by Derek Davison
President-elect Donald Trump’s transition appeared to collapse into chaos on Tuesday, as infighting among his top advisers led to more turnover and slow progress on completing basic requirements. Trump’s transition team endured its second major shakeup in less than a week, when two of his top national security advisers, former Congressman Mike Rogers and consultant Matthew Freedman, were removed from their posts. The first shakeup took place last Friday, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence replaced New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as the head of the transition team (Christie remains on the team as Pence’s deputy). Several other members of the transition team were later removed in what a source told NBC News was a “Stalinesque purge” of anyone in Christie’s orbit.
Much of the chaos reportedly revolves around a personal rivalry between Christie, who was at one point believed to be on the shortlist to be Trump’s running mate, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in-law and the publisher of the New York Observer. Kushner is believed to harbor a grudge against Christie, who prosecuted Kushner’s father for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions in 2004, when Christie was a U.S. attorney—the elder Kushner took a plea deal and served two years in prison. Kushner reportedly talked Trump out of naming Christie as his running mate and is now reportedly conducting a purge of Christie allies from the transition team.
One place where the transition team’s struggles have become most apparent is over the position of Trump’s secretary of defense. Instead of talk coalescing around one or two of, the several candidates who have emerged over the past few days, the pool still seemed to be expanding. The two potential defense picks currently receiving the most discussion are Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who appeared to be the favorite earlier in the day, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who reportedly has Pence’s support.
The Trump Loyalist
The 70-year-old Sessions is a long-time Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who, in February, became the first member of the Senate to endorse Trump’s candidacy. After the endorsement he settled into a role as one of Trump’s national security advisers, praising Trump’s “wise” foreign policy instincts and his “emphasis on a more realistic, pragmatic foreign policy,” in particular with respect to improving U.S.-Russia relations. The latter point seems somewhat incongruous with Sessions’ past statements—in March 2015 he suggested that “Europe and the United States would have to unify and push back more firmly against Russian overreach” if the Minsk Agreement to end fighting in Ukraine were to fail. But Sessions has displayed a willingness to sublimate his own policy preferences in favor of Trump’s. For example, shortly before the election he extolled Trump’s plan to significantly increase defense spending despite Sessions’ own reputation as a budget hawk.
One issue on which Sessions and Trump clearly see eye to eye is immigration. Sessions, who has called for restricting even legal immigration to the U.S., is a major proponent of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and almost single-handedly derailed a bipartisan immigration (despite his efforts, the reform bill passed the Senate in 2013 and was later defeated in the House).
Although he has spent several years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sessions has not really articulated any clear foreign policy views. He did vote against the Iran nuclear deal and termed it a “mistake” that could “create instability” and “lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons” in the Middle East. He has not been a high-profile supporter of the Iranian exile group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) , as have several other national security figures involved in Trump’s transition, but he has participated in MEK-sponsored events in the past. Notably, Sessions is not a major recipient of pro-Israel campaign money, though there is also no record of him straying from a standard pro-Israel line.
The Neocon Champion
Cotton is the neoconservative darling, Bill Kristol protégé, and—you guessed it—MEK ally. He is perhaps best-known for penning a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in early 2015, warning the Iranian leader that America would likely scuttle a nuclear deal after Barack Obama left office. His repeated efforts to undermine the Iran deal—bankrolled by substantial contributions from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel and pro-Israel donors like Paul Singer and Sheldon Adelson—have been unsuccessful, but he may find it easier to accomplish that aim under a Trump administration.
Cotton is undoubtedly among the most militaristic of all Republicans in Congress, particularly when it comes to Iran, which likely explains his close relationship with major U.S. defense contractors. His decision to endorse Trump and even float his own name as a potential Trump running mate in May seemed to reflect a break between Cotton and Kristol, who never endorsed Trump and instead backed Evan McMullin’s independent candidacy. Nevertheless, his selection as defense secretary would represent a major outreach to “Never Trump” neoconservatives.
Cotton, incidentally, is also infamous for blocking Obama’s nomination of former Deputy White House Counsel Cassandra Butts to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas, simply to “inflict special pain on the president” over an unrelated grievance:
At another point Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, put a hold specifically on Butts and on nominees for the ambassadorships to Sweden and Norway. He had a legitimate gripe with the Obama administration over a Secret Service leak of private information about a fellow member of Congress, and he was trying to pressure Obama to take punitive action. But that issue was unrelated to Butts and the Bahamas.
