by Derek Davison
At a campaign fund-raising event in early September, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said that “you can put half of [Donald] Trump supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” Clinton apologized for these remarks the next day, saying “I regret saying ‘half’ – that was wrong.”
Her characterization of Trump’s supporters may well have been too “grossly generalistic,” in her words. But as Donald Trump’s national security team begins—albeit chaotically—to take shape, it’s becoming clear that Trump does have a “basket of deplorables” around him. And many of them are going to wind up serving in his administration.
The Deplorable’s Deplorable
Amid news of the removal of former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers from Trump’s national security transition team, the Wall Street Journal reported that the team was picking up a new member: Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Pentagon official who most recently served as one of Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s top national security advisers. The New York Times reported that Gaffney is merely serving as an adviser to Trump’s team, while the Washington Post identified Gaffney as a “wild card” candidate to be named as Trump’s CIA director.
Gaffney is as Islamophobic and given to baseless conspiracy theorizing as anyone in American politics. I wrote about him in this space in March, when Cruz revealed his national security team:
Perhaps the most shocking name on Cruz’s team, and the one Lake spends the most time discussing, is Frank Gaffney. After working in the Reagan administration, Gaffney went on to found the Center for Security Policy (CSP), where he has become known as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” Gaffney exhibits a standard variety of neocon militarism when it comes to opposing diplomacy with Iran, though he has diverged from many of his fellow travelers in opposing American intervention in Syria. But it’s on the subject of Islam here in the U.S. where Gaffney’s unique paranoia takes wing. Gaffney has been the leading voice pushing a fringe right-wing theory that the Muslim Brotherhood has somehow infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government, a purely McCarthyite claim that fortunately hadn’t been taken seriously by any prominent Republican before Cruz.
Gaffney has in the past called for a “war on Shariah,” comparing Islamic law to “Nazism, Fascism, Japanese imperialism, and communism.” He has praised the work of admitted white supremacists. He has found “proof” of President Barack Obama’s “submission to Shariah” in, of all places, the logo for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. It was a poll—an unscientific poll, at that—conducted by CSP that served as the basis for Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s post-San Bernardino proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the United States.
Gaffney’s unhinged theories have been complemented by his nasty personal invective. He once called for Secretary of State John Kerry’s impeachment over the Iran nuclear deal and for the crime of…having an Iranian-American son in-law. He has accused Huma Abedin, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide, of working on behalf of the Brotherhood, a charge that drew criticism from, among others, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Intelligence Committee. He has also accused prominent conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of Brotherhood ties, absent what appears to be any evidence whatsoever.
Whether Gaffney takes a formal role in Trump’s administration or merely remains an informal adviser, his presence in the president-elect’s inner circle should be troubling to anyone worried about the treatment of American Muslims or interested in reducing American militarism in the Middle East.
The Torture Architect
With Trump still apparently mulling over candidates for top cabinet roles, the question of who he might pick to run the intelligence community is still wide open. The favorite to serve as director of national intelligence is retired army General Ronald Burgess, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2012 and is the point person for the intelligence community on Trump’s transition team. Burgess has been described as a “conventional,” “establishment” figure, in contrast to many of Trump’s other national security advisers. Pete Hoekstra, a former congressman from Michigan, has been mentioned in connection with the position of CIA director, though his extensive lobbying work since leaving Congress may disqualify him.
Another candidate for the CIA opening, as reported by The Intercept late last week, is Jose Rodriguez, who served as director of the National Clandestine Service under George W. Bush. In that role, he oversaw some of the Bush administration’s worst abuses:
Rodriguez, the former director of the National Clandestine Service, helped developed the CIA black sites, secret prisons operated in foreign countries where interrogators used a range of torture tactics, including the use of “waterboarding,” the simulated drowning technique once used by the Khmer Rouge and Nazi agents to glean information from detainees.
At least 136 individuals were detained and tortured by the CIA. Interrogation tactics also included forced nudity, sleep deprivation while being vertically shackled, and confinement in a small box.
Rodriguez, who denies having interest in the CIA directorship, has said that he wants the Trump administration to reinstitute “enhanced interrogation” and then “come up with something else” on top of that. This dovetails with what Trump said during the campaign, when he promised to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
Deplorables in the White House
The current frontrunner to serve as Trump’s deputy national security advisor is Clare Lopez, a CIA veteran and currently a senior vice president at Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, who also advised Cruz during the Republican primary. Like Gaffney, Lopez has been a vocal proponent of the theory that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government, comparing it to supposed Communist infiltration during the Cold War (unsurprisingly, she is a fan of former Senator Joe McCarthy). She has called for more “aggressive” surveillance of American Muslims in order to defend against potential terrorist attacks. Lopez is also, in what seems to be something of a pattern among Trump’s national security team, a supporter of regime change in Iran who has ties to the Iranian exile group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), via the Iran Policy Committee that she used to run. If anything she manages to surpass Gaffney in her hatred for Islam, about which she wrote in 2013:
Deeply rooted in pre-Islamic tribal social structures, some of the most primitive of all human drives—to conquer and dominate by force—were brilliantly sacralized in Islamic doctrine. With assassination, banditry, genocide, hatred-of-other, polygamy, rape, pillage, and slavery all divinely sanctioned in scriptures believed to be revealed by Allah himself, the world is not likely to see an end to Islam’s “bloody borders” or “bloody innards” any time soon. In the traditional Arab and Muslim system, there is just too much at stake for those who win, as well as those who lose. There is no such thing as a “win-win” concept in Islam.
