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Trump’s national security picks under scrutiny

By AFP - Nov 19,2016 - Last updated at Nov 19,2016

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump meets on Saturday with Mitt Romney, one of his most vocal Republican Party critics now considered a long-shot choice for secretary of state, after naming three polarising conservatives to fill key national security and judicial posts.

Anti-immigration Senator Jeff Sessions, one of Trump's earliest supporters during the campaign, was nominated on Friday to be attorney general, signaling Trump is prepared to take his hard line on illegal immigration into the White House.

To lead the CIA, Trump tapped hawkish Congressman Mike Pompeo, a strident opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and a sharp critic of Trump's campaign rival Hillary Clinton during hearings into the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.

The incoming commander-in-chief also appointed retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, a top military counsel to the 70-year-old Republican billionaire-turned-world-leader, as his national security adviser.

Hours after the picks were revealed, New York state's attorney general announced that Trump had reached a $25 million settlement in class action suits accusing his now-defunct Trump University of fraud.

The case had been a cloud over his campaign for months, and the deal spares him the embarrassment of further legal wrangling as he forms his government. Attorney Daniel Petrocelli hailed it as a “victory for everybody”.

In New York, Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed at a performance of award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton”, whose cast made an unusual on-stage plea for the Trump administration to “uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us”.

Reassuring signals  

While his picks suggest he is adhering to conservative positions, Trump made efforts to send reassuring signals about stability and continuity regarding America’s place in the world.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said he had a “good talk” with Trump by telephone, telling AFP in Brussels he was “absolutely confident” that the incoming president remains committed to the transatlantic alliance.

Kansas lawmaker Pompeo, 52, co-authored a report slamming then-secretary of state Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attack, in which the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans died.

Deeper controversy surrounds Trump’s national security adviser Flynn, 57, who is set to play an influential role in shaping policy for a president with no experience in government or diplomacy, including how to contend with an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Flynn raised eyebrows when he travelled to Moscow and dined alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And he has refused to rule out enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, which have been described as torture and which Trump repeatedly condoned while campaigning.

Flynn has described Islam as a “cancer” and a “political ideology”, and in February tweeted that “fear of Muslims is rational”.

He is highly respected as a decorated military intelligence officer who helped combat insurgent networks. But President Barack Obama fired him as head of the defence.

Intelligence Agency in 2014 following complaints about his leadership style.

Flynn’s appointment does not require Senate approval.

But that of Sessions as attorney general does, and he has baggage: racially charged comments he made in the 1980s and which once cost him a chance for a job for life as a federal judge.

A panel denied him a federal judgeship in 1986, after hearing testimony that he had used racially derogatory remarks to describe blacks, that civil rights groups were “communist-inspired” and “un-American,” and joked that the only issue he had with the Ku Klux Klan was their drug use.

Sessions has also been a fiery opponent of immigration, waging war on efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform through Congress in 2007 and 2013.

Senator Chuck Schumer, who will be the chamber’s top Democrat come January, warned that Sessions could have a confirmation fight on his hands.

“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,” Schumer said.

‘Working all weekend’ 

The appointments came a day after the president-elect met with a foreign leader for the first time: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who said he could have “great confidence” in Trump as a US leader.

Some US allies have been rattled by Trump’s campaign comments that questioned whether he would maintain US loyalty to joint security arrangements and free trade accords.

Romney — the moderate, failed 2012 presidential candidate — would be a long-shot choice for secretary of state, alongside former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

If chosen, Romney would bring a more orthodox Republican worldview to foreign policy. In 2012, he described Russia as the top geopolitical threat — a sharp contrast to Trump, who has exchanged compliments with Putin.
Romney had described Trump as a “fraud”, rebuking the tycoon for proposals such as banning the entry of all foreign Muslims.

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