Despite Trump's pledge to "drain" Washington's "swamp" of lobbyists and special interests, his chosen National Security Adviser also runs a consulting firm that has lobbied on behalf of close allies to the authoritarian Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last year, on a paid speaking visit to Moscow, Lt Gen Flynn was pictured sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Kremlin-backed TV station, Russia Today. Several senior military figures, such as retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, formerly the top US commander in Afghanistan, reportedly urged Lt Gen Flynn to moderate his campaign rhetoric. Others anonymously told the Washington Post they thought him "unhinged".

Yet he will probably have an ally in Pompeo, whom Trump has nominated as the next director of the CIA. The Kansas congressman and Clinton critic is known for his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal and for defending the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding in interrogations.

John Brennan, the current head of the CIA, said recently that he would resign if a new president ordered the agency to resume the practice.

Pompeo has also advocated the restoration of the mass surveillance apparatus exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and said that Snowden deserved the death penalty for revealing the existence of such programmes.

Sessions, Lt Gen Flynn and Pompeo join a prospective White House that already includes VP-elect Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon. Former Arkansas governor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has been floated as a potential pick for US ambassador to Israel.

The Trump team so far includes several white men named Mike, and no women or minorities. Bannon is the mastermind behind the right-wing Breitbart News website, considered the mainstream home of the so-called alt-right. In an interview published yesterday, the top Trump aide denied that he is himself a "white nationalist."

White supremacists have nonetheless expressed glee at Trump's cabinet picks. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted that the appointments of Bannon, Sessions and Lt Gen Flynn were "great", adding: "Senate must demand that Sessions as AG stop the massive institutional race discrimination against whites!"

Andrew Anglin, the founder of neo-Nazi news site the Daily Stormer, wrote: "It's like we're going to get absolutely everything we wanted... Basically, we are looking at a Daily Stormer Dream Team in the Trump administration."

Trump is still considering a range of candidates for other leading national security posts.

His choices for Secretary of State are said to include former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Tennessee senator Bob Corker and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

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