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Analysis: Trump Charges Ahead With Hard Line With Sessions, Flynn Picks

The decision to ask Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions to take roles in the Trump's administration suggest his cabinet could run much like his campaign.
Image: U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions speaks next to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison
U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions speaks next to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Alabama February 28, 2016.MARVIN GENTRY / Reuters

Donald Trump’s choice of Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general and retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as national security adviser are the latest signal that his cabinet could run much like his unconventional campaign.

The president-elect is increasingly relying on figures who have demonstrated loyalty, share his contempt for elite opinion, and who carry a history of accusations of racism or bigotry that will make them polarizing figures before they assume their job.

The choices also raise questions about how to evaluate Trump’s government in the aftermath of his election, which caught officials in both parties by surprise.

Sessions was Trump's earliest supporter in the Senate, where his fiery opposition to illegal immigration and skepticism toward legal immigration lined up well with Trump’s campaign message.

As a former U.S. attorney, state attorney general, and longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has a relevant background for the job and Senate Republicans — even several who clashed with Trump in the campaign — rushed to announce their support.

Related: What You Need to Know About Trump's Latest Top Picks for Key Jobs

Sessions' earlier career, not his work in the Senate, is likely to draw the most scrutiny in his hearings. He was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 by a rare bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee after hearings revealed disturbing allegations about his views on race.

An African-American colleague said he had called him "boy" and that Sessions said the Ku Klux Klan ''were OK until I found out they smoked pot," which Sessions testified was a joke.

Another colleague alleged he called a variety of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, "un-American" and "communist-inspired" and said that they were "trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them."

Sessions denied any racial animus at the time and has denied it since then, but the pick guarantees a contentious hearing and will further entrench fears among Trump critics that he’ll ignore some Americans, especially vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities, frightened by his election.

Trump's transition team provided statements Friday from Trump supporter Pastor Darrell Scott and from Alabama U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown, both African-Americans, attesting to Sessions' "character" and "integrity." They also noted that Sessions participated in desegregation lawsuits early in his legal career, voted for a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act as senator (which passed unanimously in 2006), and supported President Barack Obama's appointment of Eric Holder as the first African-American attorney general.

Congressional Black Caucus chairman G.K. Butterfield responded to news of his impending nomination with a statement warning that his "civil rights record is appalling and should disqualify him from Senate confirmation."

The Justice Department has served as an important check on state and local governments accused of suppressing minority voters, on police departments accused of violating civil liberties, and on companies accused of discriminatory practices.

It was the Justice Department that sued Trump and his father in the 1970s for allegedly turning black tenants away from their buildings, which led to an eventual settlement. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

Like Sessions, Flynn is experienced in the relevant field to his job, was loyal to Trump when others were not, and leaves behind a trail of questions about his views on minorities, specifically Muslims.

Unlike Sessions, his job does not require Senate confirmation. He served as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for two years before being leaving in 2014 amid allegations his management style rubbed colleagues the wrong way. Flynn claimed he was ousted for his aggressive warnings on the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.

Trump’s choice of CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), has also been accused of painting Muslims with too broad a brush at times but is considered a more conventional choice. A wide range of national security experts, including some who were highly critical of Trump as well as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, have praised Pompeo’s credentials.

Flynn is more divisive and a closer parallel to Trump himself, which may explain their natural affinity. He’s made inflammatory comments and shared conspiratorial and fringe material about political opponents from dubious sources.

Like Trump, who has flouted decades of tradition by not disclosing his taxes or removing his business from his family’s control, there are also ethical concerns about conflicts of interest stemming from Flynn’s consulting work and speeches.

Related: Trump National Security Adviser Pick Flynn Has Medals — and Baggage

"Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL," he tweeted in February. In July, he called on world leaders in Arab and Persian countries to "declare their Islamic ideology sick and must B healed [sic]." He apologized for retweeting an anti-Semitic message by a follower, which he said was an accident. In the final days of the race, he tweeted a conspiracy site tying Hillary Clinton to "Money Laundering" and “Sex Crimes w Children.”

The last tweet may be the most concerning. Trump has a has spread conspiracy theories and has made false claims, sometimes citing dubious sources and sometimes none at all. If he has a top adviser with a similar predilection, it could encourage his worst instincts in a job where determining which information to trust and which to disregard is critical.

In the end, though, Trump has an obvious rejoinder to critics of his choices: You didn’t reject me.

Trump stood by his past attacks on the Central Park Five just last month despite DNA evidence exonerating them years after being convicted in a high-profile and racially charged sexual assault case.

Trump has also retweeted phony crime statistics spread by white supremacists about African-Americans — and unlike Flynn, offered no apologies for doing so. He called for a total ban on Muslim entry into the United States, which Flynn did not support, then walked it back to "extreme vetting."

Trump has roused audiences with apocryphal war stories about dipping bullets in pigs' blood in order to defile the bodies of Muslim prisoners during a mass execution, a far more shocking statement than anything said by Flynn or anyone else Trump has chosen for a White House job.

Voters didn’t hold Trump accountable for these tendencies at the ballot box, so his cabinet being run much like his campaign may not be much of a surprise.