Saturday 21 April 2018

Donald Trump picks staunch conservatives for two cabinet positions

Donald Trump is putting together a team to help him run the US after winning the presidential election (AP)
Donald Trump is putting together a team to help him run the US after winning the presidential election (AP)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) gestures as he answers questions from the media after meeting with Donald Trump (AP)

President-elect Donald Trump signalled a sharp rightward shift in US national security policy on Friday with his announcement that he will nominate senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general and representative Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, turning to a pair of staunch conservatives as he begins to fill out his Cabinet.

Mr Trump also named retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. A former military intelligence chief, Lt Gen Flynn has accused the Obama administration of being too soft on terrorism and has cast Islam as a "political ideology" and driver of extremism.

Mr Sessions and Lt Gen 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 Mr 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 US and abroad.

Mr Trump's initial decisions suggest a more aggressive military involvement in counter-terror strategy and a greater emphasis on Islam's role in stoking extremism.

Mr Sessions, who is best known for his hard-line immigration views, has questioned whether terror suspects should benefit from the rights available in US courts. Mr Pompeo has said Muslim leaders are "potentially complicit" in attacks if they do not denounce violence carried out in the name of Islam.

Mr Pompeo's nomination to lead the CIA also opens the prospect of the US resuming torture of detainees.

Mr Trump has backed harsh interrogation techniques that President Barack Obama and Congress have banned, saying the US "should go tougher than waterboarding", which simulates drowning. In 2014, Mr Pompeo criticised Mr Obama for "ending our interrogation programme" and said intelligence officials "are not torturers, they are patriots".

Transition officials said the president-elect's senior team would be carrying out Mr Trump's policies, not their own ideas.

"Anyone's personal view isn't what matters," said Sean Spicer, a transition communications aide.

Mr 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.

Mr Sessions and Mr Pompeo would both require Senate confirmation before assuming their designated roles; Lt Gen Flynn would not.

Most of Trump's nominees are expected to be confirmed relatively easily given the Republican majority in the Senate. However, potential roadblocks exist, particularly for Mr Sessions, the first senator to endorse Mr 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 US attorney "boy" in conversation. Mr Sessions denied the accusation, but withdrew from consideration.

Some Democrats slammed Mr Sessions' nomination on Friday, including Representative Luis Gutierrez 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.

Mr 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 spectre of voting fraud, a problem that current Justice Department leaders believe is negligible.

Mr Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point, is a conservative Republican and a strong critic of Mr 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 programmes in which the US government collected the phone records of millions of Americans.

Anthony Romero, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Mr Pompeo's views raise concerns about "privacy and due process".

Of Mr Trump's new personnel picks, Lt Gen 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.

Lt Gen 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 Defence Intelligence Agency in 2014 because he disagreed with Mr Obama's approach to combating extremism, though his critics claimed he mismanaged the agency.

In advising Mr Trump's campaign, Lt Gen Flynn has emphasized that he believes the Islamic State poses an existential threat on a global scale. He shares Mr Trump's belief that Washington should work more closely with Moscow, and his warmth toward Russia worries some national security experts.

Lt Gen Flynn travelled 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. Lt Gen 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 US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, senator Bob Corker and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who met with Mr Trump on Thursday.

On Saturday, Mr Trump is to meet with retired General James Mattis, a contender to lead the Pentagon. He was also meeting with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who lambasted Mr Trump as a "con man" and a "fraud" in a stinging speech in March. Mr Trump responded by repeatedly referring to Mr Romney as a "loser".


Press Association

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