We knew better than to expect a thoughtful and measured cast for the reality show that is Donald Trump’s cabinet appointment process. But for many of us, the presidential cabinet is shaping up to be worse than we could have imagined. While more or less everyone Trump has appointed to his cabinet is worth opposing, here’s a look at some of the most troubling appointments to posts that will influence the foreign policy and national security of the United States.
Steve Bannon – Chief Strategist and Senior Counsel
Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist and senior counselor to the president was the first of what has become a long list of abhorrent choices for the presidential cabinet. Until becoming the CEO of Trump’s campaign, Bannon was serving as the chair of Breitbart News, an online media outlet that’s helped propel white supremacy, Islamophobia, misogyny and ultra-conservatism into the mainstream of modern American politics. His leadership at Breitbart is presumably what earned his appointment immediate praise from unabashed racists like former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke, and American Nazi Party Chairman Rocky J. Suhadya.
Bannon’s racism and hostility towards Muslims in particular is not up for debate. He’s called Jason Richwine, who’s argued that Hispanics have lower IQs than non-Hispanic whites, “one of the smartest brains out there in demographics, demography, this whole issue of immigration, what it means to this country.” He described the current refugee crisis as a “kind of global Camp of the Saints,” referencing a book described by Right Wing Watch as “a racist dystopian anti-immigrant novel beloved of white supremacists.” He also hosted a radio show called Breitbart News Daily on which he regularly interviewed anti-Muslim extremists and conspiracy theorists and praised them as “top experts” on Islam.
The potential impact on foreign policy Bannon could have as chief strategist and senior counsel is significant. For one, Bannon’s support for military escalation in the war on terror, which has done more to fuel violent extremism than to reduce it, could embolden Trump to go farther than he otherwise would in escalating the fight against ISIS. Then there’s Bannon’s fear mongering around Muslim refugees, which would likely reinforce Trump’s already virulent anti-refugee stance. Trump has suggested a variety of bans on refugees, from banning all Muslim immigration (refugee or otherwise) to blocking refugees from countries “compromised by terrorism,” but in every iteration, Muslim refugees are likely to be the most impacted. Given that turning our backs on Muslim refugees would feed into the narrative that Muslims are not welcome in the West – a narrative that extremist groups harp on to recruit new members – shutting our doors would negatively impact our efforts to confront violent extremism for years to come.
Michael Flynn – National Security Advisor
Trump’s appointment of Michael Flynn, a retired Lt. General and Islamophobic conspiracy theorist, to the post of National Security Advisor ironically poses a grave threat to national security. Shortly after he was named to the post, Peace Action signed onto a letter to the President-elect with 52 other progressive groups opposing Flynn’s appointment and highlighting why he must not be allowed to serve.
Flynn is a hardcore interventionist through and through. He once summed up his view of the U.S. relationship with the world in an op-ed promoting his book, Field of Flight, writing that the U.S. is in “a global war, facing an enemy alliance that runs from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Havana, Cuba, and Caracas, Venezuela. Along the way, the alliance picks up radical Muslim countries and organizations such as Iran, al Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State.” In line with that thinking, he was an avid opponent of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, advocating instead for regime change.
His egregious statements and absurd conspiracy theories are equally troubling coming from a man who may be responsible for consolidating national security advice from relevant departments and presenting that advice to the President. He’s called Islam “a political ideology” and “a cancer,” and claimed that Sharia law is spreading in certain parts of the country. He tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” (his emphasis). He’s also claimed that signs in Arabic along the U.S.-Mexico border are there for the express purpose of guiding terrorists into the U.S.
To top it all off, Flynn has been receiving classified intelligence briefings while also advising foreign governments, and has reportedly leaked classified information to foreign governments as well as his lobbying firm, Flynn Intel Group.
Mike Pompeo – Director of the C.I.A.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) has been tapped to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Unlike many of Trump’s appointments, Pompeo’s time in the House of Representatives allows for a detailed analysis of his foreign policy positions, and surprise… they’re pretty terrible. Pompeo has a 6% voting record with Peace Action since taking office, meaning that 94% of the time, he’s voted against Peace Action’s positions. In fact, since 2013, he has a 0% voting record with Peace Action.
In terms of votes particularly relevant to his possible role as Director of the C.I.A., there’s no good news. He voted against an amendment that would have prohibited the NSA from collecting metadata without a suspicion of terrorist activity, he voted against ending indefinite detention (even for U.S. citizens), and he repeatedly voted to keep Guantanamo open.
