The Republican national security elite is splintering over whether to support Clinton, stay home, or hold their nose and back Trump.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is splintering what conservative icon and former President Ronald Reagan described as one of the three legs of the Republican Party’s stool: a strong national defense. And the schism he has inspired among the party’s national security elite has left many of them fearful it will collapse under his weight.
Within a 24-hour period this week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out the 2016 presidential race. Their exit left the real estate magnate as the contest’s last declared man standing — “the least qualified major party nominee in American history,” according to military historian and Republican advisor Max Boot.
It’s the moment of reckoning for the “Never Trump” movement, a group of Republican political operatives, current and former officials, and pundits loosely organized around a now futile effort to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. From here until Election Day, the fractured movement will be faced with the more difficult question: What next?
That conundrum is perhaps most complicated for the former national security and foreign-policy officials in the Republican Party, who typically would be much-sought-after recruits for cabinet posts and senior administration positions.
“Don’t rub it in,” deadpanned Elliott Abrams, who was on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and earlier served as an assistant secretary of state under Reagan.
Many have described Trump’s foreign-policy positions as dangerous and damaging to U.S. standing. But Trump has mocked these analysts and the “Never Trumpers” as “establishment people.”
“This is obviously a repudiation of those continuing to push one foreign war after another, over the loud protests of voters,” Trump senior policy advisor Stephen Miller told Foreign Policy in a statement Friday.
Since Trump’s de facto coronation, he has doubled down on his self-described “America First” doctrine. “I think about a U.N. ambassador, about a secretary of defense and secretary of treasury, but I think more about winning first,” Trump told the New York Times. “I want people in those jobs who care about winning.”
Asked about Trump’s nomination, President Barack Obama urged Americans to exercise caution when considering the next commander in chief, especially as candidates hew to positions on “international issues that could threaten war.”
“We are in serious times, and this is a really serious job,” Obama told reporters at the White House Friday. “This is not a reality show.”
Republican leaders are split. Both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush said they would remain silent but do not plan to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. (Dick Cheney, the elder Bush’s defense secretary and the younger’s vice president, said Friday he will support Trump.) Mitt Romney, the most recent GOP presidential nominee, has continued to voice his criticisms and won’t attend the convention either. The party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said last month he wouldn’t attend the convention but pledged Thursday to remain loyal to the process. “I support the nominee of the party,” McCain said. “I think that makes sense.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, who was Romney’s running mate and remains an oft-cited name for an alternative, has said repeatedly that he too would support the nominee and won’t be considered. But now that it’s Trump, Ryan said Thursday on CNN, “I’m just not ready” to support him, at least, “right now.”
In the latest defection, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday he “absolutely will not” support Clinton but also “cannot in good conscience support Donald Trump.” Graham, who was an early but unsuccessful contender for the GOP nomination this year, derided Trump as an unreliable conservative and said that he hasn’t “displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as commander in chief.”
In a series of interviews with FP, eight of the GOP’s national security cadre from Reagan to Obama said Trump’s inevitable nomination is forcing them to choose between several unappealing options: Abstain. Break with the GOP and back Trump’s likely general election opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat. Hold out for a third-party candidate, however quixotic. Or “hold their nose,” as former George W. Bush administration official John Bellinger put it, and potentially serve a President Trump.
Any scenario but the last could result in effective exile to the “desert” outside the White House for the next four years at least, said Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer. McGrath, along with Eliot Cohen, who served in the Defense and State departments for both Bush presidents, organized more than 100 GOP national security colleagues to sign a March letter vowing to “prevent” Trump’s election.
Several say Trump’s nomination could mean a Republican electoral drought, at least, and the total collapse of the GOP, at worst.
“The real concern is that Trump comes to define the Republican Party,” said Boot, a senior defense advisor to McCain, Romney, and most recently Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before he dropped out in March. “If he’s not thoroughly repudiated in November, and the party is not cleansed of his stench, then we are going to lose an entire generation of Americans.”
So far, there’s little equivocation for this Republican foreign-policy establishment. Whether pining for a third party, voting Clinton, or sitting it out, most are holding on to their vow: #NeverTrump.
“I would certainly never vote for Trump, never, ever, ever,” Cohen told FP. On Tuesday, in a Washington Post op-ed, Cohen wrote: “It is time for a third candidate, and probably for a third party.” If no such candidate emerges, Cohen said, he may write in Ryan — or even vote Clinton.
“There’s been a centrist foreign-policy consensus that’s been bipartisan since World War II,” Cohen said in the interview. “Trump is outside that consensus, so is [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders. Clinton is within it.”
Boot said after some two decades of voting Republican, he’s not ready to leave the party to Trump, whom he fervently hopes loses in a landslide in November — with the help of his vote, if necessary. “I would not lose sleep at night worrying about Hillary Clinton in control of our nuclear codes,” Boot said.
