President-elect Donald Trump's choices for leadership posts threaten national unity and promise to turn back the clock on progress for racial, religious and sexual minorities, civil rights leaders and others said Friday after his nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general.
Comments attributed to Trump's picks, also including alt-right architect Stephen Bannon as senior adviser and chief strategist and former Army Lt. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, serve to embolden everyday Americans to lash out at members of minority groups, they said.
Sessions, of Alabama, was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 after hearings in which he was accused of making racially charged remarks as a U.S. attorney. According to transcripts, Sessions was accused, among other things, of joking that he thought the Ku Klux Klan "was OK" until he learned they smoked marijuana, and of calling a black assistant U.S. attorney "boy." During the hearing, Sessions denied making some of the comments and said others were jokes taken out of context.
"Every American should be concerned about the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice and oppose any nominee who threatens to turn back the clock on civil rights by 50 years," said National Urban League President Marc Morial.
Bannon led the Breitbart website, which has widely condemned as racist, sexist and anti-Semitic. In a 2011 radio interview, he said conservative women infuriated liberals because they "would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children," contrasting that against a slur for lesbians.
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Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has called the accusations against Bannon "very unfair."
Lennie Gerber, an 80-year-old resident of High Point, North Carolina, who led the fight against her state's ban on same-sex marriage, said she worried Trump's appointments will further incite such sentiments among the public.
"Saying that kind of thing incites the racism and the anti-gay feelings in everybody else and says you're free to express these things," Gerber said. "These people who've been suppressed by the positive transformation that has gone on over the last few years are now feeling free to express themselves."
Civil rights leaders are calling on Trump to rescind Sessions' nomination or for the Senate to reject him. Sessions requires Senate confirmation as attorney general, as does Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA director, but Bannon and Flynn do not.
In August, Flynn spoke at an event in Dallas for the anti-Islamist group Act for America, calling Islam, a religion with 1.6 billion adherents, "a political ideology" and "a cancer."
"Unfortunately, these very important picks in his administration send a troubling message indicating that the bigotry we saw expressed in the campaign will continue," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Aside from comments and actions attributed to the nominees, their lack of diversity worries civil rights leaders. Trump has said he planned to reward loyalty, and demonstrated such with his nomination of Sessions, who was the first senator to endorse him.
Washington attorney A. Scott Bolden said Trump is "0 for 4" on diversity. All four of his picks so far are white men.
"The scariest part of his potential administration will be how his political debts to the alt-right will manifest itself in his administration and policies," Bolden said. "Jeff Sessions is one of those manifestations ... to be in control not only of justice in America, but really to bring injustice to America."
In Congress, Sessions is seen as an immigration hardliner — an issue that connected him with Trump early in the campaign — and his policies stand in opposition to the Latino community, said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group.
"These divisive individuals belie Trump's statement that he wants to unite Americans," she said.
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, associate pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, said he is not happy with Trump's choices so far, particularly Sessions.
"I hear people complaining that we should give the Trump administration a chance," Brown said. "It's very clear by his appointments that he's not going to give a lot of communities in the United States that same chance."
Elaine Walton, an African-American resident of New Orleans, said she had deep concerns. Her most visceral reaction to Trump's picks? "Fear. How is he going to be the top watchdog for the country when he's so biased?"
"I think those people cannot lead him, advise him on how to lead this country forward," she said. "They are going to advise him on how to lead the country backwards."