Late Wednesday night it was reported that the position of national security advisor will be offered to U.S. Army General Michael Flynn, “Trump’s favorite general” according to Politico. Flynn succeeded Burgess as DIA director, and served in that role from 2012 to 2014 before being asked to step down. He has since dived headfirst into the political realm, targeting the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal and serving as one of Trump’s most prominent surrogates during the campaign. Among many statements about the Iran deal, Flynn has argued that it will result in “the elimination of Israel,” “a large regional war,” and an Iranian government that is “even more hardline.” He has argued before Congress that regime change “is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program,” a curious statement considering that U.S. intelligence agencies believe that program, if it ever existed at all, already stopped over a decade ago. Flynn has often exhibited a tendency to cast the War on Terror in “Clash of Civilizations” terms, criticizing the Obama administration for not using the word “Islam” often enough when talking about terrorists, for example, and demanding a collective apology from “Muslim leaders” for the July terrorist attack in Nice, France. He shares Trump’s stated passions for torturing terror suspects, killing their families, and instituting some kind of restriction on the movement of Muslims into the United States.
Flynn has reportedly expressed interest in serving as Trump’s director of national intelligence or even as his secretary of defense, though as a recently retired military officer Flynn would have to obtain a waiver from Congress to serve in the latter role. But those positions would both require Senate confirmation, and there are concerns in the Trump camp that the murky circumstances surrounding Flynn’s departure from the DIA, and his financial ties to foreign interests, may make it difficult for him to be confirmed. Those concerns may also disqualify him from being picked as Trump’s national security advisor, though he does not have to go through a confirmation hearing to assume that post.
The Deplorable Confidantes
Neoconservative Walid Phares has been advising Trump since the Republican primary and may be in line for an official role in the administration. Like Gaffney and Lopez, Phares enjoys dabbling in conspiracy theories about the Obama administration’s supposed collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood, and he has accused Obama of adopting a policy of “appeasement” toward terrorism. He is yet another MEK-backer in Trump’s inner circle. As As‘ad Abukhalil wrote in 2012, when Phares was advising Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Phares has been able reinvent himself several times over the course of his career, from right-wing militia-affiliated Lebanese politician to academic “expert” on the Middle East and now to Republican policy expert, in which role he seeks to cast Islam itself as a “threat to Western civilization.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was originally believed to be in line to serve as Trump’s secretary of state, but he has said that he prefers to be a “general planner” for the Trump administration rather than to serve in a defined role. Gingrich has previously argued that the West and “radical Islam” are engaged in “World War III,” has called Iran “a mortal threat to our survival,” and once declared that Palestinians are “an invented people.” He too is an advocate for the MEK and has close ties to billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolled Gingrich’s 2012 campaign for president and is known for his “disgust” at the idea of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and for musing about striking Iran with nuclear weapons. Adelson was one of the largest donors to Trump’s campaign and will likely have considerable influence in Trump’s administration, influence that will only be greater if Gingrich is there to serve as his conduit.
And, of course, no list of Trump’s deplorables would be complete without mentioning Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News publisher who is now about to become chief strategist in Trump’s White House. In his tenure running Breitbart, Bannon turned it into a haven for, among other things, white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.
Two More Candidates for State
Though Rudy Giuliani reportedly remains the frontrunner to serve as Trump’s secretary of state, two more names have been mentioned in connection with the position. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a critic of the Iran nuclear deal, told The Tennessean that he believes he is a longshot for the appointment:
“I know that my name is in the mix, but I also believe it’s far more likely that someone who was centrally involved in the campaign—which I obviously was not—is a more likely choice,” Corker said. “You’ve got a number of people there that worked together throughout the course of the campaign and loyalties develop. It would be my guess that one of those people would be a far more likely choice.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has also been mentioned as a possible Trump secretary of state. Khalilzad, who has neocon ties going all the way back to the days of the Project for the New American Century, stands out among Trump’s national security team both in terms of his zeal for democracy promotion in the Middle East and his support for increased U.S. engagement with Iran. He gave the introduction to Trump’s April foreign policy address hosted by the Center for the National Interest and may find some role in the administration even if he is not picked to head the State Department.