All King Trump’s Men
The real-estate magnate who peddles neo-isolationism under a banner of “America First” has reordered Republican ranks on foreign policy. So who will serve his court?
None of the Republicans who might be considered for a seat in the cabinet of a President Donald Trump — including a Vice President Newt Gingrich, Secretary of State Bob Corker, Defense Secretary Tom Cotton, Attorney General Chris Christie, or Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sessions — shares every part of the GOP nominee’s ever-evolving “America First” doctrine. Some even say they’re concerned about it.
But that’s not stopping either Trump or the prospective picks from flirting with the prospect of uniting under the roof of the White House.
Trump has amassed enough delegates to ensure his coronation as his party’s nominee at the Republican convention in July, fueling intense speculation about his running mate and other members of his potential administration. But the mogul’s rejection of decades of GOP foreign-policy thinking and his own neo-isolationist views about America’s role in the world are raising a difficult question: Who will put aside their own beliefs and serve in his potential administration?
Take Gingrich, who says that Trump is right to keep his distance from the GOP establishment. The former House speaker was once the very definition, authoring the conservative 1994 “Contract with America” platform, and has earned millions of dollars since leaving office by leveraging his connections to other powerful Republican lawmakers.
“You have a national security and foreign policy system that is out of sync with reality,” Gingrich told Foreign Policy this week, adding that 70 percent of Trump’s picks should “come from outside of Washington.”
The former Georgia congressman helped engineer the GOP’s first House majority in almost half a century in the 1990s. He vigorously supported the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the 2003 Iraq invasion and, as a presidential candidate in 2012, the previous year’s U.S. military intervention in Libya. Now, however, he is praising Trump for having the exact opposite positions on trade and the use of American power in places like Iraq and Syria.
For his part, Trump, who has no political experience, has said he’s seeking Republican foreign policy and military veterans to serve as his closest advisors. To generate maximum publicity for the Republican convention — and to calm establishment figures worried about who he might appoint — his camp is even considering the unorthodox move of unveiling members of his cabinet in Cleveland.
Trump’s campaign declined to comment. “We are not ready to discuss at this time,” said spokesperson Hope Hicks.
Trump is clearly trying to burnish his foreign-policy credentials. He recently embarked on a “feel good” tour in Washington, meeting with Cotton and other conservative voices. He’s also making a point of publicizing meetings with GOP foreign-policy leaders like Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and former Secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger.
And in early May, Trump tapped none other than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to serve as chairman of his transition team. As a rival presidential candidate, Christie slammed Trump as inexperienced and unserious, saying, “We do not need reality TV in the Oval Office right now.” Trump now says he’d make a “great” attorney general.
As for his running mate, a Monday meeting at Trump Tower in New York with Corker fueled speculation the Tennessee Republican might top his shortlist. Joining Trump’s ticket would force Corker to do some rhetorical gymnastics to explain how his own views are now in line with Trump’s.
The Tennessean has a reputation for bipartisanship, working with the so-called Gang of Eight senators who tried to pass immigration reform by introducing an amendment to strengthen their bill’s border security provisions. “I just hope that we don’t let demagogues prevail,” he said of opponents of the effort in 2014.
And though he’s been critical of the Obama administration’s national security strategy, particularly surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, Corker worked closely with White House officials on a stalled effort to debate and authorize the U.S.-led war against ISIS. Corker has also criticized Trump personally, saying in December that Trump’s proposed Muslim ban runs “completely counter to the values and principles of our great nation.”
Trump, by contrast, has railed against the immigration reform push as “amnesty,” and slams both the Bush and Obama administrations for the rise of ISIS. Trump has also wrongly said he opposed the invasion of Iraq. (Though Bush campaigned for Corker as a Senate candidate in 2006, Corker distanced himself somewhat from Bush’s war plans, saying he needed a new strategy.)
For now, Corker says he believes Trump is “evolving” toward a “more realist” foreign policy, though he didn’t offer any details. Corker also dismissed rumors he might join a Trump ticket.
“Anyone who is asked will probably weigh between where they are now, and where that opportunity was,” Corker said. “And if they thought they could have impact, would do so.”
Corker also said that some of Trump’s “initial reaction” to questions of foreign policy has reflected his lack of experience. But he said the mogul is benefiting from more experienced advisors.
Trump’s team describes it as “professionalizing” his campaign, including by giving what was billed as a major foreign-policy address last month at a Washington think tank, which Corker praised for challenging the Washington foreign policy establishment of which he is a part.
Yet Trump has also either doubled down or flip-flopped on some of his more controversial foreign-policy prescriptions.
On his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States, he’s since said Americans would be excluded, emphasized it would be “temporary,” and described it as merely a “suggestion.”
Trump has also repeated his threats to pull the American military back from NATO and Japan and South Korea, encouraging those long-standing American allies to arm themselves with nuclear weapons while saying he’d meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to get a deal to get rid of his own array of nuclear arms.
Trump’s sometimes contradictory views about U.S. foreign policy mirror the American public’s own muddled thinking. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that nearly 60 percent of registered voters want the U.S. to “to deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own.” But for the first time in a decade, more Americans, and especially Republicans, say military spending should be increased rather than reduced.
As Trump considers his cabinet, his warming relationship with top Republicans could leave earlier but lower-profile supporters in the cold. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a Marine Corps veteran who endorsed Trump in February, said Trump “missed an opportunity” by not meeting with such veteran congressional supporters during a recent trip to Washington.
