President-elect Donald Trump on Friday signaled his intention to deliver on his hard-line campaign promises on immigration policy, voting rights, policing and domestic surveillance of Muslims and others suspected of terrorist ties by tapping a trio of staunch conservatives for senior national security roles in his administration.
Trump announced that he plans to nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director, while also choosing retired lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn as his White House national security adviser.
Trump’s selections were greeted with widespread applause by his core supporters and other Republicans. But Democrats and civil rights advocates denounced Sessions and Flynn for their controversial records, portending a potentially messy Senate confirmation process for Sessions, a 20-year veteran of the chamber.
The announcements came as Trump is weighing his choices for two of the Cabinet’s highest- profile posts: secretary of state and secretary of defense. He retreated Friday afternoon to his golf club at Bedminster, N.J., where he intends to spend the weekend with working sessions with his staff and visitors, including 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Sessions, 69, was Trump’s first endorser in the Senate and quickly became an influential policy adviser to the GOP nominee. He consistently defended Trump, including after an “Access Hollywood” video showed Trump bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. Sessions argued that Trump’s comments did not describe sexual assault.
Sessions 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.”
The NAACP wrote in a Twitter message that Sessions’s nomination is “deeply troubling, and supports an old, ugly history where Civil Rights were not regarded as core American values.”
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said in a statement, “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.”
Senate Republican leaders rallied to Sessions’s defense and said they intended to approve his nomination to lead the Justice Department and serve as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
In a statement, Trump heaped praise on his nominee, celebrating Sessions’s “world-class legal mind” and noting his tenure in Alabama as U.S. attorney and state attorney general. “Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him,” Trump said.
Sessions said in a statement that there was “no greater honor” than to lead the Justice Department.
“I enthusiastically embrace President-elect Trump’s vision for ‘one America,’ and his commitment to equal justice under law,” Sessions said. “I look forward to fulfilling my duties with an unwavering dedication to fairness and impartiality.”
Because of Senate filibuster rule changes, Democrats’ options to derail Sessions’s nomination are limited. To be confirmed, Sessions would need a simple majority in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Unlike Sessions and Pompeo, Flynn is appointed and does not require Senate confirmation. Still, Trump’s pick of the three-star general and decorated intelligence officer has ignited controversy.
Flynn has made inflammatory and derogatory comments about Muslims, and he traveled to Moscow last year to dine alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala celebrating RT, the state-run propaganda television network. Flynn also supported Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
The president elect is also scheduled to meet Saturday with Romney, who was a fierce critic of Trump’s candidacy but who is being discussed as a potential candidate for secretary of state.
Other scheduled visitors on Saturday include former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, retired Marine general James Mattis, who is seen as a plausible defense secretary, and Robert L. Woodson Sr., who heads the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington.
Woodson, who advises House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on poverty issues, said he is being considered for secretary of housing and urban development. If selected, Woodson, who is black, would add diversity to Trump’s team.
Meanwhile, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, is the leading candidate as Trump’s pick for Director of National Intelligence, according to a person familiar with the matter. The DNI oversees all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. Rogers took up the helm of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command in April 2014 in the wake of disclosures of widespread NSA collection activities that rocked public confidence in the agency. His term was set to expire in the spring, and his future was uncertain. He has had a rocky relationship with Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Rogers’s consideration was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who is chairing Trump’s transition, put a positive spin on Trump’s announced appointments and future selections during a brief visit with reporters Friday at Trump Tower in New York.
“The president-elect is a man of action, and we’ve got a great number of men and women with great qualifications who look forward to serving in this administration,” Pence said. “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.”
Trump characterized Flynn, who was one of his most trusted campaign advisers and frequently traveled with him and spoke at rallies, as “one of the country’s foremost experts on military and intelligence matters.”
“I am pleased that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn will be by my side as we work to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, navigate geopolitical challenges and keep Americans safe at home and abroad,” Trump said.
After meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday evening, Trump continued his outreach to world leaders on Friday by speaking by phone with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
During the campaign, Trump had said he might reconsider the United States’ commitment to the alliance. But he and Stoltenberg “underlined NATO’s enduring importance” during Friday’s call, according to a statement from a NATO spokeswoman. Stoltenberg invited Trump to Brussels for the NATO summit next year.
As they have all week, potential administration appointees cycled through Trump Tower on Friday for face-to-face meetings with the president-elect, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a potential defense secretary candidate, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), who is under consideration to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Huckabee swatted away questions from reporters about whether he was seeking a position. “My job right now is to listen to the president-elect,” he said. “It’s his job to make the decisions. . . . The only person giving out jobs in this building is President-elect Donald Trump, not me.”
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. Teams will begin work in other agencies and departments next week.
Trump’s selection of Pompeo to lead the CIA did not spark as much controversy as his choices of Sessions and Flynn.
Pompeo, 52, was elected to the House in 2010 as part of the first wave of tea party lawmakers. A U.S. Military Academy and Harvard Law School graduate, he served as an Army cavalry officer before founding an aerospace company and running an oil-field equipment manufacturing firm. He also has worked as an attorney with the Washington mega-firm Williams and Connolly.
Pompeo serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is a close ally of Pence. He backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) over Trump in the Republican primaries but supported Trump in the general election.
A vocal critic of Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran, Pompeo gained prominence through his role in the congressional investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and assailed former secretary of state Hillary Clinton during the committee’s hearings.
Trump said of Pompeo: “He has served our country with honor and spent his life fighting for the security of our citizens. . . . He will be a brilliant and unrelenting leader for our intelligence community to ensure the safety of Americans and our allies.”
Senate Democrats have pledged a rigorous confirmation review for all of Trump’s nominees — especially Sessions.
“I know Senator Sessions and we work out in the gym, but the fact that he is a senator does not absolve him from answering tough questions in the confirmation process,” incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say.”
But some conservatives suggested it would be politically damaging to Democrats if they attempt to block Trump’s nominees, pointing to the fact that a handful of Senate Democrats face reelection in 2018 in states that Trump carried easily.
“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.”
Karen DeYoung, Robert Costa, Mike DeBonis, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, Julie Tate and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.