President-elect Donald Trump announced Friday that he plans to nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director, a pair of hard-line conservatives who offer early signs of the shape of Trump’s Cabinet.
Trump also confirmed the news reported a day earlier that he has selected retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as his national security adviser, a position that does not need to be confirmed by the Senate.
“The president-elect is a man of action, and we’ve got a great number of men and women with great qualifications look forward to serving in this administration, and I am just humbled to be a part of it,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence told reporters in New York. “Our agency teams arrived in Washington D.C. this morning, and I am very confident it will be a smooth transition that will serve to lead this country forward.”
The announcements were greeted with widespread applause from Republicans, but Democrats and human rights groups blasted Sessions and Flynn for their hard-line views on Muslims and immigrants that have put them in close alignment with Trump.
Flynn has spoken out frequently against radical Islam and clashed with the Obama administration while serving as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was ousted in 2014. Sessions supported Trump’s call last year for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, and has called for deporting millions of people who are in the country illegally.
In a statement, Trump called Sessions one of his most trusted campaign advisers and cited his “world-class legal mind.”
“Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him,” Trump said.
Trump said he was pleased to have Flynn at his side “as we work to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, navigate geopolitical challenges and keep Americans safe at home and abroad.”
GOP officials working with the Trump transition operation said that the president-elect plans to meet Friday with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), amid reports he is being considered to be U.S. ambassador to Israel. Among those Trump will meet with on Saturday are former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has been cited as a possible candidate for secretary of state, former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who is reportedly being considered for defense secretary.
Meantime, the Trump transition named agency landing teams for the departments of Defense, State and Justice, along with the National Security Council, to help smooth the transfer of power in the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20.
Sessions, 69, was Trump’s first endorser in the Senate and quickly became the then-candidate’s chief resource on policy, but his hard-line views on immigration are expected to make his nomination controversial among human rights groups and Democrats.
The fourth-term senator has been dogged by accusations of racism throughout his career.
In 1986, he was denied a federal judgeship after former colleagues testified before a Senate committee that he joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”
“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, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in a statement. “No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Sen. Sessions.”
Sean Spicer, a Republican National Committee spokesman who has been assisting the Trump transition operation, said on a conference call with reporters that the nominees’ personal view “isn’t what matters. You are serving the president-elect of the United States and his views . . . Everybody who serves in a Trump administration will serve Donald Trump and Mike Pence. They will implement their vision and their ideas.”
Sessions served as a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and as Alabama’s attorney general. In a statement, he said there was “no greater honor” than to lead the Justice Department.
“I will give all my strength to advance the Department’s highest ideals,” he said. “I enthusiastically embrace President-elect Trump’s vision for ‘one America,’ and his commitment to equal justice under law. I look forward to fulfilling my duties with an unwavering dedication to fairness and impartiality.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz), a key Judiciary Committee member who had been wary of Trump during the campaign, intends to support Sessions’s nomination, his office said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speaking at the Federalist Society convention in Washington, said that Sessions would make an “extraordinary” attorney general.
“He is a committed and deeply principled conservative,” Cruz said, “and if those who serve in this administration have even a fraction of his integrity and his commitment to principle, we are going to see an administration that does remarkable things for the people of this country.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) called Sessions a respected member who “has worked across the aisle on major legislation. He knows the Justice Department as a former U.S. attorney, which would serve him very well in this position. With this background, I’m confident he would be reported favorably out of the committee.”
Several Senate Democrats pledged a rigorous confirmation review, but some conservatives suggested it would be politically damaging to Democrats if they attempt to block Trump’s nominees.
“Mr. Trump has a plane and double-digit victories where Senate Democrats are up for reelection,” said Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of The Federalist Society. “Obstructing his nominees will be a political loser.”
Should Sessions win confirmation as attorney general, his Senate seat could be swiftly filled under Alabama law.
The state’s Republican governor, Robert Bentley, can immediately make a temporary appointment to fill the seat once it is declared vacant, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Bentley also has the power to set the date for a subsequent special election to fill the seat until Sessions’s term is set to expire, in 2020. That election could be set to coincide with the next general election in 2018.
Pompeo, 52, was elected to the House in 2010 as part of the first wave of so-called tea party lawmakers. A U.S. Military Academy and Harvard Law School graduate, he has a varied background. He served as a U.S. Army cavalry officer before founding an aerospace company, serving as president of an oil-field equipment manufacturing firm and — in a brief, little-known chapter of his early career — was an attorney with the Washington, D.C. mega-law firm Williams and Connolly.
He currently serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is a close ally of Pence.
“He has served our country with honor and spent his life fighting for the security of our citizens,” Trump said of Pompeo in a statement.
Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy, would make a good CIA director, said one former CIA official who recently spoke with Pompeo but declined to be named because his conversation with the congressman was private.
“He took his duties on the House Intelligence Committee very seriously and understood the role of intelligence in foreign policy and our democracy,” said the former official. “I got no sense of a preconceived agenda and no political comments. Rather, a very smart and decent man who cared about the country and wanted very much to understand the world of intelligence, which is a different world than many ordinarily inhabit.”
Notably, Pompeo backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) over Trump in the Republican presidential primary. In May, a Pompeo spokesman gave a somewhat tepid endorsement, saying the congressman would “support the nominee of the Republican Party because Hillary Clinton cannot be president of the United States.”
Pompeo is a vocal critic of President Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran. “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” he tweeted Thursday, before his offer to become CIA director was public.
The choices of Sessions and Pompeo follow Trump’s decision to offer the position of national security adviser to Flynn, and confirm the president-elect’s desire to assemble his Cabinet by naming national security and law enforcement leaders first.
At the same time, Trump is soliciting the help of Romney, a mainstream consensus figure who had been the face of the Republican resistance to Trump’s candidacy, in assembling his government.
Trump sought a meeting with Romney to broker peace — and Sessions, a vice chairman of Trump’s transition, told reporters that Trump could consider the 2012 GOP presidential nominee for an administration position, perhaps secretary of state.
The presence of Flynn and Romney in Trump’s orbit sends mixed signals to already jittery leaders around the globe, as well as officials in Washington’s foreign policy community, about the tone and substance of the Trump administration’s posture to the world.
Flynn, who would hold the most powerful national security position, is a retired three-star general and decorated intelligence officer who established a close relationship with Trump while campaigning at his side this year. His behavior and a string of controversial and dark statements about Islam, among other topics, have alarmed many of his former colleagues.
Trump’s selection of Flynn comes after the president-elect enraged Democrats and civil rights groups by appointing Stephen K. Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News, an alt-right news site that has become a forum for the white nationalist movement, as his chief strategist and senior counselor in the White House.
Flynn was widely expected to be tapped as national security adviser. A vice chairman of the transition team, Flynn has been a frequent presence at Trump Tower since the election.
Karen DeYoung, Robert Costa, Mike DeBonis, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Phillip Rucker contributed to this report.