So You Wouldn’t Work For Donald Trump?
When's the best time to hop aboard the Trump train?
What should responsible national security specialists do at this point in the presidential campaign? The candidates preferred by many national security specialists on the Republican side — Bush, Rubio, Christie — have all dropped out. Indeed, a pretty reliable indicator that your campaign was in trouble with this angry electorate was that you had bothered to develop a fleshed-out and carefully considered national security platform.
Yes, there are two non-Trump candidates still running — Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz — and most people we know in the business would prefer one of them over a nominee Trump, let alone a President Trump.
At this point, there are serious conversations among serious Republicans that perhaps the least-worst alternative is to endorse Secretary Hillary Clinton (and not for the deviously cynical reason that hitherto in the campaign such endorsements have proven lethal to the fortunes of the candidate).
We, personally, have not reached that point. But the race has reached the point where discussions about what national security specialists should do if Trump is the nominee no longer have the feel of the hypothetical.
Since the two of us do not come down with the same answer, we thought it would be helpful to pull back the curtain a bit and reveal the thought processes that we and many of our friends are undergoing.
First, from Peter’s perspective: The most frequent response I have gotten from family, friends, and students, to my series of Trump critiques (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) is to state the obvious: Trump is definitely not going to hire me now. They are right, but that raises a far more interesting and profound question: Should principled foreign policy experts stand ready to work in a Trump administration?
Second, from Mitchell’s perspective: I did not sign the letter that so many of my friends and colleagues signed for a number of reasons, but one very important reason is the downside Peter flagged — that signing the letter removes you from the discussion of how best to advise the candidate in the general election and, possibly, the ability to serve our country in the next administration.
Now, from both of our perspectives: This very question is being hotly debated among our friends, and we know of reasonable people coming down on all sides. There may not even be a single correct answer, since it turns on when you ask the question, what the skill sets and functions of the person in question are, and which version of Donald Trump becomes president.
To begin with, let’s clear the underbrush. There is still no coherent, plausible argument that Trump currently has offered an acceptable national security platform, let alone that he is the best Republican candidate to be commander-in-chief. Neither Trump, nor his surrogates, nor senior foreign policy experts, make any serious attempt to defend his national security policies and preparedness. Every critique is deflected with a non sequitur about his likelihood of winning. Further, there are almost daily examples of why Trump is temperamentally unqualified to be commander-in-chief.
But this post is not about whether Trump will or should be commander-in-chief. It is about how foreign policy experts think about working for a President Trump, should that come to pass. How might they think about their chances of securing jobs in a Trump administration? Should they decide to join, what would it mean for their personal reputations and professional careers?
The answer may depend on timing:
- Stage 1: Before Trump is nominated. Joining before Trump wins the nomination would be most personally and professionally costly sign of loyalty for a foreign policy expert, but Trump seems to be the sort of man who prizes loyalty. It is costly, because it really is not possible to make an argument for Trump on policy grounds — and policy experts, by definition, care about policy grounds. The few previously respected people who have signed up for Trump while there were still plausible alternatives saw their reputations crater even as they lunged for the brass ring (i.e., Chris Christie). But many more people are just not speaking publicly about their contempt for Trump because they may want to keep their powder dry for…
- Stage 2: After he is nominated. Joining at this stage would be a far less costly but also a far less rewarded move for a would-be adviser. We have friends who are preparing to do this based on an ABC (Anyone But Clinton) line of reasoning. Their position hinges on the myriad deficiencies of Clinton, the importance of party loyalty, and the greater good. Our hunch is that perhaps as much as a third to a half of the relevant pool falls here. This is far more principled than joining Trump when there is still a chance that the party will nominate a better candidate. Indeed, the unifying of the party and merging of once-rival staffs is a ritual that is followed in every campaign, and we know that some people believe that this year, although different in many other ways, will or should mostly follow this tradition.
- Stage 3: After he wins the general election. For people who wait to pledge their availability to serve until stage 3, the calculation tilts decisively in the direction of duty rather than opportunity. The argument at this point is that we only have one president, and it is in everyone’s interest that he or she make as few mistakes as possible and enact the wisest possible policies — and he or she is more likely to avoid mistakes and make wise policies with better quality advisers. At this point, there is a duty to your country to try to help. Note that we would not welcome the uniformed military and the foreign service in the national security arena resigning en masse to avoid serving in a Trump administration. If they are honor-bound to stay at their post, why should policy advisers not feel a similar obligation to pitch in?
The counterargument is that policy advisers often serve at a different level that is much closer to implementing the president’s vision than the level of the permanent foreign service and uniformed military. There are many other specialists available, albeit perhaps of lower quality, but good enough to make the other would-be advisers dispensable. They are thus more implicated in the president’s bad choices and less necessary for any good choices.
Moreover, and this may be a key consideration for would-be Trump advisers: What is the evidence that Trump listens to advisers, or allows expert opinion to shape his behavior? Is it not possible, maybe even likely, that the advisers are exaggerating their own ability to shape the outcome in desirable ways?
- Stage 4: After a 9/11-type disaster. This is when the calculation shifts decisively to the duty end. In a national emergency, it is an “all hands on deck” moment, and one is reminded of Churchill’s observation, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” We think many people, ourselves included, and also including many people who signed the pledge to stand against Trump, might decide that such a supreme emergency changed — dare we say, trumped — other considerations.
Something like that thought process is preoccupying our friends and colleagues these days.
All of this may help explain why the list only has about 120 signatories. That is a big number, but no where near a majority of the pool. Many factors may explain the size. Partly legal restrictions: many people wanted to sign the letter but were prohibited from doing so by their current employer. Some also doubted its efficacy. Many may suspect that such letters are exercises in narcissism, and feared that in this case the letter would fuel Trump’s narrative that he is a true outsider leading an anti-Establishment crusade. Others had principled objections to group letters; we have refused to sign many such letters before (if memory serves, this may have been the first such letter Peter has signed) because inevitably the compromise language does not express one’s views as well as a sole-authored letter would. (Peter decided the stakes warranted making an exception.)
Many of the names you would expect to see on the list but don’t may not appear because some people have resigned themselves to a Trump presidency, and believe that they can do more good inside than outside. They may believe that no matter who occupies the White House, country comes before career. And they are just trying to decide whether they are Stage 1, 2, 3, or 4 advisers.
We understand that view and, if it comes to it, hope they are able to do some good.
Disclosure: Mitchell Reiss is a foreign policy adviser to Gov. John Kasich.
Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN / Staff
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.