Hunter, who deployed on three combat tours, including to Fallujah, which Iraqi forces are currently attempting to take back from ISIS, has been a reliably hawkish voice in Congress since his election to his father’s House seat in 2008, when the elder Hunter ran for president. He has slammed the Obama administration’s strategy in the fight against the Islamic State, saying airstrikes won’t do the job and “somehow we need to get involved in this fight … and show them how to win again.” Obama’s foreign policy, he said, is “feckless” and “naive” for attempting to withdraw from the world.
But papering over the the anti-interventionism underpinning Trump’s “America First,” the House Armed Services Committee member says he believes Trumps foreign policy doctrine is similar to his own — “Get in, kick ass, and then leave.” In particular, the congressman who represents parts of the border city of San Diego says he likes Trump’s hard-line on immigration and pledges to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Asked whether he has concerns about Trump’s proposals to expand the military detention center at Guantánamo Bay or invade Iraq, seize its oil, and give the proceeds to veterans, Hunter said he supports the GOP front-runner.
“I don’t find it striking or crazy — if we’re at war,” Hunter said of Trump’s bluster. “That’s the president’s No. 1 job, the safety and security of this nation … You bring hell on Earth to the enemies of the United States.”
Asked about Trump’s expression of admiration for strongmen such as North Korea’s Kim or Russia’s Putin, Hunter dismissed the comments, saying the businessman understands negotiating from a position of power. As for Trump’s consideration of tactical nuclear weapons for targeting terrorists in Europe or ordering military officials to violate the law by torturing terror suspects or killing their families, he suggested Trump wouldn’t really pursue those policies.
He argued, “He’s not president yet. He’s not a think-tank guy. He wasn’t a politician, he wasn’t in the military,” Hunter said.
For Trump’s administration, he asked, “How many congressmen do you need? Not many,” although Hunter said he’d like to be among them. He mused that an appointment as a military service secretary or senior National Security Council official would be “interesting.”
Cotton, for his part, said in December he “strongly disagrees” with Trump’s blanket ban on Muslims because the U.S. should instead be encouraging Muslims to lead a movement against extreme ideology. “Even Mr. Trump has begun to walk it back,” he said. And while he told Foreign Policy this week that he agrees with Trump that NATO allies don’t contribute enough to their own defense, he said that pulling back from the alliance wasn’t the answer.
“Obviously, I have some disagreements with Trump as he’s expressed policies — I’ve stated those, and I’ll state them in the future if there are more,” said Cotton, who has campaigned for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s reelection and calls him a “national hero.” (Last summer, Trump said the former prisoner of war was not, adding, “I prefer people who don’t get caught.”) “But I agree with him a lot more than I do with Hillary Clinton,” Cotton continued.
One area of common ground: avoiding what Cotton called “open-ended commitments all around the world.” Another is the senator’s belief that Trump is right to talk about “restoring the military.”
Trump’s charge that Obama has hollowed the American military is factually wrong — defense spending remains at historically high levels and the Pentagon continues to purchase high-tech but enormously expensive weapons systems — but is a perennially popular line on the campaign trail.
Cotton also recommended that Trump tap into the generation of military veterans who served in the post-9/11 wars. He hasn’t ruled out leaving Capitol Hill to join a putative Trump administration.
“We haven’t even picked either one our nominees formally yet, so I think it’s a little speculative to start filling out their cabinets,” Cotton laughed. But veterans like himself, Cotton said, “have a soft spot in their hearts for service to country, and if called upon by either party or an administration or by Congress, will most likely answer the call again.”
Perhaps none of Trump’s potential cabinet members have reversed themselves so blatantly as Gingrich. While in Congress, Gingrich whipped Republican votes in favor of NAFTA, a crucial victory for Democratic President Bill Clinton that created the world’s largest free trade zone among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. “This is a vote for history, larger than politics,” Gingrich said then.
In the FP interview, Gingrich channeled Trump, saying, “We’re not nearly tough enough on trade.” As an example, he noted China has stolen billions in U.S. intellectual property with little consequence.
After the 9/11 attacks, Gingrich gave his full-throated support to invading Iraq, saying in September 2001, “If we don’t use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster.”
However, Gingrich told FP he advocated for the U.S. to “take out Saddam” if American troops immediately withdrew from the country, but didn’t support the lengthy occupation that followed.
When Gingrich ran for president, he was asked in a 2011 interview what he’d do about Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. He answered he’d enact a no-fly zone “this evening,” adding the U.S. didn’t need permission to do so. Days later, after President Barack Obama sought and received U.N. backing for a no-fly zone, Gingrich then said, “I would not have intervened.”
Trump too, was initially for the Iraq War before he was against it. As a candidate, he’s said he’d “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, and would send U.S. forces into Iraq to seize its oil and give the proceeds to veterans. But in a March debate, he suggested, “we would have been better off if the politicians took a day off instead of going into war” in Iraq or Libya.
Gingrich predicted foreign policy would ultimately sink likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who advocated for intervention in Libya as secretary of state. “You can’t go back and look at her position on Qaddafi and conclude anything but it was totally uninformed and led to a total disaster,” he said.
Trump’s sell on foreign policy this fall in the general election would be “easy,” Gingrich said. “If you think you’re winning in the Middle East, vote for Hillary. If you think the trade deals have been good for America, vote for Hillary,” he said.
Still, though he’s made clear he’s open to it, Gingrich wouldn’t say whether he’d serve as Trump’s vice president, if called.
He laughed, “I’d be in the school of being careful who who you call.”
Photo credit: Spencer Platt / Staff
Correction, May 27, 2016: Sen. Bob Corker worked with the so-called Gang of Eight senators who tried to pass immigration reform by introducing an amendment to increase their bill’s border security provisions. A previous version of this article said Corker served as one of the Gang of Eight.