Shadow Government

Is This the Trump List We Have Been Waiting For?

An honest assessment of Trump's foreign policy brain trust.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally aboard the USS Iowa on September 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Donald Trump is campaigning in Los Angeles a day ahead of the CNN GOP debate that will be broadcast from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.  (Photo by)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally aboard the USS Iowa on September 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Donald Trump is campaigning in Los Angeles a day ahead of the CNN GOP debate that will be broadcast from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Photo by)

Donald Trump finally delivered on a long-delayed promise this week by releasing the names of some of his foreign policy advisers.

The list has received a mixed reaction. Some of the negative reaction strikes me as hyperbolic, but I am the quoted source of some of the other negative evaluations (see here and here). And so I would like to expand and clarify my views more fully than one can do when quoted in a quick-reaction news piece.

What makes the list so surprising is the large gap between Trump’s frequent boasts about his team and the team’s actual luster. One of Trump’s most common policy prescriptions, particularly when asked about a topic on which he is not well-briefed, is to promise that he will assemble a team of the finest people in the world on whatever that subject is to help him fix the problem. When he was first challenged on national security last summer, he promised to release a list of names that would reassure a public uncertain about Trump’s own foreign policy credentials. His failure to do so for months raised doubts that he even had a group of distinguished advisers — doubts that he would swat back with redoubled boasts about how great the list would be and how impressed all his critics would be.

In other words, Trump set up great expectations. Did he deliver them? Any one of the names on his list would be plausible members in an expansive stable of advisers. If you drew from the more junior end of any of the other Republican candidates’ pools, you would find similarly credentialed people. There is no dishonor in having less experienced people on the team. What is odd is touting them as your headliners. Put another way, every team has folks for whom participation in Model U.N. is a noteworthy achievement, but few of those people make it into the inner circle. (And if your candidacy has already been criticized for resembling a Model U.N. delegation, albeit a good Model U.N. delegation, then it may not wise to lead with such folks).

Similarly, every list ever compiled has its “controversial” members, so the fact that some members of the team have a skeleton or two in their closets — or in their sibling’s closet — is not by itself all that remarkable. If you have served in government in a position of responsibility, then you have been involved in decisions that have attracted criticism. Don’t be influenced much by the fact that Google unearths controversies linked to these members, or that reporters can find critics happy to carp about an individual or two. But it is a bit more unusual that Google and subsequent reporting do not unearth many countervailing achievements or lots of fans happy to praise those same individuals.

What strikes me most about the list, however, is that it looks more like an ad hoc coalition of the willing than any deliberate effort to reflect a particular candidate’s vision of America’s role in the world. Usually, a candidate will seek a mix of people — some of whom are the top experts available on certain technical issues, others who can represent the candidate’s vision and flesh out what he or she would want in certain areas where they will not speak in detail, and others who represent somewhat alternative views to ensure that the candidate is not a victim of group think. That mixed strategy does not appear to be the case here. As I told Michael Crowley, this pudding has no theme.

Or perhaps the theme is this?: “Willing to be named as a Trump adviser, whether or not you have actually advised Trump yet.” According to reports, at least three of these five joined in only the last month, and have not met with the candidate. Again, there is no shame in that — only the inner circle gets much time with a presidential candidate — but it is quite unusual for the candidate to tout as his inner circle a group that he has not actually met. And if they only joined the team in the last month, it is doubtful they are the people Trump had in mind when he bragged back in September 2015 that he had an impressive list of advisers.

Add it all up and what you get is this, my best guess of what has happened.

Trump did not, in fact, have a foreign policy advisory team last year when he boasted otherwise, because he did not think he needed one. After all, he was not really expecting to do as well as he has. And back then, he was beating expectations by doing the opposite of the typical thing candidates do: boning up on issues and developing coherent policy responses to the challenges of the day. When Trump said he had a team of A-listers, he meant he would assemble a team of A-listers. He was stating his sincere belief that he could do so when the time came, not that he was actually in the process of doing so.

Perhaps he was confident in his ability because, in the process of daily life, his paths would cross with genuine experts, and they undoubtedly discussed foreign policy matters. For instance, like many wealthy New Yorkers, Trump had a private meeting with Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. But such meetings were not part of a systematic effort to assemble a true advisory team, even if they bolstered Trump’s confidence.

There may have also been a parallel process of meeting and vetting folks — perhaps a process that has not yet been revealed because the participants have mutually agreed not to discuss it — but that process was secondary because Trump understood that his appeal to Republican primary voters lay not in any demonstrated mastery of the issues or in the substance of his policy platform. Rather, his appeal was his persona, and once he had locked up the nomination he would start to do the things that more normal candidates do.

Trump evidently now believes he has locked up the nomination, and is starting to do more normal, dare we say, establishment things. He delivered via teleprompter a prepared speech to AIPAC. He sat down for an extensive interview with the Washington Post editorial board, one that involved real questions on policy (including follow-up questions!). And he got around to actually assembling a releasable list of names.

But by the time he finally got around to this assignment, the ground beneath him had shifted. Yes, he was the front-runner, but he was the front-runner more distrusted by experts in his own party than any other front-runner in modern memory. Moreover, everyone had seen what happened to serious people who signed on with Trump.

And so, while they might be willing to work with Trump if he actually does win the nomination, the people of the caliber Trump wants to recruit do not want to be recruited until after the nomination process is fully completed.

In other words, these are not the advisers Trump is looking for. These are the advisers who are looking for Trump.


Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.