(USA TODAY) -- Donald Trump has selected retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn as national security adviser and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, the Trump transition team announced, granting the first appointments of his upcoming presidency to two men who were unfailingly loyal to him during the divisive election cycle.
The president-elect also announced Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., as his pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
In his statement, Trump said Sessions "is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him," and that "Flynn is one of the country’s foremost experts on military and intelligence matters."
Trump said Pompeo will "be a brilliant and unrelenting leader for our intelligence community to ensure the safety of Americans and our allies."
Flynn, 57, has been an outspoken critic of President Obama. He is highly regarded in the military and intelligence communities but was dismissed from the Pentagon’s top intelligence job in late 2014 for his combative style. He’s been a critical force shaping Trump’s world view that the United States is at war with “radical Islamic terrorism,” which stands in contrast to Obama, who’s warned against framing the war on terror along religious lines.
Sessions, 69, has been in the Senate since 1997. He is a former U.S. Attorney in Mobile, Ala., and former Alabama Attorney General. He was the first senator to endorse Trump during the Republican primary early this year and is known for his hardline views on immigration. The Senate Judiciary Committee 30 years ago rejected Sessions' nomination for a federal judgeship after hearing testimony about racially insensitive remarks he made to colleagues in the U.S. Attorney's office in south Alabama.
The picks signal Trump’s intent to create his Cabinet by picking national security and law enforcement advisers first.
Flynn and Sessions have in common their absolute support for the real estate billionaire during a turbulent primary and general election.
"Loyalty is a key reason why Trump picked them,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Trump wants people he can trust and I think he’s skeptical of some Republicans actually sort of following through and supporting him," he said.
Trump, who has no personal experience in government, foreign policy and public service, ran his outsider campaign vowing to be a savvy manager who would surround himself with the most qualified and experienced professionals available.
Flynn, who's never filled a policy role similar to national security adviser, was the top intelligence official in Iraq and Afghanistan during height of the American involvement in the wars there. He is credited with helping to develop a system to exploit information captured on battlefields and using it to hunt down terrorists and destroy their networks.
Pompeo’s appointment could help the Trump team counter a narrative that’s begun to develop in the past few days that the president-elect is valuing loyalty over qualifications in filling his administration posts.
Pompeo, 52, is a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate, and he serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. While he is a close ally of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Pompeo backed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., over Trump in the Republican primary.
Republican allies of Sessions in Congress hailed the news. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the pick “is great news for all of us who revere the Constitution and the rule of law.” He also cited Sessions “extraordinary career in government and law enforcement.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who's been a Trump critic, called Sessions "a fine, decent man and principled conservative."
Democrats raised immediate alarm bells, in particular about Flynn, who would be entrusted to coordinating the nation’s foreign policy approach across all agencies of the government.
“With each appointment made by the president-elect my grave concern about his presidency increases,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement.
Flynn is “a man who was fired by President Obama and who has made incendiary, hateful comments about Muslims,” he said. “This should alarm all Americans. In particular, I have serious questions about General Flynn’s competence and composure, his ongoing lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government and his links to Russia.”
Last year, Flynn took a paid speaking engagement last year with Russia Today, a television network funded by the Kremlin, and sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the network’s lavish anniversary party in Moscow.
Trump's team is likely to face stiff opposition from Democrats and civil rights groups concerned about a Justice Department under Sessions that might seek to roll back legal protections for minorities or place less emphasis on issues such as voting rights. Although Sessions voted to extend the Voting Rights Act when it was last reauthorized by Congress, he also agreed with the Supreme Court ruling that eliminated a key part of the landmark civil rights law.
"Jeff Sessions has a decades-long record – from his early days as a prosecutor to his present role as a senator – of opposing civl rights and equality," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance to poor African Americans and civil and voting rights activists. "It is unimaginable that he could be entrusted to serve as the chief law enforcement officer for this nation's civil rights laws," she said in a statement.
Some Latino lawmakers expressed anger over social media. "No Senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigratns and people of color than Sessions," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a California Democrat.
The picks come after Trump has already upset Democrats and civil rights groups by appointing Stephen Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative news site that’s come under criticism for running news headlines with misogynistic and racially charged overtones. Once official, the appointments Trump has made would number five, including Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who will serve as chief of staff.
Flynn’s loose ties to Russia and lobbying by his consulting group, the Flynn Intel Group, on behalf of Turkish interests, as reported by Politico, may have created difficulties if Trump had nominated him to an official Cabinet position. The national security adviser role does not require Senate confirmation.
The Flynn pick underscores that the hardline rhetoric about Muslims Trump espoused on the campaign trail will continue in the White House. Flynn has even stated that Islam is not a religion, rather a political ideology. Both Democrat and Republican national security advisers have warned that such statements inflame Muslims across the world and feed into the propaganda the Islamic State uses to recruit suicide bombers.
Extremists are already celebrating Trump’s victory, hoping it will “lead to civil war,” according to a jihadist monitoring group.
Yet Flynn also stood strongly behind Trump when many in the national security arena did not. In August, a group of the nation’s most senior Republican national security officials, many former top aides to President George W. Bush, signed a letter saying Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president and will “put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”