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Exclusive: Think Tank Fires Employee Who Questioned Ties to Donald Trump
The Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based think tank, has fired one of its fellows after he criticized the organization’s decision to host Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump for a widely publicized speech.
The Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based think tank, has fired one of its fellows after he criticized the organization’s decision to host Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump for a widely publicized speech, Foreign Policy has learned.
The dust-up marks the latest feud among the country’s top foreign-policy realists over whether to embrace the real estate tycoon — whose more narrow interpretation of U.S. national interests bears some resemblance to their own — or disown him as a charlatan with no serious ties to any intellectual tradition.
The employee, a junior fellow named Alexander Kirss, sharply rebuked the think tank for inviting Trump to explain his foreign-policy platform in an April 27 event at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
“Whether intended as an endorsement or not, the Center’s invitation is tantamount to tacit, if not explicit, approval of Trump’s positions,” Kirss wrote in a Monday column for the website War on the Rocks. He added that the businessman’s positions contain numerous “logical flaws and errors.”
In hosting the mogul, Kirss said the think tank exhibited the same “opportunism displayed by others who have sided with Trump, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, and former presidential candidate Ben Carson.”
He was fired the same day the story published.
Paul Saunders, the executive director of the center, told FP that the decision to terminate Kirss’s position had “nothing to do with Trump.”
“The real issue is that this individual publicly disparaged the organization he was working for,” he said, noting that Kirss had never voiced his misgivings about the event to his superiors. “I don’t think that any employer would tolerate that.”
Kirss, in an email to FP, said the purpose of his piece was not to “publicly disparage the Center or its work, but rather to criticize a broader tendency within the realist movement to anoint political champions without thinking about the consequences of doing so.”
Founded by President Richard Nixon in 1994, the Center for the National Interest was created to serve as a “voice for strategic realism,” an expansive school of thought in international relations that in the context of U.S. foreign policy tends to warn against costly military interventions that do not directly threaten national interests. Prominent Republicans who have been associated with realism include heavyweights such as Brent Scowcroft and former President George H. W. Bush, but realism’s most vocal adherents have largely been relegated to academia.
In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the center’s flagship magazine, the National Interest, served as a refuge for Republican foreign-policy thinkers who rejected the militaristic impulses of neoconservatives who controlled the party’s commanding heights as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turned into embarrassing quagmires.
The rise of Trump, who has denounced the neoconservative agenda and locked horns with its most prominent adherents, poses difficult questions for the center and realists more broadly. While some of Trump’s positions closely match the realist worldview, especially his complaints that American allies in Europe and Asia are failing to pay their fair share for U.S. protection, many prominent realists are frightened by his impulsive demeanor and find the rationale for his policies to be incoherent.
The center has not endorsed Trump, and some of its members have published criticisms of the businessman in the National Interest, including Vice Chairman Dov Zakheim, a co-signatory of the widely publicized “Never Trump” open letter from March.
The magazine has also published essays strongly supportive of Trump, such as a May column by defense analyst Crispin Rovere.
The center’s relationship with Trump had not garnered much attention at all until it played host to the businessman’s much-touted foreign-policy address in April. Critics of Trump quickly seized on the think tank, accusing its employees and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who introduced Trump, of being lackeys of the reality TV star. The criticisms eventually forced the magazine’s editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, to clarify in Politico that neither his employer nor Khalilzad was endorsing the candidate — merely providing a venue to air his views.
On Monday, Kirss said those assurances were unsatisfactory. “While the Center’s leaders later claimed that they invited Trump out of a benign desire to expand the scope and tenor of the foreign policy conversation in this year’s election, this line of argument is unconvincing,” he wrote.
“The Center’s defense of the event offered several approving statements of Trump’s views, and the tone of the speech was more that of a booster rally than a serious presentation,” he added in his essay.
Saunders said Kirss’s accusations had little merit and noted that besides hosting a variety of viewpoints on Trump, one of the center’s board members was Maurice Greenberg, a Jeb Bush backer “who contributed millions of dollars to stop Trump.”
“There are many different points of views on Trump, and I think there is a debate certainly at our magazine,” Saunders said. “If Mr. Kirss had approached our editors and wanted to write a piece very similar to the one he wrote that did not disparage the organization … I’m pretty confident that the editors would’ve been happy to publish that.”
In response, Kirss said, “I believe they would have tried to suppress my criticisms had I raised them internally before publication.”
Photo credit: Al Drago/Getty Images