WASHINGTON (JTA) — Controversial pasts with incendiary statements and a fierce loyalty to the president-elect.
Judging from the announcements Donald Trump is expected to make Friday, his White House and Cabinet is likelier to look a lot more like Stephen Bannon than Reince Priebus.
Those are, respectively, Trump’s top strategic adviser and his prospective chief of staff.
Trump’s scheduled announcements – Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., for the CIA; Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., for attorney general, and Gen. Mike Flynn for national security adviser — are more closely identified with Bannon’s radicalism than they are with Priebus’ reputation of going along to get along.
Bannon was the CEO of Breitbart News, a fiercely conservative website that takes a dim view of immigration, big government, the climate change consensus and the “liberal” media. Bannon has called it a “platform” for the views of the alt-right, which includes among its followers anti-Semites, white nationalists, misogynists and homophobes, as well as other radicals who reject these biases. His appointment drew cries of dismay in some Jewish quarters.
Priebus, the laid-back Midwesterner who chairs the Republican National Committee, is a product of the establishment and gets along well with the Republican spectrum. He’s even been known to shmooze with his counterparts at the Democratic National Committee.
Friday’s announcements may be an early sign of the Bannonization of the Trump presidency.
Then again, they may be signs that Trump’s personal and abrasive approach to campaigning may be carrying over into his presidency: Sessions was on a shortlist until The New York Times ran an article Thursday delving into racist comments he allegedly made in his past.
Trump’s reaction? Within an hour or so, a rare release from his transition team said Trump was “unbelievably impressed” with Sessions, and then, on Friday, the news that Sessions had secured the job as America’s top lawyer.
The appointment may have been a sign of Trump’s predilection of sticking it to his critics, especially in the media, or rewarding the loyalty of early supporters.
Here are some notes on the appointees’ careers, with Jewish accents.
Mike Pompeo, CIA director
Pompeo has expressed saber-rattling views on how to deal with Iran – but he also is the single choice Trump made Friday that attracted friendly purring from the establishment, even from Democrats.
“While we’ve had our share of strong differences, I know he’s someone who is willing to listen and engage, both key qualities in CIA Director,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a Jewish lawmaker who is his party’s top member on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, where Pompeo also serves, said on Twitter.
CNN quoted former CIA director Mike Hayden, a leading critic of Trump during the campaign, as saying he was “heartened” that Pompeo was the pick.
Pompeo, moreover, has been one of the leading critics of last year’s deal with Iran that traded sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback, aligning him with much of the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel communities. He is a reliable backer of Israel and last November had high praise for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after they met on an Israel tour.
The Kansas Republican backed the House vote this week for a 10-year extension on Iran sanctions, many of which are currently under presidential waiver because of the nuclear deal.
“Extending sanctions on Iran’s weapons programs is an important part of keeping Americans safe,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Re-authorizing existing prohibitions for an additional 10 years provides President-elect Trump and Congress a solid foundation from which to pursue additional action against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Iran, though, makes Pompeo see red. The byword among opponents to the Iran deal is that toughening it is the likelier way to head off a war. In 2014, Pompeo told reporters war might be the way to go.
“In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he was quoted by ABC Radio as saying at the time.
Pompeo, a former Army officer and a Tea Party Republican, dissented from Republicans investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, who ultimately cleared Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state and later the Democratic presidential nominee, of culpability. He also has opposed efforts to address climate change.
Jeff Sessions, attorney general
Before he was a senator, Sessions was a U.S. attorney in Alabama who hoped to be a federal judge; President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the regional District Court. His contentious confirmation hearings drew headlines at the time, although within a few years the event was obscured by tougher fights for Supreme Court posts.
What beset his nomination were allegations that Sessions had allied with racists and white supremacists while he was a U.S. attorney. The most damaging testimony, which Sessions did not deny, involved the time in 1981 when a colleague, Gerald Hebert, shared with him, in amazement, that a judge had rebuked a white defense lawyer as “a disgrace to his race” for taking on black clients.
Sessions replied, according to Hebert, in accounts that have appeared in multiple publications: “Well, maybe he is.” That helped scuttle Sessions’ hopes for the bench.
Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump and has been one of his closest advisers. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which works closely with Jewish anti-bias groups, calls Sessions’ intimacy with the president-elect a “tragedy.” Sessions vigorously opposed the 2009 Hate Crimes Act, which expanded the scope of the federal ability to prosecute crimes motivated by bias – a bill strongly backed by centrist and liberal Jewish civil liberty groups.
Gen. Mike Flynn, national security adviser
Flynn, a Defense Intelligence Agency chief sacked by President Barack Obama because of allegations that the agency was in disarray, has been one of Trump’s most incendiary surrogates.
At the Republican convention in July, when Trump and other surrogates, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, tried to quiet audience demands that Clinton be jailed, Flynn encouraged them. In a sign of Flynn’s influence, Trump within weeks was reversing course, pledging to jail Clinton should he be elected. (Post-election, Trump has walked back from, if not entirely dismissed, that pledge.)
Flynn also shares Trump’s disdain for nuance in criticizing militancy among Muslims. Unlike the majority of Republicans, who single out “Islamists” or “radical jihadists” or some variation thereof, Flynn emphatically targets the entire faith.
“Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” he said in one February Tweet now making the rounds.
More troubling for Jews, in July, Flynn retweeted a tweet attached to a CNN story in which the Clinton campaign blamed the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee on Russia.
Flynn’s comment attached to the retweet was incendiary but not untypical: “The corrupt Democratic machine will do and say anything to get #NeverHillary into power. This is a new low.”
What was shocking was that the tweeter whom Flynn was approvingly retweeting, “Saint Bibiana,” bearing an icon showing a Confederate soldier, was not just blaming Democrats: “’The USSR is to blame!’” said Saint Bibiana. “Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore.”
In security briefings with Trump, Flynn reportedly has alarmed intelligence officials who have blamed cyberattacks on Russia. Flynn has been paid for a speech in Moscow and attended an official dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The closeness of a national security adviser to a regime that has joined Iran in a loose military alliance with the Assad rule in Syria is sure to rattle some in Israel’s security establishment.
“The president-elect would be better served by someone with a healthy skepticism about Russian intentions,” Schiff said in a statement.
Flynn’s consulting firm has also done work for Turkish clients. Flynn has said that he would divest himself of the company should he go into government service.
The secretaries of state
An array of names has cropped up to take the post in a Trump administration. All the prospective secretaries of state are firmly in the pro-Israel column – no Russian flirtations as caveats – and all have government experience and extolled a robust American posture overseas, a view aligned with the Republican establishment. These include Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
If a name comes up out of right field, however, and it earns healthy scoops of derision from the party establishments and the pundit class – don’t count out Trump making the call.
Just because he can.