Cotton eventually released the two other holds, but not the one on Butts. She told me that she once went to see him about it, and he explained that he knew that she was a close friend of Obama’s—the two first encountered each other on a line for financial-aid forms at Harvard Law School, where they were classmates—and that blocking her was a way to inflict special pain on the president.
Cotton’s spokeswoman did not dispute Butts’s characterization of that meeting, and stressed, in separate emails, that Cotton had enormous respect for her and her career.
After spending more than 820 days under Cotton’s block, Butts died of leukemia in May 2016.
Other Names in the Mix
Several other possible contenders for the top Pentagon job have been mentioned, and more may come up in the coming days. As of now, the most prominent alternatives to Sessions and Cotton appear to be former Bush National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former Missouri Senator Jim Talent, former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, former CIA Director James Woolsey, California Congressman Duncan Hunter, and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who just lost her reelection bid.
All are firmly established in the neoconservative world—Talent at the American Enterprise Institute, Woolsey at places like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Committee on the Present Danger, Hadley from his service in the Bush administration. During her time in the Senate, Ayotte was a close ally of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and was known for her ultra-hawkish views. Hunter endorsed Trump in February, becoming the second Republican Congressperson to do so, Woolsey and Talent both endorsed Trump toward the end of the race, Talent with seeming reluctantance, while Ayotte actually rescinded a previous endorsement of Trump in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape scandal. Kyl endorsed Marco Rubio during the Republican primary and has so far disavowed any interest in serving in Trump’s administration. Hadley did not make an endorsement, but neither was he critical of Trump despite the candidate’s rhetorical forays outside Republican foreign policy orthodoxy.
Of this group, only Hadley has ever articulated anything approaching a positive view of the Iran nuclear deal, though it would be hard to categorize him as a supporter. Woolsey, a consistent advocate for regime change, called the deal “worse than worthless.” Talent believes the deal should be “unraveled” as soon as possible. And Ayotte called the deal a “historic capitulation.” Woolsey has been an outspoken MEK supporter for several years, and when he was in the Senate Talent advocated for removing the group from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Kyl is a long-standing supporter of regime change in Iran, and in 2013 Hunter actually suggested striking Iran with nuclear weapons.
All six are unrepentant Iraq War backers (Hunter served in Iraq as a Marine, and Hadley, who was Bush’s Deputy National Security Advisor from 2001 to 2005, may have helped manipulate intelligence to strengthen the case for the war). Woolsey has written in support of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank, disingenuously suggesting that those settlements could one day become part of a Palestinian state when in fact their expansion displaces Palestinians from the land and is one of the key obstacles to creating such a state.
Sessions as Attorney General?
Sessions, a long-time member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who previously served as Alabama’s attorney general and as U.S. attorney for Alabama’s southern district, is also reportedly under consideration to serve as Trump’s attorney general. That would leave Defense open for one of the other candidates on the list, or possibly a dark horse like retired General Michael Flynn—though Flynn, as a recently retired officer, would need a waiver from Congress to become defense secretary and is seen as the likely pick to serve as Trump’s National Security Advisor. But on Tuesday, reports also began to emerge that current Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach may be the frontrunner for the attorney general post.
Kobach has little or no public profile when it comes to foreign policy or national security. But he is an anti-immigration zealot who has already joined Trump’s transition team, so his selection would not be terribly surprising. Ultimately the decision may come down to which post Sessions himself prefers—Trump seems to highly value loyalty in selecting cabinet members, and he may feel some obligation to reward Sessions for being one of his first high-profile endorsers. If Sessions winds up at Justice, Kobach could be under consideration to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Two Very Unlikely Candidates for State
Three more names surfaced on Tuesday in connection with the position of secretary of state. Richard Armitage served as deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell during George W. Bush’s first term, while Henry Paulson served as Bush’s secretary of treasury from July 2006 through the end of Bush’s second term. Considering that both Armitage and Paulson publicly supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign, they each seem like the longest of longshots to take a role in Trump’s administration.
The third candidate is California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who is reportedly considered a “fallback” candidate in case ethics concerns keep Trump’s first choice, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, from taking the job. Rohrabacher is another major MEK supporter and champion of regime change in Iran. His views on the Iraq War—which he voted to authorize but now considers “a mistake”—and on Russia seem to fairly closely mirror Trump’s.
Given the state of anarchy into which the Trump transition seems to have descended, many more candidates for these offices will likely be bandied about before any actual selections are made.
Photo: Jefferson Sessions