Furor over Trump’s pick of a hard-right adviser

MICHAEL D. SHEAR and MAGGIE HABERMAN, New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — A fierce chorus of critics denounced President-elect Donald Trump on Monday for appointing Stephen K. Bannon, a nationalist media mogul, to a top White House position, even as President Barack Obama described Trump as “pragmatic,” not ideological, and held out hope that he would rise to the challenge of the presidency.

Obama’s conciliatory remarks toward Trump disappointed supporters who had hoped that he would add his voice to the criticism of the president-elect for appointing Bannon. Civil rights groups, senior members of Obama’s Democratic Party, and some Republican strategists had assailed Trump, saying that Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, would bring anti-Semitic, nationalist and racist views to the West Wing.

In the midst of the furor over Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s chief strategist, Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, emerged as a leading candidate to be secretary of state, according to people familiar with the deliberations in the 26th-floor office in Trump Tower where Trump was ensconced throughout the day. That would make Giuliani, a contentious former prosecutor, the president’s emissary to a turbulent world.

FILE — Stephen Bannon, who President-elect Donald Trump named his senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist, at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Nov. 7, 2016. Civil rights groups, Democrats and some Republican Party strategists on Monday denounced Trump’s decision to appoint Bannon, warning that Bannon represents nationalist and racist views that should be rejected by the incoming president. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

The intense jockeying inside Trump’s transition suggested that several of his highest-profile campaign advisers were locked in a competition to lead the new administration’s foreign policy, national security and crime-fighting agencies.

Top names: Trump is also considering naming Giuliani or Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be the nation’s next attorney general, according to people familiar with the discussions. But Giuliani said Monday night at a Wall Street Journal election forum that he would not be going to the Justice Department. And if Sessions, a relentless critic of illegal immigration, is nominated for attorney general, he can expect opponents to bring up the fact that he was once rejected for a federal judgeship after testimony that he had made racist comments.

Giuliani seems more eager to be the nation’s top diplomat, the sources said, though John Bolton, a fierce foreign policy hawk who served as ambassador to the United Nations and undersecretary of state under George W. Bush, is also under consideration. Richard Grenell, who was Bolton’s spokesman at the U.N., is being considered as ambassador there.

People with knowledge of the process described a series of chaotic discussions and said Trump might also choose Giuliani or Sessions to lead the Department of Homeland Security, though neither has expressed interest in that job.

As an official in the Bush administration, Bolton was known for his conservative and sometimes confrontational views. Before his nomination as U.N. ambassador, he once said of the 38-story U.N. building in New York, “If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” He could clash with Trump on Russia; he has accused the Obama administration of being weak in that area and recently wrote in favor of NATO membership for Ukraine, a move that would infuriate Moscow.

Rudy Giuliani, a top candidate for secretary of state under President-elect Donald Trump, speaks during the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2016. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Grenell has had his own brushes with controversy. In 2012, he resigned from his post with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign after Christian conservatives complained about Grenell’s sexual orientation; he is gay.

As for Sessions, in 1986, before he became a senator himself, a Republican-controlled Senate rejected his nomination by President Ronald Reagan to a federal judgeship after testimony about racist comments he had allegedly made. Several federal attorneys testified that he had made the comments, including calling an African-American lawyer “boy,” and that he was otherwise hostile to civil rights cases. Sessions denied making most of the remarks, but apologized for once saying he had thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he heard that some members smoked pot; he called it a joke.

Any of these nominations could generate significant opposition, adding to the existing furor over Trump’s decision to bring Bannon into the White House with him.

Advisers: Aides to Trump declined to comment on reports of the leading contenders for Cabinet posts. But speaking briefly to reporters in New York, Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser, defended Bannon, describing him as the “general of this campaign” and saying that “people should look at the full résumé.”

Conway added: “He has got a Harvard business degree. He’s a naval officer. He has success in entertainment.” She called him a “brilliant tactician.”

Conway denied that Bannon had a connection to right-wing nationalist views or that he would bring them to the White House as Trump’s chief strategist. “I’m personally offended that you think I would manage a campaign where that would be one of the going philosophies,” she said.

Even as Trump worked to fill his administration, his team had yet to begin the real work of transitioning to the helm of the government because they had not completed the necessary paperwork.

White House officials said Monday that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was in charge of Trump’s transition team until Friday, had signed the necessary memorandum of understanding that ensured confidentiality. But Christie was dismissed Friday and replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, invalidating the agreement and leaving the transition process in a state of suspended animation.

Obama: At a news conference before leaving on a weeklong trip to Greece, Germany and Peru, Obama appeared to be doing his best to give Trump space as he begins forming his administration. He also continued his efforts to persuade Trump to preserve his legacy, pointedly reminding him that repealing the Affordable Care Act could be politically unpopular and that ripping up global agreements like the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris climate accord would be difficult.

“It’s important for us to let him make his decisions,” Obama said. “The American people will judge over the course of the next couple of years whether they like what they see.”

He refused to say whether he still considered Trump unfit to sit in the Oval Office and have access to the nuclear codes, and equated Trump’s shortcomings with his own troubles organizing paperwork on his desk. The closest Obama came to criticizing Trump was when he said the president-elect would have to temper his impulse to make explosive comments and shade the truth once he was sworn in.

“There are going to be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them,” Obama said. “I think he recognizes that this is different, and so do the American people.”

FILE — Stephen Bannon, who President-elect Donald Trump named his senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist, at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., Oct. 28, 2016. Civil rights groups, Democrats and some Republican Party strategists on Monday denounced Trump’s decision to appoint Bannon, warning that Bannon represents nationalist and racist views that should be rejected by the incoming president. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Bannon: Congressional Republicans remained largely silent about the appointment of Bannon, choosing instead to praise Trump’s announcement that Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, would be the new White House chief of staff. In remarks to reporters, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican majority leader in the House, said he would “not prejudge” Trump’s choice.

But critics of Bannon continued to raise questions about his background and his tenure as chairman of Breitbart News. A 2011 radio interview surfaced in which Bannon praised Ann Coulter, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin by saying they were not “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England.”

“That drives the left insane,” he added, “and that’s why they hate these women.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the selection of Bannon “sends the disturbing message that anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and white nationalist ideology will be welcome in the White House.”

That view was echoed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and said Trump “should rescind this hire.”

“In his victory speech, Trump said he intended to be president for ‘all Americans,'” the center said. “Bannon should go.”

Republicans who had long opposed Trump’s candidacy also took to Twitter on Sunday night and Monday morning to warn that his choice to rely on the advice of Bannon is an indication of the way he would govern.

“The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office,” said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who ran the presidential campaign of Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and previously advised Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “Be very vigilant, America.”

But people close to Bannon came to his defense. Joel B. Pollak, an author and editor at Breitbart, called him an “American patriot who also defends Israel and has deep empathy for the Jewish people.”

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate, accused Bannon’s critics of sour grapes. On Twitter, he wrote that Bannon should embrace the criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.

“Critics of Steve Bannon know he’s smarter and tougher than they are,” Huckabee wrote. “When CAIR doesn’t like you, that is a good thing.”