Michael Chertoff, George W. Bush’s homeland security secretary and an assistant attorney general, also signed the March letter but declined to publicly discuss whom he’d vote for. Ever the lawyer, he said it’s easy to infer. Chertoff advised a handful of Trump’s former opponents: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, then Rubio, and lastly Kasich, who dropped out of the race Wednesday.
He has called Trump’s threats on building a wall along the southern border, banning Muslims, and bringing back torture “preposterous.”
“You learn a lot by living through some tough times,” Chertoff said, noting the fearful days after the 9/11 attacks. “There’s not going to be a lot of time for on-the-job training, given the security situation.”
Bellinger, a legal advisor to the State Department and National Security Council under George W. Bush and a supporter of his brother, Jeb Bush, declined to sign the March letter because of the line: “Therefore, as committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head.” Saying he has struggled with identifying as Republican even before Trump’s rise, Bellinger told FP, “The party has moved so far that it’s hard to say that I share the same values.”
But he won’t support Trump, either. “I don’t think a leopard can change its spots,” Bellinger said. “He has had plenty of opportunity to learn more about foreign policy or national security and has not done so. Even if he starts trying to make himself smarter … it’s his temperament.”
Bellinger predicted Clinton may appoint a Republican to a high-level cabinet position and appeal to those disillusioned within the GOP by saying, “‘Look, your party has been hijacked by Donald Trump.’”
Such Republican openness to Clinton could be an opportunity for the Democratic candidate, whose general election strategy is to hit Trump as a “loose cannon” who fails the commander-in-chief test. And the Clinton campaign has already begun wooing Republican donors, arguing she represents their values better than Trump.
As Clinton campaign advisor and former Obama administration official Derek Chollet noted, there’s precedent: Obama kept on Defense Secretary Robert Gates and named Brett McGurk as his envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition. Both were holdovers from George W. Bush’s administration.
“My experience with Secretary Clinton is she’s going to pick the best people for the job,” Chollet told FP. “Obama had the same logic.”
McGrath, one of the letter’s organizers, also supported a handful of failed presidential candidates, from Romney to Rubio and Cruz. But he’s not optimistic for another. “Everybody’s looking for the great white hope to come along and save the Republican Party,” he said, noting the institutional obstacles for a third-party candidate are high. “I don’t think anybody’s going to come forward.”
State deadlines to even just appear on the ballot are stiff and loom on the near horizon — by next Monday, for example, Texas requires 80,000 signatures from voters who didn’t participate in either primary to qualify new candidates.
“I won’t go so far as to say I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton — because I won’t,” McGrath said. But compared to Trump, “I would rather see her as president.”
Abrams, the Reagan and Bush official who supported Rubio, and then Cruz, declined to sign McGrath’s letter because he said he wouldn’t be willing to vote for Clinton, even to stop Trump. “The problem with Trump is not primarily his foreign-policy view,” he said. “The problem with Trump is his character and personality. That’s not going to change because he’s using a teleprompter,” in a jab at a recent foreign-policy speech in which the infamously off-the-cuff candidate read from a teleprompter.
But some GOP national security veterans haven’t yet made up their minds.
Robert O’Brien worked on the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 campaigns — this year serving as a senior advisor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, one of the first to drop out, and then Cruz. “The moral of the story is don’t bet on a candidate,” he joked. He also worked with the U.N. Security Council during President Bill Clinton’s administration, and on Afghan justice reform under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
He declined to sign the March letter because he thought it could hurt the other candidates. “It played into [Trump’s] message that he’s an outside-the-establishment candidate, and that outsider message resonated with GOP voters,” O’Brien said.
Of Trump’s nomination, he said, “I’ve always been committed to supporting the Republican nominee.… I’m hopeful he’ll put together a great team.”
Asked whether he’d consider joining that team, he balked, noting he’d just begun his own law firm. “If there was an opportunity to help the United States of America, I would certainly do that, but I don’t have any expectation of Mr. Trump reaching out.”
Pierre-Richard Prosper, a human rights and counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration who advised Jeb Bush, said it’s still too early to make a decision. If asked to work for Trump, he said, he has reservations — including his rhetoric toward minorities and immigrants — but isn’t closed to the idea.
“I don’t know if what we’re seeing is the new iteration of Donald Trump, or whether or not it’s a campaign strategy which he will pivot from,” Prosper said. “Is it the boisterous New Yorker, doing what it takes to get elected? Or are these truly held views?”
“What I worry about with everyone who says, ‘Never Trump’ — I won’t say it’s a selfish decision, but it’s not selfless,” he said. “I do think we have a duty to the country to at least try.”
Republicans who have suggested Trump will be tempered by good advisors, or once he wins the White House, are “deluding themselves,” Boot said. “He is quite literally the greatest national security threat that we face.”
McGrath allowed that sitting out a potential Trump administration could mean ceding American foreign policy to the Democratic Party for some time.
“I think the right — which Trump is not of — needs to go out into the desert for a little while and figure this out,” he said. “It’s not going to happen within the Trump administration.”
Photo credit: MARK RALSTON / Staff