Pompeo’s nomination also adds to the now sizeable list of Trump’s cabinet picks who vehemently oppose the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and who in some cases openly call for forced regime change in Iran. Despite Iran’s adherence to the deal, one year after the deal was concluded, Pompeo used the anniversary to argue that “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” Also, the day before Trump announced his nomination, Pompeo tweeted about the Iran Deal, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” As Director of the C.I.A., Pompeo could be in a unique position to push for and potentially orchestrate the regime change he’s advocated for. After all, the C.I.A. helped overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953, and that worked out great right up until the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis…
Rex Tillerson – Secretary of State
Rex Tillerson, the Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, has been tapped to be the next Secretary of State, a position that’s fourth in line to the presidency. Tillerson has been working for Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company, for forty years, and sitting at the helm for ten. For the better part of his life, Tillerson has been working to advance Exxon’s interests, even when those interests are in direct conflict with American ones.
For example in Iraq in 2011, American diplomats had successfully convinced the Iraqi government to share the country’s oil with various fractions in an effort to bring the country together after years of war. But Tillerson had other plans. As the New York Times described it:
Under its chief executive, Rex W. Tillerson, the giant oil company sidestepped Baghdad and Washington, signing a deal directly with the Kurdish administration in the country’s north. The move undermined Iraq’s central government, strengthened Kurdish independence ambitions and contravened the stated goals of the United States.
While much has been said about Tillerson’s possible conflicts of interest, some are reassured by the belief that if he’s confirmed for the position of Secretary of State, Tillerson would have to sell his formidable stake in Exxon Mobil. But a little known statute actually gives Trump the ability to waive this requirement if he determines that Tillerson’s “interest is not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of the services which the Government may expect from such officer or employee.” This means Tillerson could potentially be leading the State Department while retaining as much as $151 million in Exxon Mobil stock. While it’s hard to imagine that Trump could get away with arguing that $151 million stake in a company is not a conflict of interest, a lot of things about Trump were hard to imagine before they happened.
But even if Tillerson did sell his stake in Exxon, it’s naive to think that he would suddenly see foreign policy through the lens of American interests rather than the business interests he’s worked to advance for 40 years. Take Trump for example. Being elected President hasn’t stopped him from using his position to advance his personal business interests. We shouldn’t expect anything different from Tillerson.
Rick Perry – Secretary of Energy
In 2011, Rick Perry was running to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. During a debate, he had a hilarious moment when he proclaimed to the nation, “It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the uh… what’s the third one there, let’s see…” and he really couldn’t remember the third one. The moderator even asked him to think about it and see if he could remember which other government department he wanted to do away with and for the political life of him, he couldn’t remember, at which point, he famously surrendered his time with a smile and the word, “Oops.” After the debate, he was asked again what the third department he would abolish was. It was the Department of Energy, which Donald Trump has nominated him to lead.
So what does the Department of Energy (DOE) do anyways? For one, it’s responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal, though unfortunately Perry’s plan to abolish the department probably didn’t include steps to abolish nuclear weapons. The DOE is also tasked with securing loose nuclear materials, cleaning up nuclear messes, and conducting various types of energy research and development.
While Perry certainly won’t abolish the department, he’ll likely make some significant changes. One way to guess what those changes might be is by looking at his ties to the energy industry. For one, Perry spent the past two years sitting on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that’s sparked massive protests in response to the company’s plans to build the oil pipeline through Native American land. Open Secrets also shows that Perry received nearly $2 million in political contributions for his 2016 run for President from the oil and gas industry, far more than any other industry was willing to sink into his campaign.
In addition to Perry’s ties to the fossil fuel industry, his history of climate change denial further suggests that a DOE run by Perry won’t be investing in renewable energy in the same way it has under President Obama’s leadership. And to the extent that investing in renewable energy can mitigate the effects of climate change, failing to invest will worsen those effects, which are already fueling major conflicts and undermining global stability.
As for the DOE’s role in all things nuclear, the department’s nonproliferation efforts are particularly critical, given that they reduce the risk of nuclear weapons or materials falling into the hands of those who would use them in an attack. While Perry likely won’t be abandoning those efforts, his lack of scientific expertise, as well as his distaste for diplomatic nonproliferation efforts like the Iran Nuclear Agreement, aren’t encouraging.
Put another way, the impact the DOE can have on climate change combined with the impact its nonproliferation efforts can have in reducing the risk of a nuclear attack effectively makes the Secretary of Energy an important post for protecting national security and maintaining global stability. Together, climate change and nuclear war are arguably the two greatest existential threats to humanity, at least among threats that we have some control over, and when you ask yourself who should and shouldn’t be in charge of a government department that can reduce those threats, well… “Oops” says it all.
The incoming administration poses incalculable threats to the country and the world. There’s no getting around that. There’s also no getting around our responsibility to confront those threats. Blocking these appointments, or even the act of trying to, is a critical first step. We may not succeed in stopping all of them. But we will not be overwhelmed and silenced by this onslaught. Rather, we will come together. We will unite in our opposition. And with a combination of luck and determined organizing, we may succeed in blocking some of them, just as we will succeed in shutting down some of the worst policies to come. Please pick one of these appointments and call your Senators and Representative today to ask that they speak out against them. Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and they’ll connect you with your Members of Congress.