As President-elect Donald Trump puts together his inner circle, we have to remember these powerful advisers matter more than for “normal” presidents.
For someone with as little government and foreign policy experience and knowledge as Trump, it’s dangerous if he’s surrounded by like-minded loyalists who won’t challenge him or control his worst instincts.
The picks announced Friday for his national security team don’t come close to passing that crucial test. Instead, they will amplify his extreme positions on immigration, terrorism and Russia.
For national security adviser, Trump selected retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his top military adviser during the campaign and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Trump called for a ban on Muslims. Flynn also doesn’t distinguish between Islam – the religion of 1.6 billion people around the world – and “radical Islamic terrorism,” as Trump calls it.
With our allies rightly concerned that Trump has been cozying up to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Flynn also has called for closer ties with Russia. He was paid for a speech by RT, the Kremlin-funded U.S. cable network, and was seated at the same table as Putin at RT’s 10th anniversary gala in Moscow last December.
Flynn’s selection also conflicts with Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists and special interests in a corrupt Washington. It is being reported that a consulting firm founded by Flynn has been lobbying for a company with ties to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Flynn wrote an op-ed, published on Election Day no less, that called for extraditing a Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and whom Erdoğan blames for a failed coup in July.
Despite all these red flags, he’s in like Flynn, as the saying goes, because the national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation.
Trump’s nomination for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is also troubling, but will face a Senate review.
After soothing words about uniting all Americans, Trump tapped alt-right provocateur Steve Bannon as his chief strategist. He now wants another divisive figure as the person supposed to guarantee that all Americans are treated equally under the law.
The first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and vice chairman of his transition team, Sessions backed Trump’s hard line on immigration. Civil rights groups and Democrats immediately objected to Sessions, based on those views and a record of racially charged comments. First elected in 1996, he withdrew from consideration for a federal judgeship in 1986 after accusations that he made racist comments while U.S. attorney.
For director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump nominated a lesser known but no less vocal critic of President Barack Obama on terrorism and international relations. Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, a West Point graduate and member of the House Intelligence Committee, was elected in the 2010 tea party wave.
Like Trump, he has attacked Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and supports the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Some leading Democrats are questioning Pompeo’s role in what they call the Benghazi “witch hunt,” as well as his support for restoring mass surveillance that threatened Americans’ privacy.
So far in his picks, Trump appears to be putting personal loyalty first, which means that there’s not a huge pool to choose from – and that his cabinet could get even worse.
Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s most vociferous attack dogs during the campaign, is reportedly in the mix to be secretary of state, though it’s hard to imagine someone with fewer diplomatic skills. His business dealings with foreign governments, however, may get in his way.
Trump is scheduled to meet this weekend with another potential candidate for that job, Mitt Romney. But it would be shocking if Trump chose Romney, who delivered a point-by-point take-down of Trump during the GOP primaries. Trump isn’t the kind of leader to put together a “team of rivals.”
He still has important cabinet posts to fill, and we want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But if he stays on this track, it will soon become very clear how dangerously extreme his administration could be.