The latest shifts on President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, including his choice of John Bolton as national security adviser, have rekindled fears among lawmakers and activists that the White House will further damage America’s precarious standing in the Muslim world.
Bolton chairs an organization that produces harshly critical commentary about Islam and Muslim immigrants and he also has close ties to controversial activists often described as anti-Muslim. He succeeds Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who urged Trump to avoid a favorite phrase — “radical Islamic terrorism” — because it offends many Muslims as a blanket condemnation of their faith.
Trump also decided this month to nominate Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, as secretary of state, replacing the fired Rex Tillerson. Pompeo has accused U.S. Muslim leaders of being “potentially complicit” in terrorist attacks and, like Bolton, has consorted with conspiracy theorists who have peddled false claims about Muslims. Tillerson, on the other hand, generally used cautious language when it came to Islam and had extensive business experience in the Muslim world.
Both Bolton and Pompeo will now be working for a president who has alleged, with no evidence, that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, and who has proposed banning all foreign Muslims from U.S. shores. Critics say the personnel moves suggest Trump’s worst instincts on how to approach the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims will find receptive ears among his foreign policy aides.
“Either they don’t even care, or they’re intentionally picking people known for their Islamophobia,” said Wa’el Alzayat, a former State Department official who now leads the Muslim-American activist group Emgage. “We’re very troubled.”
Groups such as Emgage, Human Rights Watch and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are urging lawmakers to speak out against Bolton and Pompeo. Bolton doesn’t require Senate confirmation for his position, but Pompeo will have to face a vote in that chamber.
Some also have concerns about Pompeo’s planned successor at the CIA, Gina Haspel, who is reported to have run a secret CIA prison in Thailand where suspected al Qaeda operatives were tortured. “Gina Haspel should be investigated, not nominated,” Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a recent statement.
Some Muslim-American activists describe a sense of déjà vu: Similar fears abounded in the early days of the Trump administration as the president installed several top aides whose rhetoric towards Muslims and Islam has drawn wide criticism. They included then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who once called Islam a “cancer”; political strategist Steve Bannon, who took a hard line against Muslim immigration; and Sebastian Gorka, who dueled with McMaster over the use of the phrase “radical Islam.”
Their fears of a militant policy towards Muslims seemed confirmed when Trump, early in his presidency, imposed a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries.
But over the past year Flynn, Bannon and Gorka have all been forced out of the White House, along with some others who shared their views.
Trump, meanwhile, has developed unexpectedly good relationships with some of the world’s Muslim leaders, including top members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family.
But if there was a sense among Trump’s critics that McMaster and Tillerson had been restraining his worst instincts, there is now concern that Bolton and Pompeo might encourage them.
Bolton has longtime associations with activists criticized for their extreme views of Muslims. He wrote the foreword to “The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America,” by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer—both prominent critics of Islam. (“Excelsior!” Geller tweeted in response to Trump’s announcement that Bolton would be assuming the post of national security adviser.)
Bolton also has close ties to another anti-Muslim activist, Frank Gaffney, who has promoted the theory that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the U.S. government with the goal of imposing Islamic law on Americans. According to The Atlantic, Bolton helped Gaffney gain a more prominent role at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference after years of his having been marginalized by the event’s organizers.
Bolton was a guest on Gaffney’s radio show as recently as last month. On Twitter, Gaffney called Bolton’s appointment a “game-changer” for Trump’s presidency and said that “McMaster and Tillerson have been among those who have fancied themselves the ‘adults’ in the administration, determined to stop the President from doing what they oppose.”
“Now the President will have actual adults who actually want to help him succeed,” Gaffney added. “Hallelujah.”
Bolton also serves as the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, which describes itself as a “non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank” and serves as a forum for harsh criticism of Islam. Articles on its website often exaggerate or misrepresent the religion and stoke fears of Muslim immigrants. In one posting this month, an author declared, falsely, that for Muslims, “everything Christians believe is pure blasphemy.” In another recent post, a writer argued: “The U.K. is accelerating its Islamization at an ever-increasing speed.”
Bolton’s own writings and discussions of Islam have been notably more nuanced, however. While Bolton doesn’t hesitate to use terms such as “radical Islam,” he has tried to distinguish the religion’s extremists from its mainstream adherents. “We are talking about politics and ideology here, this is not a question of religion,” he said in one speech. “It’s actually Muslims themselves who have felt the worst effects of Islamic terrorism and who suffer under its rule.”
When Trump, on the presidential campaign trail, proposed banning Muslims from U.S. shores, Bolton called the idea “completely wrong.” “That’s just not consistent with our views about America and how we should operate,” he said.
A person close to Bolton said the former ambassador “stands by his writings and speeches.” The Gatestone Institute did not respond to a request for comment.
Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser doesn’t require Senate confirmation, a relief for him because he has so many skeptics in the Senate, including some Republicans. When Bush named Bolton as his ambassador to the United Nations in 2005, he did so using a “recess” appointment to evade a Senate vote.
Pompeo, however, is expected to face tough questions from senators pondering his nomination for secretary of state. Many of those queries may focus on his past apparent support for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture. (Haspel already faces similar scrutiny.) But his record of anti-Muslim comments and affiliation also is likely to come up.
As a Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo in 2013 accused American Muslim leaders of failing to condemn the Boston Marathon bombings, saying their alleged “silence has been deafening” and that that made them “potentially complicit.” Many U.S. Muslims denounced the claim as a false smear given numerous condemnations of the bombings issued by Muslim leaders in the U.S. and beyond.
As a lawmaker, Pompeo fought to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated as a terrorist group and made numerous appearances alongside Gaffney. Pompeo also has ties to ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has said“pushes wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, denigrates American Muslims and deliberately conflates mainstream and radical Islam.”
Pompeo was among the recipients of ACT for America’s National Security Eagle Award for 2016, according to the group’s website.
“ACT for America has always welcomed and included members and supporters of all faiths, who stand united under the same flag of freedom and support for Western values,” Brigitte Gabriel, the group’s founder, said in a statement to POLITICO. “Mike Pompeo has been a clear leader in understanding the threats that America faces from rogue actors all over the world.”
While Pompeo’s role as CIA director had already been of concern to U.S. Muslim leaders, they are even more worried about the possibility of him serving as secretary of state. As America’s chief diplomat, he’ll be more in the public eye, more likely to meet with the leaders of the Muslim world and more involved in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
During his confirmation hearings for CIA director, some Democratic senators were concerned enough to press Pompeo onwhether he would discriminate against Muslim employees and safeguard U.S. alliances with Muslim-majority nations. Pompeo downplayed such concerns. “Discrimination against any employee based on their religion is deeply objectionable and will not be tolerated,” Pompeo pledged in one exchange.
Such rhetoric hasn’t assuaged Pompeo critics like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has also condemned Haspel’s nomination to replace him as CIA chief.
“Those, like Mr. Pompeo, who have expressed Islamophobic views and have been associated with an anti-Muslim hate group, or like Ms. Haspel, who personally oversaw the torture of detainees, should have no role in our nation’s government, let alone at the highest levels of policy-making,” CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a March 13 statement. “These appointments have the potential to harm our nation’s image and our relations with key players in the international community.”