Two Years Later, No Amnesty for the GOP’s Never Trump Camp

Many remain critical, others have repented, but all are shut out from the Trump State Department.

On paper, Matthew Kroenig would be a strong candidate to serve in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. The 40-year-old professor of government at Georgetown University is an expert on nuclear proliferation. He has a record of public service at both the CIA and the Pentagon. And he says he supports much of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

But there’s one hitch. During the 2016 Republican primaries, Kroenig signed a letter criticizing Trump’s candidacy and calling him unfit for the presidency.

Now, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo races to fill key positions in an understaffed institution badly neglected by his predecessor, he’s finding that some of the best-qualified people in Washington remain unacceptable to a president notorious for his thin skin.

In political circles, they’re known as the Never Trumpers, a loose-knit group of several hundred high-profile Republican Party members who denounced Trump in petitions and other public statements at a moment when it seemed his candidacy was a long shot. Two years later, they remain outcasts in their own party.

Some continue to believe Trump poses a danger to America’s “national security and well-being,” as they wrote at the time. Others regret their criticism, including politicos who had hoped to serve in a Republican administration and are now shut out.

But while the petitions offered a moment of moral clarity in a town not exactly known for it, their legacy is largely a failed one. The Never Trumpers did not slow Trump’s momentum — their criticism hardly resonated outside Washington. Instead, it ensured they would remain on the outside, looking in, powerless to curb the president’s worst impulses.

Eric Edelman, who served as a diplomat in the George W. Bush administration and also put his name to the Never Trump petitions, said it’s always a challenge to find good candidates for key government positions. For Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and other top Trump officials, having to take into account Trump’s ongoing fixation with loyalty makes it especially tricky.

“The talent pool for recruitment is [now] very shallow,” Edelman said. “[Pompeo] faces enormous staffing challenges.”

Above: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks while flanked by President Donald Trump, left, and Vice President Mike Pence during Pompeo’s ceremonial swearing-in at the State Department on May 2. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Top image: Foreign Policy illustration)

The first Never Trump letter was published in March 2016 on the national security analysis website War on the Rocks, just as Trump emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. It drew enough traffic to crash the website for several hours.

Signed by 122 Republicans from the foreign-policy community, it focused primarily on Trump’s character flaws and warned that he was unfit for the Oval Office.

Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world,” it said. “Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.”

The letter was drafted four months earlier by a former naval officer turned foreign-policy advisor, Bryan McGrath, but he encountered resistance among even Trump’s sharpest critics.

“I shopped it around to some people who I respect, and essentially what they said to me was, ‘Don’t worry about it. He’ll be gone after the first or second primary. He won’t lose gracefully. It’s just not worth doing,’” McGrath said.

But when Trump prevailed in the early primaries, McGrath called his friend Eliot Cohen, a conservative foreign-policy writer and former senior official in Republican administrations. Together, they rewrote the letter and shared it with fellow Republicans in the foreign-policy world. Dozens of people signed on, including young policy experts and former senior officials.

Neither McGrath nor Cohen thought Trump could win, but they were worried about the harm he was causing to the Republican Party.

“The key thing was, I think, a sense of outrage at the character of Trump. And that’s reflected in the language,” Cohen said.

When Trump became the party’s candidate for president in July 2016, an even sharper petition emerged, this one in the name of Republicans who had served at the highest levels of government.

Drafted by former State Department official John Bellinger and quoted on the front pages of newspapers across the country, it predicted that Trump would be the “most reckless President in American history.”

None of us will vote for Donald Trump,” the letter said. “He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world. He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent Judiciary.”

Bellinger said he hoped the letter might reach voters who remained undecided. Like Cohen and McGrath, he now says he has no regrets about writing it.

“I think every word has turned out to be true, and worse,” he said.

At the time, Bellinger resisted including a sentence that argued Trump could not be trusted with managing the nuclear arsenal. “It would never have occurred to me that he would literally be taunting North Korea by Twitter with the size of his nuclear button.”

Top: The list of 122 Republicans from the foreign-policy community who signed the first Never Trump letter in March 2016, warning that Donald Trump was unfit for the presidency. One expert asked to be added later for a total of 123. Above: The 50 GOP signatories of an August 2016 letter featured on the New York Times’ front page warning that Trump’s election would put national security at risk. (Several names appear on both lists.)

The effect of the petitions could be seen clearly in the makeup of Trump’s staff during the chaotic campaign. With the pool of experts available to him having shrunk, he tapped obscure and in some cases unqualified people for senior positions.

Some became ensnared in the investigation into whether Trump and his aides sought help from Russia to win the election. One of them, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty last year to making false statements to FBI agents about contacts he had with the Russian government in 2016. Another, Carter Page, was wiretapped by federal investigators over his contacts with Russian officials.

Earlier this year, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee even implied that the Never Trump camp was to blame for any missteps by Trump campaign advisors. The Republicans argued in a report that the “national security establishment’s opposition to candidate Trump created opportunities for two less-experienced individuals with pro-Russia views to serve as campaign advisors: George Papadopoulos and Carter Page.”

Trump loyalists, of course, say the president has the right to ban his critics from the administration.  But there is a long tradition in Washington of presidents setting aside intraparty political rivalries and overlooking past criticism to recruit the best people for top jobs. President Ronald Reagan chose his opponent in the primaries, George H. W. Bush, to be his vice president, and President Barack Obama chose his rival, Hillary Clinton, to be his secretary of state.

Cohen said he wrote scathing commentaries against the George W. Bush presidency before being recruited to serve in the administration.

“Most administrations know at some point how to be magnanimous,” he said.

Cohen and many of the other critics remain uninterested in working for Trump — in fact, some believe that serving in the administration might tarnish their reputation and harm their future job prospects. “You are hazarding your character” by taking a job in close proximity to the president, Cohen said. “Not just your reputation, but your character.”

But several younger Republican experts who did not want to be named said they regret signing the petitions. Another former senior Pentagon official, Mary Beth Long, publicly said she had a change of heart over signing the letters shortly after Trump’s election win.

To curry favor with the White House, some have taken to the airwaves or op-ed pages to praise Trump’s decision on the Iran nuclear deal, his cruise missile strikes on Syria, and his upcoming nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

Others feel they have been tarred unfairly.   

“There were 122 people with a wide range of views on that letter, but now we’re all painted with the same brush,” said Kroenig, the Georgetown University professor.

Two sources close to the administration said several of these erstwhile Never Trumpers have been tentatively contacted by the White House for possible State Department jobs. But others are skeptical that Pompeo will be ready to advocate for them given Trump’s response in similar cases.

In April of this year, Vice President Mike Pence tapped Jon Lerner to be his national security advisor but withdrew his name after Trump expressed outrage over his appointment. Lerner, a Republican pollster who advises United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, organized attack ads against Trump during the 2016 campaign.

“Pompeo and Bolton know this is a problem,” said one Republican foreign-policy expert with close ties to the administration. “They would prefer to have the best people, but whether they’re willing to go to Trump and make the case is another question.”

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. (@dandeluce)

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. (@robbiegramer)