When President Barack Obama put together his first cabinet in late 2008, a group that included his sometime bitter electoral opponent Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, he was hailed for emulating Abraham Lincoln by assembling a so-called “team of rivals”.
As President-elect Donald Trump announced three new picks for his White House on Friday – Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Retired US Army Lieutenant-General Mike Flynn and Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, all staunch Trump loyalists – at least one commentator referred to the Trump administration now taking shape as a “team of racists”.
Under Mr Obama, the role of US Attorney General – the nation’s top law enforcement official – was filled by Eric Holder and later Loretta Lynch, respectively the first black man and woman to hold the post. If Mr Trump has his way, Ms Lynch will be succeeded by Mr Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship in the mid-1980s for having allegedly made racist comments.
The first Senator to endorse Mr Trump for President, Mr Sessions was accused in 1986 of having called a black assistant US district attorney “boy” and of suggesting a white lawyer representing black clients was a “race traitor”.
He was also said to have quipped that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay, until I learned they smoked pot” – a comment that ought to be no more comforting for African-Americans than for advocates of legalising cannabis.
Mr Sessions, a former Alabama Attorney General, has denied those accusations, but he is on the record as an opponent of marriage equality and hate crime protections, and as a supporter of mass deportation and Mr Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. He has described the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law, as a “piece of intrusive legislation.”
Trump spokesman Jason Miller on Friday dismissed claims of racism directed at Mr Sessions, noting that as a US attorney, “he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama, and he also voted in favour of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act.”
However, one leading Democrat expressed his misgivings. New Democratic Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said: “Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what [Mr Sessions] would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say”.
Mr Sessions will have to be confirmed by the Senate before taking over at the US Justice Department. Lt Gen Flynn was reportedly in the frame for the job of Defence Secretary, for which he too would have needed congressional approval. But he has instead been appointed Mr Trump’s National Security Adviser, a White House role that requires no such confirmation.
A registered Democrat, Lt Gen Flynn ran the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) until 2014, when he was reportedly fired for his abrasive management style. As an eager Trump surrogate, he has called for Ms Clinton’s imprisonment and said Mr Obama was a “liar” who had no plan to defeat Isis.
Indeed, Lt Gen Flynn appears fixated on the threat from the militant Middle Eastern group, despite a widespread belief among other top military brass that Russia, China and North Korea all pose a greater threat to the US. In August, Lt Gen Flynn described Islam itself as “a cancer” and “a political ideology” that “hides behind this notion of it being a religion”.
Despite Mr Trump’s pledge to “drain” Washington’s “swamp” of lobbyists and special interests, his chosen National Security Adviser also runs a consulting firm that has lobbied on behalf of close allies to the authoritarian Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Last year, on a paid speaking visit to Moscow, Lt Gen Flynn was pictured sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Kremlin-backed TV station, Russia Today.
Several senior military figures, such as retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, formerly the top US commander in Afghanistan, reportedly urged Lt Gen Flynn to moderate his campaign rhetoric. Others anonymously told the Washington Post they thought him “unhinged”.
Yet he will probably have an ally in Mr Pompeo, whom Mr Trump has nominated as the next director of the CIA. The Kansas congressman and Clinton critic is known for his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal and for defending the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding in interrogations. John Brennan, the current head of the CIA, said recently that he would resign if a new president ordered the agency to resume the practice.
Mr Pompeo has also advocated the restoration of the mass surveillance apparatus exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and said that Mr Snowden deserved the death penalty for revealing the existence of such programmes.
Mr Sessions, Lt Gen Flynn and Mr Pompeo join a prospective White House that already includes Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Former Arkansas Governor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has been floated as a potential pick for US Ambassador to Israel.
The Trump team so far includes several white men named Mike, and no women or minorities. Mr Bannon is the mastermind behind the right-wing Breitbart News website, considered the mainstream home of the so-called “alt-right”. In an interview published on Friday, the top Trump aide denied that he is himself a “white nationalist.”
White supremacists have nonetheless expressed glee at Mr Trump’s cabinet picks. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted that the appointments of Mr Bannon, Mr Sessions and Lt Gen Flynn were “great”, adding: “Senate must demand that Sessions as AG stop the massive institutional race discrimination against whites!”
Andrew Anglin, the founder of neo-Nazi news site the Daily Stormer, wrote: “It’s like we’re going to get absolutely everything we wanted… Basically, we are looking at a Daily Stormer Dream Team in the Trump administration.”
Mr Trump is still considering a range of candidates for other leading national security posts. His choices for Secretary of State are said to include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Mr Trump has planned the weekend meetings for his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Those travelilng there for discussions include 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who lambasted Mr Trump as a “fraud” in a speech in March. Mr Trump responded by repeatedly referring to Mr Romney as a “loser.”Reuse content