The Top Contenders for Donald Trump’s Foreign-Policy Cabinet
Get ready for a mix of outside-the-box iconoclasts and old guard Republicans.
Tuesday’s victory by Donald Trump stunned the political establishment in Washington — but so too might the president-elect’s picks for top cabinet secretary positions.
Early on in his campaign, the Republican businessman sent a warning shot to the party’s old guard by promising to hire “new voices” instead of gray-haired apparatchiks “who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Those remarks, which came in Trump’s first major foreign policy address in April, put many GOP hawks on notice, and precipitated a number of high-level defections to Hillary Clinton, including prominent neoconservative Republican Bob Kagan.
But individuals familiar with the Trump campaign’s thinking tell Foreign Policy the real estate tycoon’s cabinet is likely to include a mix of outside-the-box iconoclasts and establishment Republican allies, including even Bush-era foreign policy hawks.
Trump’s preference for political outsiders, especially those with private sector experience, has been reflected in his reported consideration of Forrest Lucas, co-founder of the oil products company Lucas Oil, as interior secretary, and Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum, for treasury secretary.
For secretary of state, a variety of names are under consideration, including Newt Gingrich, who loyally defended Trump through a range of controversies and gaffes during the campaign. Most famous for his role as House speaker and architect of the GOP’s Contract With America in the 1990s, Gingrich is also a historian of modern European history. His Tulane University doctoral thesis, “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960,” looked at the role of colonialism in the Central African country. He also taught history at West Georgia College, now the University of West Georgia, in the 1970s.
Another top candidate for the Foggy Bottom job is Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker has repeatedly blasted Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and intervention in Syria — positions that put him at odds with Trump, who has openly praised Putin and expressed a desire to warm relations with the Cold War adversary.
However, Corker has used his gravitas on the committee to defend Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy views, and even gone so far as to describe Trump as a “Bush 41” Republican on diplomatic issues. In August, Corker said he’d “strongly consider” serving under Trump as secretary of state.
Also under consideration for the job is John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Oftentimes the face of Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy, Bolton was a controversial figure at the U.N., but could refashion himself for a Trump presidency centered around “America First” policies.
For secretary of defense, a handful of nominees are on Trump’s short list, according to two people familiar with his thinking. The would-be picks include Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the businessman’s most loyal ally in the Senate and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who repeatedly criticized the GOP for moving too slowly to embrace Trump.
The close relationship between the two men dates back to 2005, when they both opposed a $1.2 billion United Nations plan to renovate its Manhattan headquarters. During his victory speech, Trump specifically praised Sessions, calling him “highly respected in Washington because he’s as smart as you get.” Though New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is officially the head of Trump’s transition team, Sessions has played an increasingly active role, leading many to believe he will have his pick of plum administration jobs.
Another potential nominee for the top Pentagon job is Jim Talent, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Missouri senator. For four years, Talent served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and focused his attention on military readiness.
In a recent opinion piece in the American Spectator, Talent expressed “profound discomfort” with Clinton and Trump. But he defended his decision to vote for the real estate mogul — “it’s the right thing to do, not an easy thing” — because Trump has a plan “for rebuilding America’s armed forces.” A “Reagan-era buildup of the military” he wrote, “will be the most important contribution he could make to American security.”
“I have concerns about aspects of Trump’s approach to the world, and particularly his view of America’s alliance relationships,” Talent wrote. “On the other hand, there is a reasonable chance that Trump would adjust his views on those points as he actually confronts the challenges of his presidency.”
Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, could also land the top Pentagon job but would have to receive a waiver from Congress because of a law requiring retired military officers to wait seven years before going back to the Pentagon as the top civilian leader. Flynn has also been rumored for White House national security advisor, a powerful role that would not require Senate confirmation.
Potential contenders for CIA director include Flynn and ex-Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers, who unlike Trump is a Russia hawk, has reportedly been playing a senior role on the Trump transition team.
The position of attorney general could go to either Christie or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to a report by NBC News earlier this week. Both men have been among Trump’s most loyal surrogates, though Christie could be a liability given the cloud of corruption charges hanging over the “Bridgegate” scandal.
Walid Phares, an American scholar of Lebanese descent, has been nominally serving as a Trump foreign-policy advisor for several months. He could fit in as a White House senior advisor, according to one Trump insider.
Richard Grenell, a former Bush administration spokesman to the United Nations, is on a list of candidates for U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Grenell had been appointed top national security spokesman for Mitt Romney, only to abruptly resign after social conservatives in the party rose up to denounce his selection as an openly gay Republican. Grenell has more recently used his Twitter feed to denounce Hillary Clinton and American political press coverage.
For secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, one Trump insider said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a contender. On Wednesday, Politico reported that conservative Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is also a potential candidate. He gained prominence at the Republican National Convention in Ohio when he declared “blue lives matter” in solidarity with law enforcement officers. Christie could fit into that cabinet position as well.
Foreign Policy chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this report.
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson